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Hook & Barrel
A Lifestyle Magazine for Modern Outdoorsmen

toby keith

Hook & Barrel’s Final Interview with Country Music Legend Toby Keith 

AUTHOR’S NOTE: When interviewing famous people for magazine stories, you’re not always a huge fan going in. Sometimes that changes as the interview progresses, and that’s happened a number of times in my nearly six years with Hook & Barrel Magazine. 

Toby Keith was always known to say what was on his mind, and this time around the subjects included the stomach cancer he had been dealing with since 2021. He was happy to talk about his career and his business interests and seemed to perk up even more when I asked him about his songwriting. I had saved the topic of his health for last, hoping that he would feel comfortable enough to talk with me about it freely, and it turned out that he was. 

Phone interviews often have a strictly enforced time limit, but Toby was in no hurry to hang up. In somewhat of a switch, he kept me on the line much longer than I expected as he comfortably and casually elaborated on his symptoms, treatments and prognosis. 

At some point, maybe because I had mentioned that I was only a few years younger than him, our conversation had become more personal. His voice grew a bit softer, and I realized he was truly speaking from his heart, man to man, about what he was going through. It was a powerful experience for me. I wished him the best and, as the call came to a close, I had the sinking feeling that the end for Toby (and all of us) may come sooner than we could ever expect. 

Oklahoma Roots & Going “Hollywood”

A mighty presence on the country music scene for decades, Toby Keith staged a low-key comeback at hometown landmark Hollywood Corners. 

When Toby Keith was growing up, just down the road from Norman, Oklahoma, Hollywood Corners was where they’d stop for gas and maybe pick up some minnows on their way to the lake for a day of fishing. But for decades before that, it was a historic roadhouse that had dance parties out back fueled by the likes of Western Swing masters Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Hank Thompson and His Brazos Valley Boys. 

Despite its name, there’s nothing glitzy or showbiz about Hollywood Corners, which Keith happened to own and was just a few miles from the ranch that was his main residence. After standing for almost a century along a well-traveled highway in central Oklahoma, the business had just about run its course. It was on the verge of fading into nothing more than prized memories when Keith rescued it and revived it as a restaurant, bar and live music venue. 

“They call it Hollywood Corners because the woods there used to be full of holly trees,” Keith recalled in one of his final interviews. “They were going to tear it down, and it was going to be a dirt lot, so I went in and cleaned it up.” 

He and his band played for almost two-and-a-half hours at each of two hometown shows last summer. That’s a big chunk of time on stage, especially for someone who had been sidelined somewhat by stomach cancer for a couple of years. Of course, it wasn’t nearly long enough to play all of the dozens of hit songs he had amassed in three decades as a true kingpin of country music. It was a test run, and he easily passed, setting up an official return to the stage on a grander scale this past December with three shows in Las Vegas that sold out in minutes. 

Sadly, with his untimely death at the age of 62, Keith’s triumphant re-emergence in recent months will be remembered as more of a career-crowning curtain call than a new chapter. 

Keith considered himself a songwriter first and an entertainer second, but his taking over of the old neighborhood landmark was one of many examples of a strong entrepreneurial spirit that ran steadily alongside his creative ambitions. He had a string of other bars and restaurants as well as his own record label and a mezcal business down in Mexico. 

A Passion for Fishing

toby keith fishing
Though Oklahoma is better known for bass fishing, Keith preferred to fish for crappie and catfish. He called it more of a relaxing experience, and having a fish fry with friends was another big benefit. 

One of his latest ventures had taken him back to one of his first loves. He and his buddy Jimmy Houston, the famous bass fisherman who was from the same part of Oklahoma, had recently teamed up to breathe new life into the iconic Luck E Strike fishing lure company, based in Arkansas. 

“I was going to build a [tackle] brand anyway, and at the very last minute, right before we were about to launch it, I found out that Luck E Strike was available,” Keith said. It was natural for Houston to come on board because the classic spinnerbait he created had long been the company’s flagship lure. 

“They’re such an American original,” Keith said. “They’ve been around since 1970, and Jimmy Houston goes back to (Walmart founder) Sam Walton’s original 13 stores. He started building these Redman spinners out of diaper pins when he was in college, and then he went on to win two Bassmaster Classics.” 

Their line of spinners, jigs, worms, crankbaits and more hadn’t changed much other than patriotic red, white and blue packaging, but Keith had hopes to expand it to include many more outdoors accessories beyond fishing tackle. When potential new products needed some field testing, he was happy to help out. He could cast a line at the 5-acre pond just inside the entrance to his ranch or give the tackle a more extensive workout at his vacation home on Grand Lake in the Ozark foothills. 

A Cancer Diagnosis & a Revived Hit

Keith and Houston grabbed a lot of attention when they appeared together at the ICAST sport fishing trade convention last summer in Orlando, Florida. For years, people seeing Keith in person had remarked on the burly songster’s substantial height, but before his health crisis they would never have thought to describe him as lanky. The significant weight loss surprised him as well—it’s what prompted him to make a doctor’s appointment in 2021. 

He made light of his change in appearance at the People’s Choice Country Awards ceremony in September when he was honored as a Country Music Icon. “Bet y’all never thought you’d see me in skinny jeans,” was his priceless icebreaker to the audience. A few minutes later his tender rendition of “Don’t Let the Old Man In” silenced the standing Opry House crowd for almost three minutes until they roared into a warm and stirring ovation. The televised performance went viral to an extent that almost instantly elevated the five-year-old song to number one on the iTunes’ chart for digital country songs. In light of his cancer battle, Keith’s sobering but uplifting ballad with its theme of mortality has taken on a weightier poignancy. And now, of course, even more so. 

Toby Keith’s Legacy of Songwriting

His recent album, 100% Songwriter, put a spotlight on the fact that Keith had written many of his hit songs without help from a co-writer. His late-career chart-topper got its green light from none other than Clint Eastwood. The legendary actor and director was talking about his latest movie project, The Mule, as he and Keith were preparing to play in a charity golf tournament. Keith had asked him what kept him going at his advancing age of 88, and his wise response of, “I don’t let the old man in,” caused the songwriter to instinctively reach for the Notes app on his smartphone. 

“I took it straight home and got started and worked on it about five days to make sure it was just right,” Keith remembered. “I knew what I had, and I knew what it was going to be. I wasn’t going to stop ‘til I had every word nailed down.” 

Clint Eastwood included the song in the film in 2018, and several artists, including Willie Nelson, had recorded it since. But it didn’t gain much traction until Keith performed it on the nationally televised and live-streamed awards show. He was pleased that the song has found a wider audience, especially because changing trends in country music meant that he (like many other aging artists) didn’t automatically have a presence on the radio like he had enjoyed for so long. 

“When I was hungry, I wrote almost every day,” Keith said, but in later years the proud member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame was more selective. “I don’t write everything I think is clever,” he said. He likened the experience of having had so many huge hits in the past, including 32 certified number ones, to a hunter in a treestand who had an 18-point buck to his credit. “Well, in the years past if a 10-pointer walked by you’d have stuck an arrow in it,” he explained. “Now all of a sudden, you’ve just shot an 18-point buck, and those 10-pointers come by and you just wave at them and wait ’til that 19-pointer comes along. You know what I mean?” 

Coming to Terms with Cancer

Approaching his life’s end, Keith was hopeful about his outcome with this illness, but he knew that statistically speaking, the odds were against him. 

“This is a really weird ailment,” he said. “It can get you in two months, or it can get you in 10 years, or it can go in remission. I know some other people that weren’t so fortunate and blessed and it got them early and quick. Each case is different, but I would say that most people end up passing away from the side effects of the treatment more than they do the cancer.” 

He knew something was wrong when something he had always enjoyed, and taken for granted for so long, suddenly had become problematic. 

“I was having trouble eating and started losing weight,” he said. “I’d eat, but I’d just fill up real quick. I got to where after two or three bites I didn’t feel like I could force another bite down.” He went to see an upper gastrointestinal specialist, and testing revealed two cancerous tumors. They believed it had started with a bacterial infection called H. pylori, which may have been inside his body for years, even decades, and could have been wiped out with a two-week round of antibiotics. 

“And what’s amazing to me is that it’s pretty common, but you don’t see any commercials about it,” he recalled. “They tell you all these things like getting a colonoscopy after you’re 50, getting your heart checked every year and getting a blood test every six months. Well, I did all of those things, but I didn’t have an upper GI exam.” 

With his celebrity status and successful livelihood, Keith realized that he was in a privileged position that afforded him top medical care. He had carefully opted for various treatments that included surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Hoping that his own experiences might help others, he encouraged other cancer patients to do as much independent research as possible and to follow their instincts. He credited his lifelong Christian faith with giving him comfort until the end. 

Toby’s Parting Words

Toby Keith raises a toast to one of his biggest smash hits, the one that name-checks those ubiquitous cups. 

“You have to captain your own ship, lean on your faith and hope for the best,” Keith said. “There are some really dark hallways you’ve got to go down in this. About the time things get great, they can flip to worse, overnight sometimes. You hope that it gets to a place where you’re gaining weight, and it goes into complete remission, and you can go on with the rest of your life, but I’m not afraid of whatever result happens.” 

Hopefully, Keith left us knowing that he would live on with a strong legacy as one of the most enduring artists in the history of country music.  

Donate to The Toby Keith Foundation 

The Toby Keith Foundation has been helping children with cancer since 2006 and has streamlined its efforts around no-cost housing for children with cancer. In 2014, the foundation opened OK Kids Korral, a cost-free, convenient, and comfortable home for pediatric cancer patients receiving treatment at The Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center, Stephenson Cancer Center, and other nearby facilities. 

Colt Ford – A Man of Many Talents
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