Toby Keith Opens Up About Cancer Battle: ‘I Ain’t Afraid Anymore’ [Interview]
Toby Keith says it's time to get busy living. The country music icon has taken most of the last two years off since being diagnosed with stomach cancer in late 2021, and while he's still receiving treatment, he says it won't define him any longer.
Talking to Taste of Country, Keith reveals what two events heightened his anxiety after learning of his diagnosis. He also provides a detailed update about where he is today: His fighting spirit is back, if it ever left.
Of his upcoming trio of Las Vegas shows, Keith promises, "We’re gonna come stomping into Vegas."
As for 2024? The 62-year-old says he's "getting the trucks and buses fired up."
That Keith is willing to do a media tour is a sign of progress. His was a very private cancer battle through spring 2023, but he let his home-state newspaper, the Oklahoman, in on a few details in June.
A gripping performance of "Don't Let the Old Man In" at the People's Choice Country Awards in September was his most public appearance in years — really since the start of the COVID pandemic. Keith tells Taste of Country's Evan Paul that he received thousands of messages after that appearance from fans who were moved to tears. It was enough to inspire a re-release to country radio after a tepid response to the song from programmers in 2018.
"My son's fiancee, who doesn't have a father, she asked him if I'd walk her down the aisle at my son's wedding. I'm going, 'If I'm like the last guy, I ain't gonna make it.'"
Keith, too, was emotional during that television appearance, and for the first time, he's sharing why. The full conversation is available in the Taste of Country Nights, On Demand podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, etc ... or find it below.
The Q&A below is a condensed version focused on Keith's cancer battle, but there's plenty more to come about his PCCAs performance, new music plans and his thoughts on the Country Music Hall of Fame.
ToC: Were you nervous ahead of your performance at the People's Choice Country Awards?
Toby Keith: No — I was pretty weak that day, though. I had been doing really, really good, and I went to dinner the night before and decided I would try to have a couple glasses of wine, and the next day I was really down. I shouldn't have done that, I guess. I didn't know.
I got really sick and almost missed rehearsal, so I was really weak that night. I was on chemo and was battling and it was tough.
The response was overwhelming. What stood out to you about the public reaction to seeing you on television again?
The wonderful part of it was when I did it for the movie three or four years ago, The Mule, everybody at Warner Brothers, they promoted it — a lot of money for the Oscar, the Academy Award. Of course, with the political polarization going on, they're not going to let me and Clint in, but they promoted it anyway.
Then, nobody wanted to play it. It was an old-fashioned song and it just didn't go. Willie (Nelson) cut it on his album, Engelbert Humperdinck, some of the old guys cut it and then some foreign superstars cut it. I thought, "Well, that's what it's meant to be."
Then, when I got to the People's Choice, (producer) Rac Clark said, 'I want you to ... do this song.' I was like, 'That's gonna be a real bummer coming out of (Blake Shelton's performance of) "Who's Your Daddy?"' and he said, 'I know, but I think it'll be a special moment in the show.'
Man, was he right. That thing exploded.
After the show, people were eager to draw conclusions about why it was so emotional for you.
Clint Eastwood inspired it, and Clint's 93 and still plays golf everyday. When I wrote it, I didn't know that in the next few years that I was going to have to be looking those words square in the face. As much as they're words to live by when you're old, they're just as much words to live by when you're battling a disease that can be fatal. I never knew that I was gonna have to do that.
I think with me being out of the public's eye with COVID, and fighting cancer for two years, and really not being out there, going — I'm in my 30th year, and I've never taken a year off.
So, now disappearing three years and word hit the street and everybody knowing what I was battling, and then showing up at this deal and singing that song ... it just spotlighted the moment and the song so much. When I hit the stage, everybody was wanting to see what's left. What's he got left?
How do you feel today?
I feel great today. It takes awhile. You have to be the captain of your own ship, and doctors and the medical world are just like any other profession. You got a lot of people on these teams, and you just have to dig in and get everybody in the right place — get the right people and pray for the right results.
I finally got it in a spot where I'm really comfortable with it. Everything's trending really well right now, and I'm not gonna let this define the rest of my life. If I live to be 100 or I don't, I'm going to go forward.
I'm feeling good and I'm off of chemo and I'm rolling. We're just going business as usual, going forward.
You seem like somebody who isn't afraid of very much. When you were diagnosed with cancer, did you get scared?
I did, but that's a bridge that you've never crossed before. Cancer is an island in the middle of the ocean and everybody rides around — they know it's there, but they go to other islands. They stay away from it.
When you finally crash on that island, there's a lot of boats over there. Then you find out that half the world is afflicted with active cancer and you go, 'Holy cow, they've been working on this for centuries and they haven't got this puzzle put together yet.'
I'd just lost an acquaintance. We were playing golf in September of '21 up at the lake house. My buddy had his college buddy in, and we're all playing golf, having a beer, and my buddy goes, 'This guy never sleeps.' I didn't know him, first time I ever met him, played golf three days with the guy.
He had to go play in a cash tournament in Vegas, when he left there he got back to Oklahoma City and about two weeks later (his friend) called me and said, 'Hey, he's got like two weeks to live' ... and he died like 10 days later.
So a month later I get diagnosed, and a month after that my son's fiancee who doesn't have a father, she asked him if I'd walk her down the aisle at my son's wedding. I'm going, 'If I'm like the last guy, I ain't gonna make it.' So hell yeah I got scared.
But I ain't afraid anymore. John Wayne this son of a bitch.