Inspired by Merle Haggard and other artists with populist leanings, Mr. Keith made music that reflected his roots in the working-class culture of the post-Dustmore southwestern United States. In recognition of this kinship, he received the 2020 Merle Haggard Spirit Award from the Academy of Country Music.
Toby Keith Covell was born on July 8, 1961, in Clinton, Oklahoma, the second of three children of Carolyn Joan (Ross) and Hubert K. Covell. Covell Jr. His father worked as a tower operator in the oil industry. His mother was an aspiring singer who gave up her musical pursuits to become a housewife.
Mr. Keith grew up primarily in Moore, Oklahoma, a suburb of Oklahoma City. He got his first guitar at age eight, then spent summers with his grandmother in Fort Smith, Arkansas, doing odd jobs at her supper club and occasionally sitting in with the house band.
After graduating from high school, he worked with his father in the oil fields, eventually becoming a supervisor. At the age of 20, he and several friends formed a group called the Easy Money Band and began playing in local bars before graduating to the road circuit in Texas and Oklahoma.
Mr. Keith's first foray into the Nashville music scene found him roaming street corners and knocking on doors, to no avail, along the city's Music Avenue. He only secured a contract with Mercury Records after a fan who worked as a flight attendant sent his demo tape to producer Harold Shedd, known for his work with stars such as Reba McEntire and Shania Twain. His self-titled debut album, Toby Keith, produced four top 10 singles and was certified platinum for sales of one million copies.
Determined to make a stronger, indelible stamp as a performer, Mr. Keith nonetheless became restless, moving from one Mercury affiliate to another before finding a home in 1998 at DreamWorks Records' newly established Nashville office. The change proved auspicious, as Mr. Keith established a more forceful, if fractured, image on 11 of his next 13 singles, including “What do you think of me now?!” And “I want to talk about me” It reached number 1.
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