Why Toby Keith Is Right for the Country Music Hall of Fame
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Why Toby Keith Is Right for the Country Music Hall of Fame

Toby Keith‘s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame wasn’t a matter of if, but when.

There are a dozen reasons why the 1990s and 2000s country icon belongs, and perhaps only two why he might not.

For more than 30 years, Keith made, sold and performed hit country music. Find a boilerplate with all the numbers below. Kenny Chesney may be the only contemporary with a similar stat sheet and an equally uninterrupted run as (to use a cliché) an A-lister.

Songwriting is what separates Keith, however. In fact, during a conversation with Taste of Country Nights last fall, he stressed that the Nashville and National Songwriting Halls of Fame were his goals in his career, and he joined both in 2021 and 2015, respectively.

To underline this point, Keith made 100% Songwriter his final release last fall. The 13-track compilation was exclusively songs he wrote alone. It’s an impressive list that includes “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” “Wish I Didn’t Know Now,” “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the Angry American)” and “Who’s Your Daddy?”

Toby Keith Hall of Fame Credentials

In recent years, the Country Music Hall of Fame has rewarded an artist less for what they did than how they did it. Stringing together 25 Top 10 hits (see Anne Murray, who has 10 No. 1 songs) isn’t enough.

Tanya Tucker (Class of 2023), Jerry Lee LewisKeith Whitley (both Class of 2022), Ray Charles (Class of 2021) and Marty Stuart (Class of 2020) all have fewer bullet points and commercial country music accolades (CMAs, ACMs, etc …), but each was an original artist that strongly influenced the next generation.

That’s true of Keith, as well. He combined country and rock in a way Jason Aldean would later make a career of. He pivoted between honky-tonk ramblers and sensitive love songs in a way Luke Combs does in 2024. Would Eric Church thrive if the industry didn’t have Toby to use as proof of concept during those dark early years?

Toby was hardly the first to “do it his way,” but he was a bridge between do-it-my-way artists of the ’80s, ’90s and mid-’00s. That was a soft, pop-friendly time in country music. It’s part of why so many find Keith and his style of music abrasive.

Which brings us to the two valid reasons why Keith doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. The first is subjective: you just don’t like him or his music. For every country fan who loves Toby Keith, there are more who don’t. Then, there are those who believe his form of patriotism in his music invited prejudice.

A more objective reason is that often two things are necessary for an artist to gain Hall of Fame admission while active (which Toby would be if not for cancer): A CMA Entertainer of the Year award and membership to the Grand Ole Opry.

While nominated for four straight years, Keith never took the CMA EOY (in this case, CMA > ACM, as they lend a hand in picking inductees), and he wasn’t invited to be an Opry member.

The above list of “outlaws” proves a willingness to look past those data points, but it’s worth noting that Whitley, Tucker, Lewis and Hank Williams Jr. were all inducted at a far later stage in their careers (or further after death, in Whitley’s case) than Keith.

The obvious and probably unspoken question is if Keith’s death hastened his induction. During that ToC interview, he genuinely seemed surprised to be answering Hall of Fame questions, but he might just have a great poker face.

Prior to the announcement that Keith was in on Wednesday (March 18), CMA CEO Sarah Trahern explained that the ballot for the 2024 class closed on Feb. 2, to be opened on Feb. 6.

Keith died on Feb. 5, meaning he never knew he’d gotten in. He died one day too soon.

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