Toby Keith - Cherishing The Compassionate Cowboy
Toby Keith was born to be in the spotlight
While so many performers have been bestowed the same grand gift of stardom throughout history, there is something much more meaningful when this artist stands in front of millions of fans. It’s not just the strums of his guitar you hear when he takes the stage. The light that surrounds him shines brightly because inside of Keith a sound made from a pulsating heart of gold radiates throughout the world.
Considered one of the most beloved musicians of all time, the National Medal of Arts recipient’s list of accomplishments is nothing short of outstanding. Keith has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, as well as honored with the Academy of Country Music's prestigious Merle Haggard Spirit Award just to name a few remarkable achievements. The superstar’s body of work has made him a luminary trailblazer in the entertainment industry. A trusted and upstanding performer, he has sung some of the biggest country hits of the 20th century including “Should’ve Been A Cowboy,” “Who’s That Man,” “Me Too,” “How Do You Like Me Now?!,” “You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This,” “I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight,” “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American),” “Beer For My Horses,” and “American Soldier.”
Celebrated for his artistry, the seven-time Grammy nominee and two-time Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year is an unstoppable force. But for all the joy his triumphant collection has brought to the masses, it is the way his storied career has produced something far more than just alluring tunes and catchy music videos.
Since the very beginning, Keith’s mission has always been to create a space that makes people feel accepted. His profound emotions persevere in front of an audience at a sold-out concert just as equally as his sincere interactions with other celebrities. Backstage and behind the scenes his unwavering need to unconditionally help those in need rises to the forefront.
The musician’s widely known philanthropic efforts have made an everlasting effect on mankind. From voicing support for veterans to aiding citizens recovering from natural disasters, Keith considers it his patriotic duty to use his impactful voice to empower change and inspire others to follow suit.
For someone who is a larger-than-life entertainer, it is fascinating how completely down to earth he is when the curtain falls. Any hint of intimidation quickly sheds away when he looks at you with his twinkling eyes. Peeling back the layers of the idol, you discover that the making of this legendary singer is not rooted in ego. There is simply a person standing before you who doesn’t wish to be music royalty worshiped on a pedestal. There is only a humble man who is eternally grateful for what he has been gifted. You only see the compassionate cowboy.
Perfectly flawed and rough around the edges, his presence is that of a burly character perpetually dressed in a slightly disheveled wardrobe. Keith carries the look of someone laboring outdoors all day just to finally sit on the porch and kick back with a frosted beer as the sun sets in the horizon. His dusty boots have walked a million miles and left behind a trail of deep footprints full of Oklahoma red dirt no matter where he goes.
The music sensation’s legendary status has allowed him to build an expansive empire of goodwill. Keith’s unconditional love is especially felt at The Toby Keith Foundation. The center’s mission is to encourage the health and happiness of pediatric cancer patients. It also funds OK Kids Korral, which is a cost-free and comfortable home for pediatric cancer patients and their families receiving treatment at The Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center, Stephenson Cancer Center, and other nearby facilities.
The valiant Keith and his dedicated team are now set to be honored by the laudable SabesWings Foundation. On September 18, the icon will receive the SabesWings Lifetime Achievement Award during the Second Annual Strike Out Event in Paso Robles, California. The festivities will help raise funds through ticket sales to support cancer patients suffering from medical financial toxicity.
Together throughout the past few years OK Kids Korral and SabesWings have joined forces to help patients who must choose between paying for medical treatments or common everyday living expenses.
Giving cancer patients of all ages the chance to heal without worry is the philosophy that Keith and SabesWings founders Bret and Kandace Saberhagen embrace. The famous Kansas City Royals pitcher and his wife know the power of supporting those in need during a medical crisis after she went through a past cancer scare. Seeing how much the cost of care escalated at that time, they knew that something had to be done for those who were not fortunate enough to afford it.
Keith has personally experienced how the disease can change your life in an instant. In June, he disclosed through social media that he had been privately battling stomach cancer. Fortunately, he is now cancer-free. While recovering from treatment, the survivor witnessed firsthand how community love can be a pillar of strength to patients who are bravely fighting the dreaded disease.
The sad truth is that there is no person in the world who has not been affected by the disease. Lives are rocked and fundamentally shifted. Neither celebrity status nor birthright can stop it from happening to someone. But it is the ones with the golden hearts like Keith who can help make the process more humane. The power of kindness is truly uplifting.
During an exclusive interview with “The Magazine Lifestyle,” Keith revealed why being honored by his friends and fellow philanthropists at SabesWings is a momentous occasion.
Your foundation assists and supports pediatric cancer patients and their families. How did this mission come about?
Twenty years ago, my friend - who happened to be my first guitar player in the very first band I was ever in and ended up being my road manager later - had a 2-year-old daughter, Allison, who developed cancer. In her most dire moments, in the eleventh hour, the hospital had just told them to take Allison home. They had to bring in hospice when necessary. I had been supporting St. Jude in Memphis and as a last-ditch effort we called in a favor. St. Jude had a couple of things there that they hadn’t done yet here in Oklahoma. Allison and her mother drove over. When they had exhausted all their options they came back home, and Allison passed away.
After the funeral, the mother said that the most eye-opening part of it was that when she got to St. Jude she was provided with food, lodging, and transportation free of cost. She wanted nothing. She was actually going to worry about all that when they got there since she was in such a rush, didn’t prepare, and hadn't brought anything with them. She was given everything from Walmart gift cards to medicine to whatever they needed. I said, ‘In Ally’s honor we should look at doing something like that here in Oklahoma City.’ And that’s how OK Kids Korral was born.
What are the things about your foundation that you are most proud of at the end of the day?
I think I’m most proud of the fact that we handle more than 300 families a year. They come from all over and they are desperate just like Allison’s mother was. It makes me proud to know that when it comes to this part of it, they can show up at Children’s Hospital and have a burden lifted the second they know they can stay right across the street in a wonderful lodge that is gated and safe. OK Kids Korral is the Ritz Carlton meets Disney World.
You are being honored by SabesWings this September. As an icon in music and the world of philanthropy, what does this mean for you to receive this award?
These things are designed as fundraisers. And the Saberhagens have given their time to my event and to other events, Make-A-Wish, etc. So, it’s honoring them as much as it is anybody. On paper it looks like I’m being brought in and honored, which is wonderful for them to pick me to do it. But at the end of the day, it’s just like a keynote speaker at any event. It’s a reciprocal type of situation where he’s (Bret Saberhagen) done stuff for my event so I’m doing stuff for his event. But in my opinion, this event honors them as much as it does anybody for all the work they do.
What is it that makes the combined efforts of SabesWings with your foundation so unique in the philanthropic community? Also, what is it that you think you do best in comparison to other organizations out there?
Me showing up has SabesWings granting us donations as well; what I said is reciprocation in the previous answer. The thing that I think separates us is our Executive Director, Juliet Bright, who is the woman who runs my foundation. She is such a master at this and champions so well that it just makes us operate at a really high level. That being said, other people who have come in like SabesWings as well as other celebrities who have come to my event and have events themselves, have often returned after the event and asked if they could talk to Juliet. I ask why, and they say, ‘I want my event to run as well as yours.’ Maybe they’ve not dreamed big enough, or looked at it as a big enough picture, or just the overall quality of how the event is run. Juliet has done a wonderful job through the years, and she just gets better. It’s kind of on cruise control now, and I say that not taking her for granted, but because she’s got it running so smoothly now that even though it takes her 365 days to set up the event, she’s still got it down. It’s run as well as anybody’s foundation in the country.
When you hear how much the two organizations working together are making a difference in real lives, what does that incredible goodwill mean to you?
It’s nice to be able to focus and have all your energy in the world go toward one thing that really matters to you. Up until OK Kids Korral was formed, all my charity stuff was scattered. Whoever came at the right time got it. I worked with St. Jude a lot, most of my efforts went there, so that tied in really well. But if I was at an event or TV show where you won some money for charity. I really didn’t have anything that just made me go, ‘Yeah, this is my charity.’ And once OK Kids Korral came into play, I could focus all my energies just on that. And you can look at the other stuff and say, ‘I’m sorry, this takes up all my time, energy, and money.’ It has to because it’s my job to make sure we raise the money each year that is the lifeline to OK Kids Korral.
Keith generates wisdom that can only be understood by someone who really savors life and is aware that giving is the biggest gift of all. The superstar is ultimately a superhero who will always sing an enduring and enlightened ballad for all of mankind.
Cover art and photography by Greg Watermann