Until I read about Toby Keith’s People’s Choice Country Awards 2023 performance, my favourite Toby Keith story involved one of Merle Haggard’s last concerts. In December 2015 Haggard was hospitalised with pneumonia forcing him to cancel shows. In February 2016, Haggard was determined to perform his scheduled LA concert. He was in poor shape and ought to have been in hospital, but his band and crew needed to be paid. In town for a ballgame, Toby Keith visited his friend, mentor, and idol.
Merle Haggard asked Keith how many of his songs he knew. Keith replied “All of ’em.” At the concert, Haggard sang a few songs before his lungs started giving out. Toby Keith came on to help sing the rest of the set. Haggard’s friend, the actor W. Earl Brown, commented: “Never speak ill of Toby Keith to me. Thanks to him, Merle exited the stage with his dignity intact.” Haggard died on 6 April 2016, aged 79. Our first video – from the People’s Choice awards – shows Keith’s empathy and bravery:
I’ll first give the story behind Don’t Let The Old Man In, then relate Toby Keith’s personal circumstances that made the People’s Choice performance particularly poignant. The idea for the song came when Keith was at a golf event with Clint Eastward in 2018. Eastward, who would soon turn 88, mentioned that he was going to start filming The Mule the next day. Keith asked him “What keeps you going?” Eastward replied, “I just get up every morning and go out. And I don’t let the old man in.”
Keith said “The second I wrote it, it was like I jumped 5oo feet in the air. I knew I had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish”. He recorded a demo (he had ‘flu so the vocal was “raspy, sleepy, tired sick”) and sent it to Eastward. Eastward loved the song and insisted on using it in The Mule with the vocal unchanged. As Mikal Gilmore has pointed out, the old man is death “coming up close”. In 2021, Toby Keith was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Here he is receiving the Country Icon Award:
The Country Icon Award was presented at the People’s Choice Country Awards 2023, held at the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville. This, of course, was the same award show that is the setting for the first video.
Reflecting on Toby Keith’s performance of Don’t Let The Old Man In, Mikal Gilmore has written with his usual perception: “Seeing the toll that his ongoing bout with stomach cancer has taken on him, looking so thin, his body weathered and worn, I realized that the song had now found its ultimate purpose. … Though he’d had no way of knowing it years ago, Toby Keith wrote Don’t Let the Old Man In about himself – a song to serve him at the right time and in the right place. Everybody in the Opry that night, everybody watching his dignified, painfully revealing performance, knew that as well, which is why it has since become massively popular. That was autobiography standing on that stage, filling the man’s voice, informing his being. The song found Keith when no other song could have served him so well.”
After People’s Choice Country Awards 2023, Don’t Let the Old Man In jumped to #1 on the iTunes Country chart and, impressively, #3 on the All-Genre iTunes chart. The song also spent two weeks on the top of Billboard’s Country Digital Song Sales chart. As of 30 October, it is #14 on this chart. The Music Man wishes Toby Keith well with his ongoing cancer treatment. Toby Keith, don’t let the old man in.