Toby Keith was a fighter and a patriot. Red, white, and blue all the way through.
Everyone knew that.
Less well-known is he was also a man of deep faith in God.
You hear hints of that faith in songs like "God Love Her" and "Don't Let the Old Man In."
Keith, who died of stomach cancer on Monday, acknowledged last year that his faith had sustained him in his battle with the disease.
He talked about his health challenges when he received the Country Icon Award at the People's Choice Country Awards last September, and he told an Oklahoma television station last month that his Christian faith sustains him.
"You gotta have your faith," he said. "Thank God that I got it, too. You take it for granted on days when things are good, and you lean on it when days are bad. It's taught me to lean on it a little more every day."
Born Toby Keith Covel, the Clinton, Oklahoma, native released 21 studio albums and had 20 number-one hits on the Billboard country charts. He sold more than 40 million albums.
Outside of his music career, Keith was known for his philanthropy and support of American troops. He frequently performed for military personnel stationed overseas and used his platform to raise awareness for various charitable causes.
Keith's career was on an upward trajectory when I sat down with him at CMT's StarFest in Pomona, California, on May 11, 1996. I was working for a faith-based magazine at the time but moved on to another job before I could publish this interview.
He had just released his third studio album, Blue Moon, and was riding high on its lead single at the time.
During the 20-minute chat on Keith's tour bus, he was at ease talking about his faith.
"I was baptized in first grade," he said. "My great-grandpa on my mother's side led the singing in a little Baptist church until he was in his 90s. I remember sitting in the front row in those days. His wife played the piano, and his daughter, which is my grandmother, played the piano in church, and my mother sang."
Despite his rowdy persona — and the drinking songs that enlarged that persona — Keith was a family man. His humble upbringing and his nearly 40-year marriage kept him grounded as he grew into a country music icon.
Belief in God "gives you morals; it gives you strength," he said in his southern drawl, perhaps more pronounced when I spoke to him than in later years. "I draw everything I do off of it, whether I even know it or not. I still respect that every talent I have, or every good song that I write, or any hit record we have, or whatever, is due to a greater power than myself."
Keith, who didn't record Christian or Gospel music, told me that he never saw himself as an evangelist. But that didn't stop him from talking to his crew and bandmates about Jesus.
"Most of my guys — I'd say about 90 percent of them — are Christians and pretty good old boys," he told me. "I've had people in the organization who were flat non-believers, and I'd witness to them a little bit, but I'm not the Bible thumper type."
He relayed a story about a longtime friend who doubted God's existence.
"I asked him, 'So, how can you not believe in God?' He said, "Well, I've never seen any of His work.' I said, 'You see it every day.' And I got to realizing how hard it was to witness to somebody that really didn't believe.
"I said, 'You're a pretty open-minded guy. Do you believe in UFOs?'
"He said, 'Oh, I'd be stupid not to believe that the universe is this huge and that … we're the only ones.'
"I said, 'Have you ever seen one?' And he said, 'No.'
"I don't know if I got him to believe or not, but I think I got him to take an open-minded look at it."
Keith told me that belief in God came naturally to him.
"The grass is green, the air, the water you drink, the food, the nourishment that's provided for you every day, your talent, your healthy children, there's so many things you get that you take them for granted. I don't take them for granted."
Keith, who rocketed to stardom with his first single, "Should've Been a Cowboy," in 1993 — three years before my interview with him — said that humility was necessary to keep his head in the world of entertainment.
"This business is very humbling, and it's very much like a roller coaster ride. It's got its highest highs and it's got some real lows. Mostly, day-to-day, you're on a different roller coaster all the time. So you need that stability [of faith] there. That's the common denominator in my life."
When I asked if prayer played a part in that stability, he didn't even let me finish the question.
"Every day," he offered. "I'm more the kind of guy who gives thanks every day. I just pray that His will be done. I don't ask for a bunch of things because asking for anything more than I've got would be ridiculous and greedy. I just say thanks for what I do have. I've got two healthy babies, and a good wife, and a good family, and great parents, and great guys on the road, and a great life."
Keith was a father to three children with his wife, Tricia Lucus. He adopted Tricia's first daughter, Shelley, after the couple wed in 1984. The pair then welcomed their first child together, Krystal, in 1985. Their third child, a son named Stelen, was born in 1997, about a year after my conversation with the "Red Solo Cup" singer.
"There are a lot of temptations out there," he told me. "It's a pretty evil world. I still think it has a chance, but the only chance it has is with God."
Spoken like a true, God-fearing patriot. Rest in Peace, Toby. The world is a better place because of you.
Patrick Novecosky is a Virginia-based journalist, author, international speaker and pro-life activist. He met Pope St. John Paul II five times. His latest book is "100 Ways John Paul II Changed the World."
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