Why Toby Keith's Kids Knew 'Very Little' About CMT Tribute Before The Show

By Kelly Fisher

April 9, 2024

Photo: Getty Images

Toby Keith’s children represented the late country legend at the 2024 CMT Music Awards on Sunday evening (April 7), hosted at Moody Center in Austin, Texas. Keith “passed peacefully last night on Feb. 5 surrounded by his family,” following a years-long battle with stomach cancer that he fought “with grace and courage.” He was 62.

Keith’s son, Stelen Keith Covel, 27, and daughters Krystal Keith, 38, and Shelly Covel Rowland, 44, arrived together at the awards show where their father was honored with a special tribute. Krystal said as the family spoke with iHeartCountry on the red carpet that “this is an awards show that we have come to as a family for years, so we’re really excited for this to be the first time that we have — this is kind of our first public appearance, really — so, I think, you know, it’s fitting that it’s this awards show.”

CMT announced days ahead of the show that Brooks & Dunn, Sammy Hagar and Lainey Wilson would perform during the tribute to Keith. The announcement also confirmed special appearances by Lukas Nelson and Roger Clemens. It was all backed by Keith’s longtime band, remembered lovingly as “our road family,” Stelen said. Though there “hasn’t been very many shows over the last few years” — Keith performed his final shows in December in Las Vegas, Nevada — “the ones we get to see them, we’re always really excited.”

Keith’s family said they knew “very little” about the tribute ahead of time, beyond the public announcement from CMT. Stelen explained before the show: “We purposefully kept ourselves in the dark from rehearsals so that we would be surprised when we saw it in person. But we know about the performers, and we’re excited to see Lainey and Sammy and Brooks & Dunn. I think it’s gonna be a great night.”

Clemens opened the tribute with a few words about Keith before introducing Brooks & Dunn — Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn — to the stage to perform Keith’s “Should’ve Been A Cowboy.” Hagar followed with a rock-infused rendition of “I Love This Bar,” and Wilson, introduced to the stage by Nelson and Riley Green, covered “How Do You Like Me Now?” The group came together on stage at the end of the performance to pay tribute to Keith’s family and raise red solo cups in his honor.

“I think it’s fitting they have a legacy act like Brooks & Dunn. That was my dad’s first tour where he opened for a large tour, so I think fitting. Sammy Hagar is one of his best friends, so that’s perfect, and then Lainey Wilson is the hottest thing on the planet right now, so we’re excited and honored that she wanted to participate, as well,” Krystal told iHeartCountry on the red carpet.

The CMT Music Awards performance was one of many tributes to Keith after news broke of his passing in the early morning hours of February 6. Dolly Parton, Terri Clark, Dan + Shay, Brooks & Dunn, Tim McGraw, Jake Owen, Clint Eastwood, Darius Rucker, Luke Combs and many others in the country music community shared memories of Keith and covered some of his biggest hits in his honor. Krystal said the family has yet to be ready to see all of the tributes and coverage, but “I know it's out there, and we appreciate it and we've felt it. We just weren't quite ready to watch it all yet.” Brooks & Dunn also announced that Keith is part of the 2024 Class of Country Music Hall of Fame inductees, along with James Burton and John Anderson

“It was at a really tough time for us to process when we got the news (of Keith's induction),” said Stelen, who delivered remarks on the family’s behalf during the live-streamed announcement hosted last month in the Hall of Fame’s Rotunda Downtown Nashville, Tennessee. Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Sarah Trahern said during that announcement that Keith was selected for induction before his death. The final ballot closed on February 2. Trahern said it was the morning of February 6, the same morning of the announcement of Keith’s passing, that it was confirmed that Keith had been elected into the Hall of Fame after a months-long process. Stelen continued, as he spoke with iHeartCountry on Sunday: “We know he deserves to be there. We know that it’s an unbelievable achievement and one that every country musician strived to be a part of, but when we first got the news it was pretty tough to process. But looking back, we’re really proud of him to be able to accomplish that.” Krystal echoed, “we’re really proud. We just wish that he would’ve been here to accept it, (that) it would’ve happened prior to him passing.”

When asked what they thought Keith might’ve wanted to say about the show, Shelley and Krystal said “he is laughing right now,” that the trio are “having to answer for him” on the red carpet. Stelen said “we’re happy to represent him here,” and Shelley concluded “I think he’s proud.”

Other artists who took the stage at the 2024 CMT Music Awards included host Kelsea BalleriniJason AldeanDashaBailey ZimmermanCody JohnsonJelly RollKeith UrbanLainey Wilson (who also performed her latest anthem, “Country’s Cool Again”), Little Big Town with SugarlandMegan MoroneyNEEDTOBREATHE with Jordan DavisOld Dominion with Megan MoroneyParker McCollum with Brittney SpencerSam Hunt, and Trisha Yearwood, who accepted the first-ever June Carter Cash Humanitarian Award.

CMT announced a special tribute reflect on Keith’s “most memorable [CMT Awards] moments,” airing on Thursday night (April 11) at 10ET/9CT.

Toby Keith
Advertise With Us
Music, radio and podcasts, all free. Listen online or download the iHeart App.


© 2024 iHeartMedia, Inc.