Rush Olson and Toby Keith
R.I.P. Toby Keith. Courtesy Rush Olson

I met Toby Keith a handful of times. I didn’t truly know the man, just interacted with him in a (mostly) professional capacity. But my impressions of him make me truly sad he left the world.

Every time I encountered Mr. Keith, it had something to do with a charitable endeavor.

The first time came when he received an award at Nancy Lieberman Charities’ Dream Ball gala. He allowed us to interview him about the event and for the documentary on which we’re working about Nancy. When he said, “She put women’s basketball on the map,” you could tell he meant it.

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He loved sports. Watching him chat at that event with Deion Sanders and listening to him talk about the late Wayman Tisdale was fascinating. Another person with whom he took the time to chat? My friend Big Joe Walker, a rising country music singer who had donated his time that evening to play an acoustic set during the reception. Toby didn’t have to do that. Later, after he got his award, he sat in with the band for a couple of songs. He played one of his, then did a memorable cover of the Bill Withers classic Ain’t No Sunshine. I remember him calling out the sax player for a solo and graciously praising the local band we had booked for the evening. He didn’t have to do any of that, either.

Toby Keith with Deion Sanders at the Nancy Lieberman Charities’ Dream Ball. Courtesy Rush Olson

During his speech he called Nancy “a giver.” You could tell he valued that quality in a person.

I worked with Toby again at a charity softball event featuring former Texas Longhorn and Oklahoma Sooner stars. He bled crimson and cream but had great fun interacting with the Heisman winners and MLB All-Stars on both sides. One of the nonprofits helped by that event was his own Toby Keith Foundation. He had created it to help families with kids in the hospital. He started it after the child of one of the musicians from his band had needed an extended hospital stay in a place that had a facility dedicated to that purpose. He decided Oklahoma kids needed one, too, so he made it happen.

My most memorable encounter with the country music legend came in Pennsylvania, interestingly enough. We were working on promoting that year’s edition of the Red River softball matchup and had a video shoot in New York that coincidentally concluded the day before he was scheduled to play a festival

Keith performed at many charity events for various nonprofit groups including his own Toby Keith Foundation. Courtesy Rush Olson

show in PA. My colleagues Carla, Dave, Lori, and I rented a SUV and trekked out to produce some softball promos before his concert. We shot the videos in his tour bus. He handled my scripts like a pro, especially the one where he got to talk trash to the Longhorns (which he clearly enjoyed). He let me interview him for my blog, too.

As we were wrapping up and figuring to head to our hotel, he asked if we wanted to stay for the show. That didn’t take us long to agree to. We watched the whole thing from backstage, including his tributes to veterans, and then headed back to his manager’s tour bus. They were nice enough to offer us some post-concert pizza and Jack-and-Cokes (served in red solo cups, of course). We figured we’d talk shop a bit and then head back to the hotel. Not too long after we got there, Toby and one of the other acts who had been on the bill came in.

They mixed themselves a drink and then they broke out a guitar. It was surreal and amazing watching Toby Keith song swap in a tour bus. It got even more surreal when Lori said, “Rush can sing.”

I’ll never forget Toby looking up from the fretboard and going, “Oh yeah?”

The next thing I knew, I was singing Folsom Prison Blues with Toby Keith playing along on guitar.

I was struck by the fact this superstar loved music so much that after playing a full show, he wanted to jam in the tour bus and talk songwriting with fellow musicians (and us).

We hung out a while longer, getting back to the hotel with some incredible memories. It probably took me a while to fall asleep that night.

I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience with the Hall of Fame songwriter and recording artist, but the Toby Keith I met was charitable and hospitable. If all he contributed to the world during his 62 years was just great music, that would be fine. But I feel like there is a good chance he did a lot more than that based on what I saw.

R.I.P. Toby Keith.


  1. What a beautiful piece Mr. Olson, you should be so proud to have known Toby Keith and experienced these memories with him! How very inspiring! People would love to hear about all your experiences…you should put in a book all the many people that have been in your life through the years…write about them in a book! It would be fantastic! I was entirely overwhelmed with the joy of reading about your experience ❤️

  2. Rush, this was a wonderful article. Toby Keith has always been my favorite artist and your experiences with him confirmed the fact that he was a very special human being. News of his passing hit me hard. He was so young. Rest in peace, Toby Keith.