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Backstage with Ron Onesti: Toby Keith…A Red, White, and Blue Hero

It has been truly shocking and tragic when it comes to the number of heroes and legends in entertainment we have been losing.  When country superstar Toby Keith announced in June of 2022 his stomach cancer diagnosis, I was hit pretty hard.  When he received the Icon Award at the Country Music Awards back in September, he performed a song he wrote entitled, “Don’t Let The Old Man In.”  When I saw the emotional performance in November, I was truly shocked at how much it affected this “Hulk” of a man turned into a frail representation of his one-time self.  This past Monday, we lost him.  He was 62.

It hit me hard because I was blessed with the opportunity to know Toby at the dawn of his rise in country music. It was in the early nineties at the beginning of his blowup after his first chart-topping single, “Should’ve Been A Cowboy.”

You may recall from one of my previous columns that I produced concerts at Chicagoland horse racing race tracks a few years ago.  We did everyone from James Brown, Alice Cooper, Diamond Rio and so many others.    There was another time we produced a concert with a relatively new superstar on the country music scene, Toby Keith.  At the time, he had the number one hit on the Country music charts.

For the next thirty-plus years, he had become one of the biggest stars in country music history, not only for his accomplishments in the field, but also for his undying patriotism and commitment to supporting U.S. war veterans.

It was in the centerfield of the Sportsman’s Park Racetrack in Cicero, Illinois.  We worked all morning and set it up like a festival, with a main stage on one end of the center field, food and merchandise tents lining the sides and five thousand chairs down the center.  The sun was shining…it was going to be a great day!

At least it looked that way at noon.  Right around 1 p.m., the sky began to darken.  The guy who tracked the weather radar came down and told me there was a severe storm warning for our area.  Although the sky began to get cloudy, there was no way it was even going to rain…so I thought.

Now it’s about 3 p.m. and I was standing on our stage doing a sound check.  As I am doing this, I am looking off into the horizon.  Something doesn’t seem right.  The wind starts to pick up-I mean chairs are blowing over the place.  All of a sudden, a massive twister touches down at the opposite end of the 44-acre centerfield directly across from the stage.  I actually watched it form.  And then, it began “walking” toward me, right down the midway!  Really, I had never seen anything before like it!

I started yelling to my crew to take cover, literally throwing guys off the stage.  In a nick of time, I jumped off the stage and took cover under one of our trucks carrying sound equipment.  Aside from a few of the chairs being thrown in the air like that scene in “The Wizard Of Oz,” the twister danced it’s way neatly down the center, barely disturbing any of the many tents and attractions we had there.

But as it approached the stage, it got really mad.  It was almost as if it touched down just to beat up on it.  The hefty winds picked it up off the ground.  Then, the twister lifted the roof (which was fortified with four-foot steel rods staked into the ground), spun it and left us with pieces of raw metal bent into a massive pretzel of steel hovering dangerously above the stage.

The funnel cloud then went on its merry way and dissipated into the sky.  The sun came out and it was like nothing happened, except for a stage that looked like it was in a terrible automobile accident.

My brother Rich and I had to act fast.  We re-activated our troops (our sound crew, some horse manure custodians and a couple of jockeys who were no real help at all).  We used the bulldozer from the manure guys to lift us up to the top of the stage roof so that we could disconnect it from the stage…a killer as I am afraid of heights and I was about twenty-five feet off the ground. I was literally hanging from the top beam of the roof in order to bend it back a bit and separate it from the stage!

It worked.  We were left with just a platform…but would Toby play on it?  According to his contract, if the weather posed any sort of threat, he could refuse to play…and still get paid.  I looked down behind the stage and there he was, just looking at me and shaking his head.  I jumped down off the stage and introduced myself.  He is 6’3”, but between his signature straw cowboy hat and those Oklahoma boots of his, I was lookin’ up at a seven-footer!  “Boy,” he said, I have been overseas and have met a lot of brave soldiers, but what I just seen you go through…you should get a Bronze Star!”

So he went on as scheduled and opened the show with his then number one hit, “Who’s That Man.”  He dedicated it to the guy who saved his show that night.  For me, it was just another day of makin’ the best out of music…and of manure.

Back to the Country Music Awards and his heart-wrenching rendition of “Don’t Let The Old Man In.”  The story of the song goes back to a time when Toby shared a golf cart with Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood.  He asked him how he does what he does at his age.  Clint replied, “I just don’t let the old man in.”  Then Toby got “to writin’”.

The tune is basically about the realization that time comes for us all, and about making the best of the time we have.   Toby’s tearful wife in the audience truly represented how all were feeling as his voice, deepened by medication and his sickness, softly covered the silent audience.

And I knew all my life

That someday it would end

Get up and go outside

Don’t let the old man in

Sadly, it was the cancer that didn’t let the old man in for Toby.  But his music and his memory I am sure will inspire many to live life to the fullest, and not to “Let the old man in.”