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James Beaty: OPINION: Ramblin': Toby Keith: 'Don't Let the Old Man In'

Feb. 10—It's still difficult to get used to the loss of Toby Keith, who always sounded so vibrant and full of life in his musical performances.

The world got the news this week through a simple posting on his website: "Toby Keith passed peacefully last night on Feb. 5th, surrounded by his family. He fought his fight with grace and courage."

Although many were aware of his medical condition, Keith had seemed like one of those artists who would be around forever.

I remember when he came to McAlester at the height of his fame, not to perform but to stump for a congressional election bid by Dan Boren. Keith was always wiling to get involved in Oklahoma sports and politics. The crowd at the Southeast Expo Center in McAlester seemed thrilled to get to see him, even if he wasn't singing that day.

Early in his career, Keith performed at Cowboys in McAlester, the former nightclub that had been located near the current Walmart Supercenter.

Yet another of Oklahoma's many well-known musicians, singers and songwriters, Keith achieved so many remarkable musical feats during his 62 years on this earth that it's a challenge to keep up with them.

Sure, all of his fans knows his music has sold millions of albums and generated billions of streams, but that's just the tip of it.

He's topped the Country Music Charts with 42 Top Ten Hits — but I hadn't known that his album of comic and novelty numbers, "The Bus Songs," topped the Billboard Comedy Album charts for 11 straight weeks, while also hitting #6 on the country charts.

Keith is not only a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, but also of the Songwriters Hall of Fame — where he's ensconced alongside tunesmiths such as George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin.

Fans who are mourning Keith's passing may remember his tribute to his friend, Oklahoma basketball and music great Wayman Tisdale, who died while battling cancer in 2009.

Keith recorded a heartfelt tribute to Tisdale, titled "Cryin' for Me (Wayman's Song)" and also recorded a video tribute.

"I'm going to miss that smile; I'm going to miss you my friend," Keith sang. "Even though it hurts the way it ended up, I'd do it all again."

He continues with the chorus' closing lines:

"So play it sweet in heaven, cause that's right where you want to be.

"I'm not cryin' cause I feel sorry for you. I am cryin' for me."

Although I always thought Keith delivered many a memorable phrase as a songwriter, I somehow missed what is now my favorite Toby Keith song when he originally recorded it.

Instead, I first heard it when listening to Willie Nelson's 2020 album, "First Rose of Spring."

Willie sounded in fine form on the album, with yet another entry in what has become a remarkable late-period series of works, even by Willie's own high standards.

Willie's record company originally planned to release "First Rose of Spring" in April 2020 to coincide with his birthday, but instead pushed the release date to July because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While I liked the entire album, one of the songs immediately struck me, a song called "Don't Let the Old Man In." Willie so inhabited the song I thought he must have written it. Then I checked out the songwriter credits and saw Toby Keith's name.

Intrigued, I decided to check out the song's background.

Keith told how he became inspired to write the song while playing in a charity golf tournament, where he was teamed with famed actor and director Clint Eastwood. He related since Eastwood was his partner for the tournament, they spent an entire day in 2018 riding around together in a golf cart.

Keith recalled how at one point, Eastwood told him his birthday was coming up the following week, and he was turning 88. When Keith asked Eastwood what he would be doing during the upcoming week to mark the milestone, Eastwood said he planned to begin filming a new movie.

Impressed, Keith asked Eastwood what keeps him going — and Eastwood told him, "I just get up every morning and go out. And I don't let the old man in."

Keith related how the phrase stuck with him, inspiring him to write a song with that title and theme. When he finished the song, he sent it to Eastwood.

Eastwood liked the song so much he included it in the movie he was filming at the time, "The Mule."

While "Don't Let the Old Man In" remains a standout track on Willie's "First Rose of Spring"album, Keith recorded his own fine version of the song.

Keith's version is touching in its own right, and Willie inserted his own brand of pathos into the song, bringing a world-weariness — and determination — to it with his own inimitable style.

"Many moons I have lived, my body's weathered and worn," Willie sang. "Ask yourself how old you would be, if you didn't know the day you were born."

I later learned after Keith originally released the song in 2018, it had risen only to #45 on the U.S. Hot County Songs Chart — which surprised me, since I considered it one of the best songs Keith had ever written.

But he wasn't through with it yet.

While Keith was in the midst of battling his illness, he learned he would receive the first ever Country Icon Award at the Peoples Choice Country Awards in Nashville. The song he chose to sing during the Sept. 28, 2023 performance — "Don't Let the Old Man In."

It's poignant to watch an obviously-weakened — but still strong-voiced — Keith sing the lines: "Don't let the old man in. I want to live me some more. Can't leave it up to him. He's knocking at my door."

The next lines are just as touching.

"I knew all of my life. That someday it would end. Get up and go outside. Don't let the old man in."

The camera cuts to Keith's wife, shown weeping in the audience. "Try to love on your wife and stay close to your friends" he sings. "Toast each sundown with wine, don't let the old man in."

Like I said earlier, I had felt surprised when I learned that upon its original release, Keith's recording of "Don't Let the Old Man In" had reached only #45 on the country charts back in 2018.

But also like I said, Keith wasn't through with the song yet.

When I checked this week, "Don't Let the Old Man In" had shot to #1 on Apple's iTunes Top 100 Country Songs Chart.

It all goes to show, you can't keep a good song down.