When Toby Keith takes the stage of Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena on Sunday, Aug. 26, it will be as part of his “Should’ve Been A Cowboy” tour, in honor of the 25th anniversary of his first hit, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” which propelled him to superstardom.

And we’re talking real, honest-to-goodness superstardom.

Keith is one of the most successful country singers of all time. A three-time BMI Country Music Songwriter/Artist of the Year — with Artist of the Decade nods from Billboard and the American Country Awards, among many other accolades — Keith is a success with a capital S.

It’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t always like this. That there was a time when Keith was just a hard-working guy, doing his best to provide for his family and hoping to catch a break.

“I was working five or six nights a week, 51 weeks a year, for six years,” Keith says of the early days of his career with his group The Easy Money Band.

The band played regional tours throughout Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. So by the time Keith wrote “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” he had enough experience to suspect he might be on to something good.

“I knew it had a chance to be a hit,” Keith says.

The song went on to become one of the most-played country songs of the decade, and kicked off a multiplatinum career.

While a good part of Keith’s success comes from his talent as a songwriter, his work ethic and level of dedication to his craft play a major role.

It’s a dedication that started out of necessity.

“When you’re trying to buy diapers and food and support your family, you gotta be as good on a Wednesday when there are 12 people there (in the audience) as you are on a Friday,” Keith says.

“It was an unfair advantage for me when I hit Nashville,” Keith says of the experience he acquired on the road, playing show after show. “A lot of (the other musicians) hadn’t put in the time on the joints. You gotta go out there and earn your audience. A lot of them didn’t have that foundation.”

Although it was 25 years ago, Keith can still remember how things changed for him and his family.

“The song came out and we still had contracts at nightclubs, and we honored them,” he says. “And the club owners started selling tickets.”

About that time, Keith was returning from a tour and the bus dropped him off in front of his home in the middle of the night.

“This little house we had was a 1,200-square-foot house … the bus dropped me off in front of it and there were about 30 people standing outside,” Keith remembers.

Those 30 people? All fans, hoping to catch a picture with the new country star.

Keith says he went inside and told his family, “I need to move y’all.”

Keith’s time with the USO

Keith has never forgotten his roots, particularly those of his father.

“My dad was in the Korean War in the ‘50s. Once I started having hits, he said, ‘You oughta do like Bob Hope and play for the troops’,” Keith says.

When his father died in 2001, Keith got in touch with the USO to play in honor of his dad.

“I saw what a huge void there was to fill,” says Keith of the dearth of performers willing to play in war zones. So he stepped in.

Keith has played more than 285 shows in 18 countries for the USO, making him a favorite of military personnel around the world.

While his humanitarian work has been meaningful, his professional life also has provided rewarding experiences. His induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015 in New York City was among his career highlights, he says.

“I’m a songwriter first and foremost,” Keith says. “I would have been anyway, whether I had a career of it or not.”

With special guest Trace Adkins

While Toby Keith is reason enough to head to Hard Rock on Sunday, Trace Adkins as a special guest seals the deal for any true country music fan. Adkins, a Nashville icon for more than two decades, has made his own mark on the country music industry, with more than 11 million albums sold.

Following hits such as “(This Ain’t) No Thinkin’ Thing,” “Ladies Love Country Boys” and “You’re Gonna Miss This,” Adkins last year released his 12th album, “Something’s Going On,” which he says is a window into his life.

“If you really wanted to know who Trace Adkins is, go back and listen to the album cults on the records I’ve done over my career. Those are the songs that reflect where I was in my head at the time I made that record,” Adkins says on his website, TraceAdkins.com.

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