Toby Keith worked the BMI Country Awards stage like a paid public speaker in accepting his BMI Icon Award on Tuesday (Nov. 8). The full 12-minute acceptance speech includes several stories and lessons for the next generation. It's also heavy on gratitude.

The moment also marks his first country music industry appearance since last June, when he revealed he'd undergone treatment for stomach cancer since late 2021. The 61-year-old appears strong and confident as ever, if a bit thinner as he jokes with an audience there to celebrate him.

“They tell you that youth is wasted on the young," he says toward the end, thanking songwriters like Bobby Pinson, Scotty Emerick and Dean Dillon, who'd often join him on the road. "Well we got wasted. But by God we got some work in too didn’t we?”

"I always say that if you wanna be the best songwriter on the planet, you come here," Keith shares, referring to Nashville.

The reflective speech recognizes one or two missteps, as well, but also his own talents. The hitmaker (20 Billboard Country Airplay No. 1 hits) says his one regret was not moving to Nashville sooner, because he foolishly believed he could be discovered in the Oklahoma bar scene. In thanking his manager TK Kimbrell, he wonders at how difficult he must have been to manage.

“Back then they wanted to groom you, and I was un-groomable," he says, smiling.

Keith's BMI Icon speech shows he has the skills to be an effective public speaker — something many country artists aren't. Fans saw this the very next night at the CMA Awards, when artists nervously accepted a win in a rush to get off the stage. By contrast, this lengthy thank you feels loose and unscripted and anything but scattered.

Carrie Underwood and Eric Church both performed songs in Keith's honor, as did Emerick and Dillon. Keith joins a prestigious group of songwriters who've earned the BMI Icon Award, like Willie NelsonDolly PartonLoretta LynnHank Williams Jr. and more in other genres of music. During the speech he made it clear that for him, songwriting was more important than anything.

"I always felt that the songwriting was the most important part of this whole industry," he says. "Everybody — rock, country, R&B, whatever it was — the artists that I had were songwriters. They weren't artists that covered music, they were songwriter/artists. Something in my gut, down in my core, said that that was what I wanted to do."

There are no tour dates or events listed on Keith's tour calendar. He hasn't shared any updates on his cancer battle since the announcement post in June.

"Feelin’ the love," he wrote on Instagram later. "I was proud to accept @BMI’s Icon Award Tuesday night. Thank you BMI for all you’ve done over the years — and thank you to @carrieunderwood, @ericchurchmusic, @deandillonmusic, and @scottyemerick for the badass tributes."

50 Classic Country Artists Today’s Fans Should Know

Today's country music stars owe a debt of gratitude to the legends who formed and cultivated the genre, starting in the early 20th century. These 50 classic country artists remain relevant today. Some developed a style that's emulated on today's country radio. Others set a bar for vocal talent or songwriting skill.

This list of 50 influential classic country artists features country music singers who started their careers before 1990. It's ranked by each artist's current influence on the country music format today, not individual, lifelong impact. Tell us where we got it right or wrong on Twitter.

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