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Just Weeks After His Death, Toby Keith Is Headed into the Country Music Hall of Fame

In a bittersweet twist, the legendary artist died just a day before the CMA received the voting tally: "We missed the chance to inform Toby while he was still with us"

<p>Andrew Southam</p> Toby Keith

Andrew Southam

Toby Keith

Toby Keith is going into the Country Music Hall of Fame — but the legendary singer-songwriter died not knowing he had already received country’s highest honor.

The latest Hall of Fame class, which also includes hitmaker John Anderson and guitarist James Burton, was revealed on Monday, and Sarah Trahern, the Country Music Association’s CEO, explained during the announcement in Nashville that she received the voting results on Feb. 6, only a day after Keith succumbed, at age 62, to his long battle with stomach cancer. Trahern had awakened the same morning to news of Keith’s death.

Related: Toby Keith Dead at 62 Following Stomach Cancer Diagnosis: 'Passed Peacefully'

When she saw the results that afternoon, she told gathered guests in the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda, “my heart sank … knowing that we missed the chance to inform Toby while he was still with us.”

She added: “But I have no doubt that he’s smiling down on us, knowing that he’ll always be ‘as good as he once was’” — an instantly recognizable reference to Keith’s six-week No. 1 single from 2005, “As Good As I Once Was.”

Keith has long been bound for the Hall of Fame; it’s just been a question of when, not if. His string of hits — 32 No. 1 singles in all — feature such classics as “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” “How Do You Like Me Now?!,” “Who’s That Man,” “I Love This Bar” and "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American).” He wrote or co-wrote most of his music, earning him inductions into the all-genre Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015 and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2021. He also is the recipient of the National Medal of the Arts (2020) and the BMI Icon Award (2022), among many other industry awards and honors.

Related: Revisiting Toby Keith's 2010 PEOPLE Country Cover, from His 'Great' Kids to the 'Thick Skin' He Built as a Star

Keith’s 26-year-old son, Stelen Keith Covel, attended Monday’s announcement, and he told PEOPLE that his father’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame “was always something on a checklist of a lot of things that he knew he was gonna accomplish in his life.”

Trahern explained to PEOPLE that the CMA waited about 10 days after Keith’s death before reaching out to his longtime manager, TK Kimbrell, with the news. Kimbrell then contacted Tricia Lucus Covel, Keith’s wife of 40 years.

“I was with my mom when we found out that he was gonna be inducted,” Stelen Covel recounted, “and it was relatively hard to process in the moment, but we dealt with it pretty well.” Covel acknowledged the bittersweetness of the honor, but he added, “it’s deserving. We all know he deserved it. We’re happy he’s in here, and we’re excited for him.”

<p>Terry Wyatt/Getty</p> Stelen Covel at the 2024 Country Music Hall of Fame Induction at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on March 18, 2024 in Nashville

Terry Wyatt/Getty

Stelen Covel at the 2024 Country Music Hall of Fame Induction at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on March 18, 2024 in Nashville

Related: Toby Keith Prided Himself on Loving Family Environment Out of the Spotlight: 'I Have Great Kids'

The voting, by a secret roster of industry insiders, was closed three days before Keith’s death, and Trahern said she wept as she realized he was going to his grave without learning the results. No one at the CMA, she said, knew at the time how close the artist was to death.

“For a while, there was a little bit of, ‘Oh my gosh, what a difference one day would make,’” she said. “But he’ll be in here [in the Hall of Fame], whether it was gonna be this year or if it was gonna be two years from now.”

<p>Terry Wyatt/Getty</p> John Anderson, James Burton and Toby Keith's son, Stelen Covel attend the announcement of the 2024 Country Music Hall of Fame Induction at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on March 18, 2024 in Nashville

Terry Wyatt/Getty

John Anderson, James Burton and Toby Keith's son, Stelen Covel attend the announcement of the 2024 Country Music Hall of Fame Induction at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on March 18, 2024 in Nashville

Keith was elected in the modern-era category. John Anderson, whose lengthy career peaked in the 1980s and 1990s, is this year’s veteran-era inductee. In his remarks during the announcement, Anderson said his election “is probably the greatest honor I could ever receive. I’m still trying to get a grasp on just the reality of this happening to me.”

Later, Anderson, 69, recounted to PEOPLE how Trahern surprised him with the news a few weeks ago. “If it hadn’t been Sarah telling me,” he said, “I would’ve thought it was a joke!”

Boasting one of country’s most distinctive voices, Anderson also has had one of country’s most enduring careers. His hits have included “Wild and Blue,” “Straight Tequila Night,” “Money in the Bank” and “Seminole Wind.” What’s considered his signature song, “Swingin’,” earned the 1983 CMA award for single of the year, the same year Anderson was the recipient of the Horizon award (the precursor to the new artist of the year award). The Academy of Country Music honored him with its career achievement award in 1994.

<p>Terry Wyatt/Getty</p> John Anderson at the 2024 Country Music Hall of Fame Induction at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on March 18, 2024 in Nashville

Terry Wyatt/Getty

John Anderson at the 2024 Country Music Hall of Fame Induction at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on March 18, 2024 in Nashville

Standing in the hallowed rotunda, Anderson recounted to PEOPLE the many names on the plaques in his midst who helped him in his early career — Ernest Tubb lending his band to back up a 19-year-old Anderson during a package tour, Loretta Lynn inviting him onto her bus to offer praise, and George Jones shouting encouragement from his car on Nashville’s Music Row.

“I was carrying a guitar down 17th Avenue … and he rolled down his window,” recalled Anderson, who had previously performed before Jones. “He said, ‘Hey, boy, you still singing?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘You keep singing!’ and the window rolled up and he drove on.”

After what he called “a long 50 years on the road,” Anderson said the Hall of Fame election is “like the icing on the cake.” His greatest pride, he said, has been his ability to find a balance between work, family and outdoor pastimes. He and his wife of more than 40 years, Jamie, share two daughters.

“I don’t care about the money or the fame,” he said. “I found a really happy medium. A lot of my buddies that are in here [in the Hall of Fame] didn’t do anything else but work on the road. They missed out on the family life, and I would never trade with them.”

Guitar virtuoso James Burton, 84, rounds out this year’s Hall of Fame class. He was elected in the recording and/or touring musician category, which is awarded every third year in rotation with songwriter and non-performer categories.

<p>Terry Wyatt/Getty</p> James Burton at the 2024 Country Music Hall of Fame Induction at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on March 18, 2024 in Nashville

Terry Wyatt/Getty

James Burton at the 2024 Country Music Hall of Fame Induction at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on March 18, 2024 in Nashville

Already a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Burton played his Fender Telecaster on cuts by Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., and Glen Campbell, among many others, and in 1969, he became band leader and lead guitarist of Elvis Presley's Taking Care of Business band. After Presley’s death, Burton went on to be a key member of John Denver's band for 20 years.

Keith, Anderson and Burton will all be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in a medallion ceremony, held in the museum’s CMA Theater in October.

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