Country legend Merle Haggard was an inspiration to countless artists from a variety of genres and generations, but perhaps none more so than Toby Keith.
Before the icon passed away on April 6th at 79, he and Keith had developed a close kinship that went beyond the framework of a mentor and a student — they were friends. The two singer-songwriters would often spend time swapping songs on Haggard's tour bus and called each other regularly, and Keith even stepped in to help the Country Music Hall of Famer get through one of his final shows as pneumonia sapped the last of his considerable strength.
On May 20th, about six weeks after Haggard's death, Keith was booked for a performance on an equally important piece of country history — the Grand Ole Opry — and decided to use part of his time in tribute to his friend and hero, working up a heartfelt medley featuring six of the legend's greatest hits. Backstage, he explained why he though Haggard was one of the greatest country artists of all time.
"He had the look, he had the voice, he had the name, he was a songwriter and a great guitar player," Keith said. "He was just the consummate singer-songwriter."
Onstage Keith and his band delivered their farewell salute in note-perfect and pure-country fashion, stringing together well-known pieces of "Mama Tried," "Today I Started Loving You Again,” "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," "Workin' Man Blues," "Silver Wings" and "Okie From Muskogee."