When the producers of Sunday night's American Country Countdown Awards approached Toby Keith about playing a tribute to his musical hero, Merle Haggard, he didn't have to think twice.
"He was always really a good person to me," said Keith of Haggard, who died April 6th. "Between the closeness we had and how much he meant to me inspirationally, when they called me and asked me to play the tribute, I said absolutely."
Keith was equally sure about who should back him. When producers suggested his band or a studio band, Keith said to get the Strangers, Haggard's longtime backing musicians. It was just two months before the legend's death that Keith joined them onstage in Las Vegas to lend a hand when Haggard wasn't feeling well.
"I said, 'I've worked with them before and they'll be more comfortable with this than anybody else,'" Keith recalls. "To get to work with the Strangers is a big deal to me. I've been listening to them since I was a baby."
In an emotional high point of the show, Keith and the Strangers ran through a number of Haggard classics before an audience that included Haggard's widow, Theresa, and his son, Ben.
Haggard's affection for Keith extended to much of the younger singer's family. "If he'd come through Oklahoma and my mother wasn't [at the show], he'd call me and say, 'Is your mother okay?'" Keith remembers. "And I would say, "Yeah, my mom's OK. She's 75. She don't make them all, Merle. She'll be at the next one.'"
The two would call each other to play their new songs, and often hung out on Haggard's tour bus. "He always got a guitar down, we'd swap songs, pick on guitars," Keith says. "It was always musical around him."
Despite his hardscrabble life, which included a prison term for burglary, Haggard expressed to Keith that he had no regrets. "He told me one time if his dad wouldn't have died early, there never would have been a Merle Haggard because, he said, 'The patriarchs in my family kept everybody in line. I was a rebel child because I didn't have a father. That's what led me down this path to be a rebel and play music. We were hard working people and our fathers kept us in line.' To hear his story and hear what he's been through, he was a great man."
To help cope with Haggard's death, Keith has turned back to the music. "About every day, I've been turning him on and shuffling through his songs. I've got everything," he says. "He's just such a part of my life. He was the best."Artists paid their respects to legendary country singer Merle Haggard. Watch here.