Toby Keith Reflects on His 'Idol' Merle Haggard Ahead of Tribute

Merle Haggard 2016
Chelsea Lauren/WireImage

Merle Haggard performs at the Stagecoach Country music festival at The Empire Polo Club on April 24, 2015 in Indio, Calif. 

Country star Toby Keith said it was always a thrill to perform with Merle Haggard, whether it was playing together for fun or helping Haggard finish one of his last shows before his death at age 79.

The "Beer for My Horses" singer-songwriter will perform a tribute to the late country music legend on the American Country Countdown Awards on Sunday. The show will air live on Fox from the Forum in Inglewood, California (8 p.m. EDT). Keith will be joined onstage by Haggard's longtime backing band, The Strangers.

Haggard, whose hit songs include "Okie from Muskogee" and "Sing Me Back Home," died April 6 of pneumonia at his home in California. He kept a rigorous touring schedule throughout his career, but had to cancel several shows during the last months of his life due to illness.

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Keith went onstage to sing with Haggard in Las Vegas in February, about two months before his death. Keith said Haggard was clearly sick, but was determined to perform so that his backing band would be paid.

"He made it (through) about eight songs," Keith said. "He was really struggling. And he called me up there. I said, 'I know every song you got and I don't need a teleprompter. Let's go. Let's have some fun.' And we took off. We ran through the rest of the song list."

Haggard's catalog includes 38 No. 1 country hits, and Keith said it was difficult deciding which songs to play for the awards show.

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"He's the biggest ever. He never did stray off the beaten path. He stayed exactly with what he did," Keith said. "He never quit writing the same style of songs.

"He was my idol."


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