Rascal Flatts were just starting out when they met one of their musical heroes, Merle Haggard. In the year 2000, while the country trio was on their radio tour, they were invited to meet the iconic artist during a stop in Indianapolis, Ind.

"I never will forget our first encounter with him ... It’s one of my favorite memories to re-live," Jay DeMarcus tells The Boot. "Just to see how kind and gracious he was to some young kids that he didn’t even know anything about, and how welcoming he was and encouraging to us. He didn’t know our music or anything about us, [but] he welcomed us on his bus. It was just sweet of him to be so kind and gracious."

Adds Joe Don Rooney, "He signed my guitar that night that Jay’s talking about, and I still have that. When we were in Vegas for our residency, they asked us to give them some items, and they gave us a nice case to showcase some of those items, and I put that guitar in there."

Like many country artists over the past few decades, Haggard was part of the soundtrack of Rascal Flatts' lives before they even considered their own career in country music, which is why the legend's recent death is so painful for them.

"I was very, very heartbroken." DeMarcus admits. "I grew up listening to his records. My dad was a huge Merle Haggard fan, which made me a huge Merle Haggard fan. Most of the stuff we used to do, when we were starting out playing together in the bars, to fill a lot of time, were Merle Haggard covers.

"He was a guy that changed country music forever," DeMarcus continues, "and it will never be the same now that he’s gone."

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