On Sunday night (May 1), Toby Keith and the Strangers closed the 2016 American Country Countdown Awards with a simple, sweet tribute to the recently deceased Merle Haggard. For Keith, the opportunity to honor a friend and idol was a no-brainer.

"He was always really a good person to me," tells Rolling Stone Country. "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."

It was also an obvious choice to Keith to have the Strangers, Haggard's backing band, play with him.

"I said, 'I've worked with them before, and they'll be more comfortable with this than anybody else,'" Keith explains, referring to playing with Haggard in Las Vegas, Nev., in early February, just two months before his death. "To get to work with the Strangers is a big deal to me. I've been listening to them since I was a baby."

At the ACC Awards, Keith and the Strangers ran through a medley of some of Haggard’s most beloved songs, including “Mama Tried,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Silver Wings” and, of course, “Okie From Muskogee.” As the show credits rolled, the band also played “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”

"About every day, I've been turning him on and shuffling through his songs," Keith notes. "He's just such a part of my life. He was the best."

Indeed, the two musicians were close -- and Haggard also got to know Keith's family as well.

"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 recalls. "And I would say, "Yeah, my mom's okay. She's 75. She don't make them all, Merle. She'll be at the next one.'"

Adds Keith, "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," Keith muses, "he was a great man."

Prior to the ACCAs tribute, Matthew McConaughey introduced the performance with a short-but-sweet speech illustrating Haggard’s importance.

“As a singer, songwriter and bandleader, Merle forever changed the course of country music,” the actor said. "[Haggard was] an outlaw before the outlaws, and a hero to all of country’s finest.”

2016 American Country Countdown Awards Red Carpet Pictures