How Toby Keith Stepped In & Saved The Day At Merle Haggard’s Final Concert

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What a story.

In Marc Elliott’s 2022 book The Hag: The Life, Times, and Music of Merle Haggard, he told an incredible story about Merle Haggard’s final concert and how Toby Keith saved the day.

Last night, it was announced by his family that country hitmaker Toby passed away at the age of 62 after a long battle with stomach cancer:

“Toby Keith passed away peacefully last night on February 5th, surrounded by his family. He fought his fight with grace and courage. Please respect the privacy of his family at this time.”

And of course, tributes have been flowing in for the country legend. He made an impact on so many people through his music, but the stories about his character and the kind of man he was stand out to me above everything else.

And this one is one of my favorites…

Merle Haggard passed away on April 6, 2016 at the age of 79, but despite his failing health, the Hag kept touring until just weeks before his death. In December 2015, Haggard was hospitalized for pneumonia, forcing him to cancel several concerts.

The legend returned to the stage on February 6, 2016 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, at the Safari Club International’s annual convention – he hadn’t been making a ton of money due to the fact that he was canceling concerts, so he felt that he needed to make this show because it was a huge pay day.

His fee was reported to be $250,000, and Merle viewed that as a great opportunity to catch up on expenses, and most importantly, pay his band. According to the book, no one in The Strangers had made a dime during the month of December.

Ray McDonald, Merle’s former bus driver and assistant said:

“Here he was, literally dying, worried more about the band than himself. That’s the kind of man he was.”

Merle kept his oxygen on all day until right up until showtime, but there was still a lot of fear that he wouldn’t make it through the whole concert.

As luck, or fate, would have it, Toby happened to be in Vegas to see a football game that same weekend, and wanted to stop by and say hello to Merle backstage at the concert. While he wouldn’t accept charity, Haggard did turn to a friend who happened to be in town that night for some help. When Merle asked Toby how many of his songs he know, Toby replied that he knew them all.

Merle told him to stand by, and four songs into the set, he needed his friend to take over… of course, Toby stepped up and finished the show so that Merle could be paid in-full for the gig, and in turn, pay his band:

“Merle was in bad shape. He needed to be in a hospital – not on a stage… Merle greeted Toby on the bus, and asked him how many Merle Haggard songs did he know. Keith replied he knew them all.

Merle gave him a guitar and asked him to stand by. Four songs into his set, Merle couldn’t continue; he didn’t have enough breathe left to sing another note.

He said into the microphone, ‘We’ve got a special guest here tonight,’ and introduced Keith, who had no idea he was going to perform that night, but took over and finished the show.”

It had to be an incredible moment for Toby Keith in particular, to have one of his musical heroes need him in that way and ask him for help. There’s not a ton of footage from that evening, but the video of them performing “Ramblin’ Fever” together, as Merle strums the guitar, is beautiful.

Toby was one of the good ones, and he will certainly be missed not only for his music, but the impact he made on so many people for things like this:

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