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June 19, 2015 12:05 PM

Stephen Colbert swapped his suit for a cowboy hat for a special performance at the Songwriters Hall of Fame annual event Thursday night.

The television host, 51, paid tribute to country-singer pal Toby Keith before inducting him at the 46th Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala in New York City.

Colbert gave it his all while singing the star’s “As Good As I Once Was” for the celeb-packed audience that included Lady Gaga, Carly Rae Jepsen, Jennifer Nettles, Nate Ruess and inductees Cyndi Lauper and Linda Perry.

And if you’re wondering why the comedian did the deed of inducting the singer-songwriter, 53, he (sort of) had an answer.

“It’s entirely possible there are people asking, ‘Why the hell is Stephen Colbert honoring Toby Keith?’ Well, I don’t know why I was asked to be here tonight, but I will tell you why I showed up: because Toby has always showed up for me,” Colbert said in his speech.

“He was one of my earliest musical guests on the show, and I didn’t know what to make of the ‘Boot in Your A–‘ guy. But something down deep told me: Just relax, listen to what this man is gonna say and sing, and I just might have a good time.”

Toby Keith (left) and Stephen Colbert
Larry Busacca/Getty

He went on, “A man who rose from Oklahoma’s oil fields, where he worked on a rig, and the state’s football fields, where he was a semi-professional defensive end, to become one of the most consistent hit makers in country music, spending more than two decades. These days the stamina of an oil rigger and the strength of an athlete are a definite advantage of making it in Nashville.”

The Hall of Fame moment meant more to Keith than other awards, he explained.

“This is the only award I wanted,” Keith told PEOPLE on the red carpet before the evening kicked off. “This is your peers sayin’, like you or not, your numbers are so big we’re put you right in.”

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Another highlight for the country crooner? He’s alive to see it happen!

“I was first ballot, and I’m alive – they’re not givin’ it to me posthumous!” Keith said. “And I get to enjoy it with my family I’m a songwriter, and if I would have never got an artist deal, I would still be a songwriter. And I fight for the rights of songwriters, hard. And this is the only one I wanted. I don’t have to do anything else; I don’t care if they ever give me anything else.”

Reporting by JEFF NELSON

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