Street Dedicated On Festive Merle Haggard Day

Country Star Also Dedicates Room At Local Hospital, Performs On 'Merle Haggard Day'

Chris Malpass, 22, sings vintage country and gospel. He resembles a young Merle Haggard, though he might portray an early music cohort of Haggard's, Lewis Talley, in a film version of the singer's life.

Malpass stood backstage Wednesday night after swiveling his hips and crooning to a packed house at Bakersfield’s Fox Theatre. He went on right before Haggard, decked out in a yellow-and-black shirt and black tie, and really had the crowd roaring to his moves and bouncing pompadour.

As the crowd yelled for Haggard to take the stage, road manager Frank Mull -- gruff, with a thick grey beard and a limp because of a hard bout of diabetes -- asked Malpass if he had sandpaper on his boots.

“It’s slippery out there. Let me see your boots,” Mull said to Malpass who lifted his foot.

“They are worn,” Malpass agreed.

“You’re going to have to put something on those boots so you don’t slip on those hard wood stages,” Mull said.

Malpass replied with a polite grin, “Yes sir.”

When Haggard passed slowly through the backstage area, he made certain to pat Malpass on the shoulder -- sort of a job well done for the youth from North Carolina who is on his first ever tour.

If Haggard was tired from a long day of dedications, only his slow gait to the stage showed any hint. His music: jazzed up country both vintage and new, backed by a small orchestra, included a sax player and even his own teenage son, Ben on rhythm guitar. Quiet, polite, and extremely talented, Ben made his debut for Haggard’s band at Bakersfield’s Fishlips restaurant just a few weeks prior, when a surprise party was held.

A group of documentary filmmakers darted about the stage area while Haggard performed to the crowded audience. Two of them, director Gandulf Hennig and sound man, Ian Marshall made sure not only to capture the essence of Haggard’s showmanship toward the Bakersfield crowd, but caught the feeling and mood afterwards, including filming people who gathered at a backstage gate after the show.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of people gathered at Bakersfield's Harley Davidson store along the new Merle Haggard Drive as the roadway was officially dedicated to Merle Haggard.

Supervisors also proclaimed Wednesday "Merle Haggard Day" as many of Merle Haggard's friends, fellow musicians, country music legends of the Bakersfield Sound and people from the community gathered on a festive day of dedications.

Actor Charles Napier, a friend of Haggard's, joked about the crooner possibly giving a speech. "Knowing him he’ll either say thank you or sing a song and say 'Pay me $30,000,'" he laughed.

Napier also attended Haggard’s performance and spent time with the singer on the tour bus before and after the show.

Haggard is one of the early innovators of the Bakersfield Sound, which includes other legends such as Buck Owens and Billy Mize. Helping introduce an electric sound to country music, by the 1970s, Haggard was aligned with the growing outlaw country movement. The singer has had 38 number-one hits and was honored with a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2006.

In December 2006, the Board of Supervisors approved the renaming of a portion of Seventh Standard Road that runs west from North Chester Avenue to Highway 99, as part of a dedication to Merle Haggard for his contributions to country music history.

The last time Haggard was in Bakersfield he played the Fox Theatre twice in the same night to help raise money to purchase the signs that bear his name.

Haggard arrived around 12:30 p.m. Wednesday as Kern County officials dedicated a piece of Seventh Standard Road to the country star. He wore mostly black, a faded black jacket and his signature worn bucket hat and dark metal-rimmed glasses.

Rockwell from the historic Bakersfield Honky Tonk, Trouts, having been part of the committee that helped get a portion of Seventh Standard Road dedicated, introduced Haggard. "It's truly amazing when somebody, a native to historic Oildale, has so much to contribute in so many ways," he said. He also mentioned that Haggard, like other country music legends, still doesn't forget his roots.

Haggard made his way to the stage greeting many members of the crowd. He even stopped to hug one lady who had brought her small dog.

After being introduced, Haggard joked with the crowd and thanked officials for the dedication. "This is probably the ultimate for a man in his life to have a street named after you," Haggard said. "I drove in a while ago on my own name."

Haggard gave tribute to members of his family, America, the Buck Owens family and joked with county officials and the crowd. He also thanked Harley Davidson for presenting him a custom leather coat.

Third District Supervisor Michael Maggard, Sheriff Donny Youngblood and Rick Davis of the Board of Trade were some of the officials on-hand to make dedications to Haggard.

The country superstar also received a plaque that will later be mounted on a piece of land adjacent to the road.

The street dedication also was the official launch of an effort to establish a green belt adjacent to Merle Haggard Drive.

According to a Kern County press release, North of the River Chamber of Commerce will coordinate fundraising efforts for the grassy strip that will be called Hag's Place in honor of Haggard's former residence near the mouth of the Kern River Canyon.

Haggard also stopped by Memorial Hospital Wednesday for the unveiling of the first ever local Ronald McDonald house.

The house is located on the grounds of the hospital and is going to be a place where families can stay when their loved ones are undergoing critical care treatment at the hospital.

Haggard was there to donate his guitar and unveil the house plaque.

Renovations for the house are underway as an overwhelming number of donations from businesses have poured in.

McDonalds’ officials said none of this would have been possible without the community support.

After the show there were no encores. But there really didn’t need to be as the crowd seemed satisfied with Haggard’s entertaining singing, guitar work and fiddling.

As the show ended, Mull pulled out a flashlight and waved it at the small backstage crowd who had been watching from the sidelines. They quickly parted as Haggard made his way between them and disappeared outside and into his tour bus.