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Haggard, crowd get to know each other

Haggard, crowd get to know each other

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Merle keeps it intimate in first show after cancer surgery

| Friday, Jan 2 2009 11:09 PM – Updated: Wednesday, Jan 7 2009

Merle Haggard stopped cold when he came to the line “a joint was a bad place to be” on “Are The Good Times Really Over.”

He couldn’t make it on the second attempt, either. As he told Friday night’s crowd at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, that joint he smoked back in ‘92 kept him high for 25 years, he joked, and provided him some kind of weird experience that involved birds flying out of his body.

There was more pathos than humor in the way the lung cancer survivor kidded about taking up Camels at age five and learning to smoke on the Kern River, back when a Camel smelled natural and good.

Despite a wavering voice — and ditching that habit of toking before taking the stage — Haggard proved he could still put on a hell of a show.

He performs again tonight at the Palace. The hometown legend chose Buck’s place to host the first performances since his November lung cancer surgery at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital.

Earlier that day he attended the unveiling of his star on the Fox Theater’s walk of fame with his family in attendance. He told the media this show would be a test, to “see if I can do it.”

Merle’s old friend Sonny Langley started the show with an acoustic set that included a little Lefty Frizzell and Marty Robbins. He told the crowd one woman came all the way from Australia to see Merle. Langley probably felt like a bit of home for a gal from Oz, with his quiet, ‘round-the-campfire style reminiscent of the gentle drover songman Slim Dusty.

North Carolina’s young Malpass brothers made the ladies scream with their knee-shaking Elvis and vintage Hank Williams brand of country. Chris Malpass opened last year with Haggard at the Fox Theater and has become something of his protege.

The richness of Haggard’s voice is still there, though tired and weakened at points, or perhaps the intimacy of the venue called for subtlety. Either way an eager fan in the crowd could yell something — “We love you” or “Kern River” — and be heard well enough to invite a response.

In a rare move, when the audience yelled “Kern River,” he actually indulged the request.

“I went over to the Kern River today and it was dry,” he said. “Where did they put it? Did the government get it?”

With banter between Merle and the audience, the Palace felt more like an extra large house party.

He kicked off the show with “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” Merle had an eye on young Binion Haggard’s guitar solos, a sweet mentorship between father and son.

“Going Where The Lonely Go,” with gentle, subdued backing by the Strangers, seemed to take on a new and poignant meaning after surgery.

Merle could have been the only one in the room with this spare approach, the loneliness and emotion of human crisis palpable in the line: “I’ve got to keep rollin’, I can’t lay down.”

Merle struggled with the strength of his vocals on “Mama Tried.” The crowd was there to play back up on the chorus. The first talk of his cancer followed the number.

“My mama always told me, ‘Don’t blow your nose so hard,’” he joked.

He claimed it wasn’t the surgery that was so brutal — it was the tube the doctors fished down his throat. It made him feel like a bass up at Isabella Lake.

“What I’ve Been Meaning to Say” off Haggard’s “Chicago Wind” album made Luigi’s Restaurant owner Tonia Valpredo dab her eyes with one of the Crystal Palace’s red-and-white picnic napkins.

“Why can’t people be more communicative?” she said. “If we would just say what we feel. We feel with our hearts, but we don’t communicate.”

In a nice twist, his wife Theresa emerged from her gig as backup vocalist and dueted on “Jackson,” trying out a nasal June Carter twang.

Shortly before, the Aussie made herself known in the crowd. She came all the way from Australia because she loves him.

One roughneck yelled, “Hey, Merle, we came all the way from Oildale!”, followed by some of the loudest cheers of the night.

“Well, that tops it all,” Merle replied.

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