Malpass Brothers (copy)

On Sunday, sibling duo The Malpass Brothers will pay tribute to the legends of country music including Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash.

"Sing something."

Those are the two most frightening words singer-songwriter Christopher Malpass had ever heard in his life.

They were spoken to Malpass 12 years ago by Merle Haggard.

A few months later, Malpass, then 21 years old, was opening for Haggard. In June that same year, Malpass' younger brother, Taylor, would join the group after graduating from high school — something Haggard himself insisted on.

The Malpass Brothers would tour with Haggard for seven years.

"He was good to us," Malpass said. "He was like a father to us, really."

The Malpass Brothers will perform in Bakersfield this Sunday afternoon as part of the ongoing Community Concerts series at the Harvey Auditorium.

Malpass, who says "Yes, ma'am" in the most wonderful bass-baritone drawl you can imagine, said the brothers' life in music is a family legacy.

"My granddaddy played guitar and ran what you'd call a honky-tonk," Malpass said.

Growing up in Goldsboro, N.C., Malpass said his grandfather taught the boys what they needed to know most — essential chords to play country songs, especially the classic songs by Lefty Frizzell, Marty Robbins, Ernest Tubbs, Hank Williams and, of course, Merle Haggard.

"We just sort of took it from there and played at churches, anywhere we could," Malpass said.

The hard work and talent paid off and by the time the brothers were in their teens, they were winning talent contests and performing in regional concerts. It was at one of those regional concerts that they came to the attention to members of Haggard's band, and the momentous introduction to Haggard himself.

Touring with Haggard for seven years was like going to school for the brothers; Malpass said he and Taylor learned a lot from touring with the legendary musician.

"One thing I take with me is when I go onstage, if it's a cover (of a song) I have to feel it," Malpass said. "I can't do somebody else's song if I can't feel something, a lump in the throat."

Malpass said watching Haggard in his process of writing songs inspired him to write his own songs, and the duo include originals in their performances.

The exposure and experience paid off for the Malpass Brothers, who have been steadily earning critical and popular respect for their work. Hailed as "retro" artists who are preserving classic country music, the duo has released two albums, including one produced by legendary producer Jimmy Capps; they are the subject of a North Carolina public television documentary, "Heading Home," and made their debut at the Grand Ole Opry on Dec. 18, with a return scheduled for April 11.

Malpass said he and Taylor stopped touring with Haggard in 2015, a little more than a year before the legendary performer died.

"We left on good terms," Malpass said. "Our schedules got more intense just as Merle's schedule was being curtailed because of his medical condition — I thought it was just time to try it on our own."

"We had planned to do some more together, but there just wasn't time," Malpass said.

But the time spent with Haggard, and the lessons learned, are never forgotten. At Sunday's concert, Malpass will emulate his mentor by not using a set list, a fixed program of songs.

"I thought we were doing something wrong, but Merle never used one," Malpass said. "'You just have to follow the mood of the crowd,' is what Merle said.

"I think that's important to be real."

(1) comment

Mike P

If you've never seen the Malpass Brothers perform, do yourself a favor and check them out. They're retro in a lot of ways, but they're also the real deal. Backed up by a really tight band, it doesn't matter if they're playing their own stuff or covering somebody else's they put on a heck of a show.

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