IT’S SAID THAT THE BEST THING about country singer Don Walser is his voice, a wiry tenor that has earned him the nickname “the Pavarotti of the Plains.” But to really appreciate him—to get the full effect—you have to see him in action.
Between sets one Tuesday night on the patio at Jovita’s Cantina in South Austin, the six-foot-two-inch, 350-pound, 61-year-old Walser sat on his stool behind his microphone, greeting a representative mix of fans. A middle-aged man had a photo to be autographed. Accordionist Ponty Bone wanted Walser to meet a musician friend visiting from Los Angeles. A little boy in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt asked the title of a yodeling song Walser had just done. A pair of amply tattooed men in Converse sneakers were curious where he was playing later that week. A fan near his own age; a fellow musician; a tyke who looks so small next to Walser that he could seemingly fit into the man’s boot; some young rockers—they’re all the same to him, and each got his undivided attention.
When Walser’s band returned to the stage, he repositioned himself on his stool and gripped the neck of his guitar backward, as if the instrument were a club, with one of his arthritic hands. He immediately set a mood by playing what felt right at the moment—he has no set list—and sustained it tune after tune. He started with one of his own songs, “Fuzz Dixon,” about an oil-field roughneck he used to know in his hometown of Lamesa. Next he did a couple of requests left over from the first set: Johnny Bush’s d.t.’s admonition “Green Snakes on the Ceiling” and Bob Wills’s Western swing classic “Take Me Back to Tulsa.” On Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil,” Walser’s voice shifted into a keening, desolate wail that cut through the night like the West Texas wind. Then, on Elton Britt’s “Cowpoke,” he moved from falsetto to yodel so cleanly that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began—a mystery as wondrous as how such a high voice can flow from such a huge frame.
Walser, who says he “must know thousands of songs by now,” is a human jukebox of Western swing, honky-tonk, and Western, the three strains that Texas has contributed to country. He performs them with natural, guileless ease and none of the residue of revivalism usually attached to such music. That’s because they’re not oldies to Walser—they’re just good stories about things that remain true for any era. They were “test-marketed” over decades on jukeboxes and small-town honky-tonk stages, not in some focus group last week, and they were built to last. So is Don Walser; what you see is exactly what you get.
In his easygoing way, Walser defies a culture shaped around niches. He’s a lifetime musician who only launched his career in earnest in 1994, when he retired from the National Guard after 45 years. He’s a teetotaling Mormon who can talk admiringly of an alcoholic friend whose life improved immensely when he switched to marijuana. He’s country according to the genre’s traditional definition, and thus has benefited from its recent resurgence of popularity, though he fits into the current crop of Nashville pretty boys like a trusty, beat-up pickup truck in a parking lot full of shiny stretch limos. And while he’s hardly what you’d call an outlaw, Walser has been swept up in the return-to-roots movement that has reinvigorated the careers of artists like Johnny Cash—and so he turns on crowds of people who not long ago would have scoffed at the idea that they’d ever love a song called “Yodel Polka.” Indeed, his most loyal fans include the Butthole Surfers, Austin rockers who’ve been pursuing their own noisy, neo-psychedelic path since the punk era; they’ve landed Walser and his Pure Texas Band a semi-regular slot at Emo’s, the Austin grunge emporium, where purple-haired People in Black toss themselves around the mosh pit to the sound of his honey-dripping yodel.
In the past year or so, Walser has been working as many as 21 nights a month, and the word has been spreading. He’s toured both coasts. He’s been featured on the Nashville Network, ABC’s PrimeTime Live, and assorted nationally broadcast music shows. In December 1994 he was profiled on National Public Radio’s popular news programs Fresh Air and All Things Considered—and within two weeks, sales of his Rolling Stone From Texas CD jumped 50 percent (from 20,000 to 30,000, on an independent label, Watermelon, where sales of 10,000 are considered good). “It’s just amazing that all this is happening,” says his wife, Pat, whom he married when he was seventeen.
But it is happening, and Walser’s new CD on Watermelon, Texas Top Hand, which is in the Rolling Stone mode, suggests he has yet to peak—his modest demurrals notwithstanding. “I’d like to get some money, don’t get me wrong,” he declares. “But my motivation for this is to spread that old music. I’m just trying to do my part to keep it alive.”
Don Walser was born in Brownfield, and his family (including three sisters) moved to Lamesa when he was nearly a year old. His mother died just before his twelfth birthday, so he was raised mostly by his father, a night superintendent at a cotton oil mill. Required to entertain himself most of the daylight hours, he turned to the music and movies of West Texas. “I had the old radio to keep me company—I listened to all the good old music they had back then,” he recalls. “And there were three movie theaters. I’d see them old shoot-’em-ups, all the white-hat guys.”
Walser taught himself guitar in his early teens, which explains his “wrong” grip; nobody showed him the right way. He practiced singing by spending afternoons hidden in a tree in his front yard, adding a new dimension to the oft-used description of country music as a “high, lonesome sound.” Bashful, worried that the neighbors were annoyed but aware that