Walser Across Texas
From the honky-tonks of the High Plains to the mosh pits of Austin, 61-year-old yodeler Don Walser is country’s unlikeliest king of cool.
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 they couldn’t identify him as long as he remained hidden, he often stayed there past dark. (Years later, a neighbor told him that folks used to sit out on their porches and listen. They knew exactly who it was.)
Fibbing about his age, Walser enlisted in the National Guard when he was fifteen. The next year, he put together his first band, the Panhandle Playboys, and two years later wrote his first song, “Rolling Stone From Texas.” In 1959 he left Lamesa to work for the Guard as a mechanic and then a unit administrator in places like Midland, Port Neches, Abilene, Snyder, and Sweetwater. Despite his duties—not to mention his busy home life; he and Pat have two sons and two daughters—he performed on the weekends. In 1977 he was reassigned to El Paso, where his band played weekends on behalf of city tourism (he also toured Canada and Germany once each for the state).
By then, however, country radio had grown slick and soulless, and Walser gave up on it, opting instead, as the saying goes, to dance with the girl that brung him. “I pretty well quit trying to learn anything off the radio,” he remembers. “Besides, most people hadn’t heard those old songs before, so they sounded new. They’re such beautiful gems. I tried to write my own songs in that same vein.” Walser’s sound was so retro that when he took his one stab at Nashville, he was told his music had been dead for twenty years—and this was back in the seventies.
Still, he stood fast; the small, weekend-warrior scale he was working on didn’t seem like the consolation prize to him that it usually does to others. “Back then, if you really wanted to make it, you had to starve for a couple years,” he says. “But I had young kids and I just couldn’t do my family that way. I don’t regret it, ’cause I got to play VFWs and weddings and private parties. I got to know the people and what their favorite songs were. I know the big stars don’t get to do that: They got a set list and they do the same songs over and over. That’s no fun.”
The story could have ended there, with an ol’ boy playing what he calls “Top Forty music from forty years ago” for friends and neighbors. But as his Guard career wound down, he began thinking more about music, and about Austin; though he had never even performed there, he’d heard it was “where all the great musicians are.” In 1984 he transferred to Austin to become an internal auditor for the Guard. He kept playing, mainly on weekends. He quickly became the favorite act of the crowd at Henry’s Bar and Grill, then the hippest country room in town. And his band occasionally expanded to take on legends like steel guitarists Bert Rivera, who had played with Hank Thompson, and Jimmy Day, who had played with Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, and Willie Nelson. (The lineup of today’s Pure Texas Band includes bassist “Skinny Don” Keeling, drummer Phillip Fajardo, steel guitarist Scott Walls, fiddler Howard Kalish, and, often, Floyd Domino on piano.) Walser seemed to have found what he wanted.
And then, in 1990, it got a little weird. Jeff Pincus, at the time the bass player for the Butthole Surfers, discovered Walser and began taking the rest of his band to Henry’s. The band’s influence got Walser a regular gig at Emo’s—a nightclub where, needless to say, he’d never been before. “Oh, Lord, what have I gotten myself into here?” Walser asked himself after walking in on his first night. But when he started yodeling, the crowd started two-stepping. “They got pierced bodies and orange hair, but they are lovable kids and they come give you a hug and they hug my wife,” he says. “They treat us like the king and queen, and they love that old music.”
Eventually, he shared a bill with the Butthole Surfers. “It seemed like a really cool thing to do,” recalls Surfers guitarist Paul Leary. “Don is so charming that anyone who sees him sing will be captivated. All he had to do to play to our crowd was put on his black hat instead of his white hat.” Walser’s set went well, and because he’d still never heard his benefactors’ music, he decided to stick around for their show. They tried to discourage him, but he popped in earplugs and stood just offstage. “I found out why they didn’t want me to stay,” he says with a giggle. “It wasn’t the music—it was what went on with the music. They had a couple screens up there. One of ’em had a naked lady, and the other one had an operation goin’ on where they were changin’ a man into a woman.”
After his residency at Emo’s, Walser could play just about any club he wanted; his local audience grew in all directions at once. And, suddenly, he found he was in demand outside Texas. His music and demeanor disarmed fans just as readily in the alternative and roots rooms of New York and Los Angeles as in the hipster hangouts of Austin or the traditional dance halls of the Hill Country. He even grew to be admired in Nashville.
Last year, on the heels of his NPR exposure, he toured the South and Midwest, as well as both coasts, with Austin folkies Butch Hancock and Tish Hinojosa and San Antonio conjunto artist Santiago Jimenez, Jr.; though Hancock and Hinojosa boasted much larger followings to begin with, Walser’s sets usually incited the most hooting and hollering from audience members and critics alike. That response helped sell even more copies of Rolling Stone From Texas and generated strong advance word on a two-CD Archive Series set released in mid-’95, featuring tracks culled from cassettes he had recorded to sell from the bandstand after he came to Austin.
Now comes the new record, which, like Rolling Stone, was produced by Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. Walser’s relationship with Benson is just about the only hint of controversy in his career. Some complained that their first collaboration resulted in too many outside musicians, mostly from the Wheel, supplementing the Pure Texas Band. The new one follows the same course. To those who argue that if the band ain’t broke the producer shouldn’t fix it, Walser responds that he’s gratified to be working with someone of Benson’s stature—and besides, modern technology and recording techniques make those old songs sound even better.
“There’s a great need and a great yearning for that music,” Walser says. “I suspected it all the time, but now I know ’cause I’ve been out there.” Or, as fiddler Howard Kalish puts it, “America needs Don Walser.”