When most people think of western swing or cowboy singers, they remember Bob Wills and Gene Autry from the 1930s and 1940s. For these people, it may come as a surprise that a contemporary country artist like Don Walser plays the old styles with verve and pizzazz. “In a sense,” wrote Richard Skelly in All Music Guide, “he’s a man on a mission: keeping the old Texas country songs alive.” Since 1994 Walser has recorded and toured with the Pure Texas Band, playing songs by the Sons of the Pioneers, Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, and on occasion, a few of his own. While enjoying his recent success, Walser is puzzled by being labeled alternative country or Americana. “The thing that I don’t like,” Walser told Jon Weisberger in Country Standard Time, “is not so much that the soft rock has taken over the country scene, but that they just pushed the real country out. I’ve been singing country for 50 years, and all of a sudden I’m alternative country. That’s not right.”
Donald Ray Walser was born on September 14, 1934, in Brownfield, Texas, to Verda and Lemuel Walser. His mother died when he was 12 years old, and his father worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, as a night watchman at the Lamesa Cotton Oil Mill. Left alone, the young Walser occupied his time listening to the radio, tuning into border stations and the radio program broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry. He preferred the sad ballads to the more rollicking boogie-woogie, and he committed many of the old songs to memory. Too shy to sing in front of others, Walser climbed a neighborhood tree in Lamesa and sang to the wind. Or so he thought. “But I remember that years later,” Walser recalled to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, “I would meet some of the folks from home and they’d say: ‘Oh, you’re the little guy that used to get up in the tree and sing.’”
In his early teens, a friend bought Walser a Stella guitar and he slowly learned several chords. At 16 Walser joined a band and began playing country music at dance halls, weddings, and roadhouses around Lamesa. Finding steady work, however, became difficult. The birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the early 1950s, along with the rise of a local young man named Buddy Holly, lessened the demand for country music. While Walser enjoyed rock music, and even learned a few of the new songs, he preferred to keep playing the music that he loved. By the mid-1950s, however, Walser decided that he needed a steadier paycheck than playing music provided. “I was willing to starve myself, but I didn’t want to put my family through it,” Walser told Robert Wooldridge of Country Standard Time, “so I decided early on that I wasn’t going to do it for a living.” He joined the Texas National Guard in 1957, and for the next 39 years, music became a weekend hobby.
In 1994, at the age of 60, Walser revived an old dream. He retired from the National Guard, put together the Pure Texas Band, and went out on the road full time.
Born Donald Ray Walser on September 14, 1934, in Brownsfield, TX; son of Lemuel Loretta (a cotton oil mill night superintendent) and Verda (King) Walser (died 1945); married Patricia Robertson, 1951; children: two sons, two daughters.
Began playing guitar in early teens, performed in first band, age 16; played clubs and roadhouses around Lemesa, TX, early 1950s; joined the Texas National Guard, remained in the Guard for 39 years, 1957; continued to play music in a number of bands as a weekend hobby; retired from National Guard, received recording contract from Watermelon to record Rolling Stone from Texas, 1994; recorded sophomore effort, Texas Top Hand, 1996; performed at Grand Ole Opry, recorded Here’s to Country Music, 1999; released I Hold You in My Heart on Valley, 2000; has appeared on the American Broadcasting Company’s (ABC) Prime Time Live, The Nashville Network’s (TNN) Music City Tonight, and National Public Radio’s (NPR) All Things Considered.
Addresses: Record company —Texas Music Group, 805 West Ave, Suite 2, Austin, TX 78701, phone: (800) 962-5837, website: http://www.antonesrec.com.
The band performed western swing and honky-tonk from the 1940s and 1950s, and Walser quickly gained a reputation as an excellent singer and yodeler. “Many fans,” wrote Richard Skelly of All Music Guide, “are awestruck upon first hearing Walser’s unique voice.” Rejected in the past by Nashville record labels that found him “too country,” a small Texas label called Watermelon decided to offer the “Pavarotti of the Plains” a chance to record. Released in 1994, Rolling Stone from Texas includes classic songs by Stan Jones, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Marty Robbins. The album received critical accolades but failed to gain the attention of mainstream country. “If you want to make money, you play top 40,” Walser told Brian Wahlert of Country Standard Time. “[i]f you try to stay current, you do about 90 percent trash, and 10 percent is good.”
The only critical discord came from reviewers who complained that Walser should have used the Pure Texas Band more often in the studio. In 1995 Watermelon corrected this by issuing The Archive Series, two albums that featured twin fiddlers Howard Kalish and Jason Roberts, steel players Jimmy Day and Bert Rivera, and bassist Don Keeling. “These recordings show what has drawn Walser such a rabid cult following,” wrote Lee Nichols in No Depression, “ranging from Stetson-sporting rednecks to black-clad punks….” With the help of producer Ray Benson from Asleep at the Wheel, Walser recorded Texas Top Hand in 1996. Classics like “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Weary Blues from Waiting,” along with several originals, create a lively mix that helped push the album into the top five on Gavin’s Americana “Whose Heart Are You Breaking Now” even includes a big band, reproducing Bob Wills’s sound from the 1930s and 1940s. “All my life, I always wanted to record something like that,” Walser told Wahlert.
Walser and his family had moved to Austin in 1984 where he established himself as part of the lively local music scene. After retiring from the National Guard, he toured in the United States, Germany, and New Zealand, and he has made appearances on the American Broadcasting Company’s (ABC) Prime Time Live, the Nashville Network’s (TNN) Music City Tonight, and National Public Radio’s (NPR) All Things Considered. Walser’s recording career hit a slump, however, when Watermelon experienced financial problems. When he was released from his contract in 1998, Sire outbid Sony to release Down at the Sky-Vue Drive In.
Walser’s biggest remaining dream was finally realized in 1999 when he played the Grand Ole Opry. “[T]hat was even more exciting than I expected,” he told Weisberger. “I just grinned all the time I was there.” He continued to record traditional country songs on 1999’s Here’s to Country Music with the help of legendary Nashville musicians like Buddy Spicher, Charlie McCoy, and Buddy Emmons. Along with recordings like 2000’s I Hold You in My Heart, Walser made guest appearances on Asleep at the Wheel’s Ride with Bob and appeared in the film Hi-Lo Country. Through each performance and recording, his mission remains the same: to introduce young crowds to the older styles. “They’ll sing my songs right along with me,” Walser told Wooldridge. “It’s unbelievable. I think they’re looking for something honest and good, you know, like that old music is.”
Rolling Stone from Texas, Watermelon, 1994; reissued, Texas Music Group, 2001.
The Archive Series, Vol. 1, Watermelon, 1995.
The Archive Series, Vol. 2, Watermelon, 1995.
Texas Top Hand, Watermelon, 1996; reissued, Texas Music Group, 2001.
Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-in, Watermelon/Sire, 1998.
Here’s to Country Music, Sire, 1999.
I Hold You in My Heart, Valley, 2000.
Walters, Neal, and Brian Mansfield, editors, MusicHound Folk, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
No Depression, November-December 1999, p. 110.
“At His Age, Don Walser Still Isn’t the Retiring Type,” Country Standard Time, http://countrystandardtime.com/donwalser2FEATURE.html (December 11, 2001).
“Don Walser,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=Byfu36j3h71w0 (December 11, 2001).
“Don Walser and the Pure Texas Band,” No Depression, http://www.nodepression.net/archive/nd01/depts/nfa.html (December 11, 2001).
“Don Walser Continues to Hold On,” Country Standard Time, http://countrystandardtime.com/donwalser3FEATURE.html (December 11, 2001).
“Don Walser Yodels Along,” Country Standard Time, http://countrystandardtime.com/donwalserFEATURE.html (December 11, 2001).
Fresh Air, National Public Radio, September 1, 1998.
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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