Don Walser's real country.
By Bill Kisliuk
MAY 11, 1998: Nashville may be Music City, the paved promised land where the country-music machinery makes and unmakes stars every day. But out in Texas there's still plenty of wide open country. Real country. Country country. And it's in Lone Star locales like Abilene and Colorado City that Don Walser has been perfecting the craft of country singing for close to 50 years. Yeah, they got singers in Nashville. Folks with voices that Walser might reckon are true musical trayzures. But they don't have anyone who can sing a song with more heart, more nuance, and more pure prairie power than old Don Walser. And as sure as the pears are prickly along the Rio Grande, nobody on this earth can yodel quite like Don Walser.
On "In My Dear Old Southern Home," a cut from Walser's new Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In (Watermelon/Sire), he chirrups through a yodel for bar after bar, defying vocal gravity at the age of 63. He also defies the usual rules of the youth-driven cutthroat music industry by making what amounts to his major-label debut 20-plus years after Nashville turned him away, 35 years after he put out his first 45 rpm single, and nearly 45 years after the native of tiny Lamesa chose to let his music play second fiddle to life in the National Guard.
The Guard is what kept Walser's family fed for all those years he was doing weekends and an occasional weeknight at clubs like the Stardust in Odessa and Veterans of Foreign Wars halls in Sweetwater and Big Springs. As he tells it, "Well, the way I got into the Guard, me and another fella, when we was 15 years old, wanted to join something in uniform to help us get some girls. We saw some fellas from the Civil Air Patrol in Lubbock who looked good, but we didn't have no Civil Air Patrol in Lamesa. So we went down to the National Guard office. We said we was 16, but the man told us, 'You boys gotta be 17 years old to get into the National Guard. The next time I see you boys, you better be 17.' We went and walked around, came back, and he asked, 'How old are you boys?' We said, 'Seventeen!' "
Back when Don Walser was 17, Western music was going strong. Elders like yodelers/movie actors Roy Rogers and Elton Britt were singing on the silver screen's wide open plains; Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were adding lots of fiddles, jazzy horns, and the alternately plaintive and punchy pedal steel guitar to hillbilly and cowboy melodies; and Hank Thompson's strong, clear voice and goofy novelty tunes were leading the hitmaking Brazos Valley Boys.
Walser's output, which is available on three CDs -- 1994's Rolling Stone from Texas, 1996's Texas Top Hand (both Watermelon), and Sky-Vue -- is chock full of chestnuts like Stonewall Jackson's "That's Why I'm Walking," Faron Young's "Wind Me Up," and Cindy Walker's "Cherokee Maiden." His own songwriting ranges from the sublime "Ramon," about a great singer toiling in obscurity south of the border, to the honky-tonkin' "Hot Rod Mercury," all with a dose of classic country imagery made new. His Pure Texas band includes legendary folks like pedal-steel player Jimmy Day, fiddler Johnny Gimble, and pianist Floyd Domino. The CDs are produced clean and simple by Western-swing revivalist Ray Benson, founder of Asleep at the Wheel and another brother who made his way without much radio airplay.
The formula for Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In is simple: pure country-music-making with a great singer on top. Walser's range and ability to add a distinctive touch to songs is evident in the way he sways gingerly through the ballad "Rose Marie" with ethereal backing from the classical Kronos Quartet.
Back in the 1970s, when Walser gave Nashville a try, the reaction to his music went along the lines of, as he puts it, "We haven't done anything like that for 20 years." Walser says he told 'em, "Well, when you see me 20 years from now, I'll still be doing it." Asked about Nashville today, he waxes diplomatic: "A lot of those singers are pretty good, and some of those songs are pretty good. But ah just don't like it. They took the soul out of country music when they took out the Bob Wills fiddles and the Ray Price harmonies . . . I can't believe they [today's artists] like to do it. I think they just make music to make a living."
Walser's finally finding out about making a living at making music, now that
he's retired from the Guard, recording for Sire, and preparing to tour from
California to Maine this spring. He's been impressed by Sire president Seymour
Stein, who can sing along with all the good old good ones whenever they get
together. "Seymour tells me I could sing a phone book," chuckles Walser. "I
say, 'Yeah, Seymour, but it won't sell.' "
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