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Nashville Scene Grand Ole Opportunity

Texas yodeler finally sees a long-held dream turn reality

By Michael McCall

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  Don Walser cried the day the Grand Ole Opry asked him if he'd like to perform on its weekend broadcast. It's the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, he says, albeit one he put on hold for four decades. As a young man, Walser sacrificed his musical ambitions so that he could promise his wife and children a comfortable living. Now retired from the Texas National Guard, where he worked for 39 years, Walser has been stunning listeners with his acrobatic tenor and his joyful spirit since he started performing music full-time in 1994.

So it's easy to understand why the 65-year-old, 350-pound Texan bawled openly at the Opry's invitation a couple of months ago. "When I was young, I had two goals in life," says Walser, whose landmark Opry appearance is scheduled for Saturday night. "I wanted to play Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa, because it's a place that's so tied in with one of my biggest heroes, Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys. Well, me and the Pure Texas Band have played there several times now. But I'd never been on the Opry, and that was my other goal. That was where all the rest of my heroes played. Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb--all of 'em."

Walser then lets out a long, loud, easy-rolling laugh, a sound that regularly animates his conversation. "Now of course I'm worried about how I'm going to do when I walk out on that stage," Walser says with a twinkle in his voice. "I'm afraid I might cry."

Walser is fulfilling lots of goals these days. Even with some nagging health problems, he suggests he's "living high on the hog," as he puts it. His latest album, the wonderful Here's to Country Music, is his first since signing with the Warner Bros.-affiliated Sire Records, making it his major-label debut. It's also his first album to be recorded in Nashville.

Even though he's now linked with a big-time record company, Walser realizes his music--which sticks to honky-tonk, Western swing, and melodic Texas balladry--isn't likely to gain airtime on major country radio stations. But he isn't about to try and appeal to fans of Shania Twain and Tim McGraw; "I'm singing the best songs I know," he says firmly.

However, he does lament the lack of attention given to traditional sounds on country radio and on Music Row. Speaking in a high-pitched, slow-moving drawl reminiscent of such old-time character actors as Slim Pickens and Chill Wills, he says, "I don't think us traditionalists need all of the spotlight. Just a little bit of airtime, though, would be nice."

He then repeats an analogy that he often uses about modern country music: "If all you have in the barrel are apples and no oranges, then the people are going to like the apples. But if you give 'em a taste of the oranges, I think you'd find they like them too. All we're asking is that they mix a little traditional stuff in with the rest of it. Just give 'em a little taste of it. My feeling is that once they hear it, they're going to like it. But right now they're not getting that chance."

But unlike many Austin-based country musicians, Walser doesn't condemn Nashville. He realizes there are many musicians in town who love traditional music as much as he does. Besides, he believes his new album is the finest he's ever recorded, and that its success owes quite a bit to the high-level collaborators he worked with here.

"If I'd had a million dollars to spend, I'd have spent it in Nashville with those same pickers," Walser says of his contributing musicians, who included fiddler Buddy Spicher, steel guitarist Buddy Emmons, lead guitarist Andre Reiss, harmonica player Charlie McCoy, and the rhythm section of drummer Peter Young and bassist Stuart Colman.

Colman also produced the sessions, which were recorded in less than two weeks at Imagine Studios, a small 18th Avenue studio that has since closed. An Englishman who has worked with Jeff Beck, Shakin' Stevens, and Phil Everly, Colman turned out what Walser describes as "by far the best produced record I've done." Walser goes on to say that he doesn't mean it's his slickest album; instead, he says, "It's got a real lively, real honest sound, as if the musicians are playing right there in the living room with you."

As the singer explains, "The only thing I ever told him was that I want it filled with music, not with riffs and chords. And I told everybody on the session to play with your heart. I never said another word about anything. I just followed Stuart's lead, and everything came out great."

As the title suggests, the album is a toast to the kind of down-home country music Walser loves, and he packed the collection with gems previously recorded by Bob Wills, Hank Thompson, Floyd Tillman, Jimmie Rodgers, Marty Robbins, the Wilburn Brothers, and Red Foley. As usual, Walser's sweet, swinging voice soars with remarkable agility. Unlike many barroom country singers, he comes across as a robustly happy soul, and he beams a pink-jowled smile even when singing a lonesome tune. His songs may acknowledge the pain that comes with living, but his spirited delivery accentuates emotional release rather than grieving.

But, as his references to tears suggest, he's an emotional and sentimental fellow, and this weekend he's about to experience one of the high points of his life. "There've been people trying to help get me on the Opry for a few years now, because they knew what it meant to me," he says.

In particular, Walser cites the efforts of Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter Cindy Walker, whom he covers on his new album with a sparkling version of "Sugar Moon," a 1947 hit that Walker wrote for Bob Wills. Apparently, she called the Grand Ole Opry office a few years ago to suggest that they put Walser on the show. When the executive who answered wasn't familiar with Walser, Walker responded that she had a charge account at the Ernest Tubb Record Store. She told the executive to go buy Walser's albums and to charge them to her.

"When I heard that, it was really thrilling to me," Walser says. "She wasn't able to do it at the time. But I guess my time has finally come around."

The rotund Texan says he plans to perform his signature song, "Rolling Stone From Texas," which includes an out-of-this-world yodeling part in which Walser shows off his acrobatic tenor. When the song was first released in 1964, it gained Walser the kind of attention (including a four-star review in Billboard magazine) that could have paved the way to stardom for him. But he chose differently then, knowing that the life of a traveling musician would have been hard on his family. Now, however, he finally gets to bask in the Opry light.

"I can't believe it, really," he says. "They don't usually give old guys like me a chance like that."

Truth is, there isn't anyone like Don Walser, and that's why he'll be stunning an Opry audience with his yodel and his big-hearted voice on Saturday night. Here's hoping he gets the reception he deserves.

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