'Pavarotti of the Plains' Don Walser dead at 72
Late-blooming musician sang and yodeled his way to country heights in early 1990s.By Michael Corcoran
Thursday, September 21, 2006
There's never been a more special relationship between a musician and his fans in Austin than when rotund National Guardsman Don Walser started over in the music business in 1990 at the now-defunct Henry's Bar on Burnet Road. His improbable rise and signing to Sire Records, the label of Madonna and the Ramones, at age 64 was the feelgood story of the Austin music scene. Dubbed "the Pavarotti of the Plains" for his clear, powerful tenor, Walser was embraced by gray-haired two-steppers and tattooed punk rockers alike, which was the basis of a February 1996 segment on "ABC Primetime Live."
Walser passed away about 1:45 p.m. Wednesday after a long illness. He was 72.
Slowed by mounting health problems, which forced his retirement from the music business in September 2003, Walser's time in the spotlight was relatively short. He loved to sing and lived to please his fans, but the singer's physical deterioration — he was diagnosed with neuropathy, a disease of the nervous system, in 2001 — caused him to forget lyrics and back down from notes he hit with ease just a few years earlier.
In an interview with the American-Statesman in late 2003, Walser could barely lift his hand and his speech was slow and difficult, but his eyes lit up when a favorite memory surfaced, including the standing ovation he received when he opened for Johnny Cash at the Erwin Center in 1996 and making his debut at the Grand Ol' Opry in 1999. The next year he was honored with the National Heritage Award in Washington, D.C.
"The thing I miss most is the connection with the people who came out to hear us play," Walser said after his retirement. "That's probably the thing that kept me going the last few years."
Once, arriving for a show on the East Coast, Walser was stunned to see a line around the block. When the promoter started showing Don and wife Pat, always at his side, to the dressing room, the singer said, "Nah, I want to meet these people" and went down the line shaking hands. One woman wept in disbelief upon meeting her hero, the savior of real Texas country music, but Walser put her at ease by wiping away a tear of his own.
There was not a trace of phoniness in Walser, said Howard Kalish, who played fiddle in Walser's Pure Texas Band. "When he said he was pleased to meet you, he truly was."
Walser's musical mission was to expose the country music of his youth to new audiences. Opening for such acts as the Butthole Surfers and Ministry, Walser introduced such old Western classics as "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "Cherokee Maiden" to a whole new audience, one that often jubilantly moshed to his songs. He also sang with the classical Kronos Quartet at Bass Concert Hall in April 1997 and recorded with the group. "I knew it was still going to be country music if I was singing," he said in 2003, his eyes twinkling.
Even after his retirement, Don Walser and Pure Texas Band bumper stickers remained symbols of musical authenticity in a sea of cut-out cowboys and pop chanteuses playing up their southern accents.
Country music became a big part of Walser's life at an early age, growing up in the West Texas town of Lamesa. His mother died when he was 12 and his father worked nights, so Walser lost himself in the songs of Hank Williams, Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell that he heard on the radio. At 16, he formed his first band and started writing songs such as "Rolling Stone From Texas" and recording for more a decade.
When rock 'n' roll took over the region in the '50s, thanks in large part to Lubbock's Buddy Holly, Walser refused to change his style. Instead, he put his career on the back burner in 1957 and joined the National Guard, where he remained for 39 years.
Walser moved to Austin in 1984, when he was stationed at Camp Mabry. He occasionally played the Broken Spoke in the late '80s, but didn't really start to earn his reputation as a powerhouse singer and yodeler until he started playing the shortlived Henry's, which also helped launch Junior Brown's career. "What I remember most of those early days was the completely blissful looks in the crowd when Don sang," Kalish said in 2003.
"The first time I heard Don sing," said Ray Benson, who produced Walser's first two albums, "Rolling Stone From Texas" and "Texas Tophand," on the Watermelon label, "I thought 'Where's this guy been?' If there was any justice, he would've had a hit in 1958 and built a big career."
Walser had that rare gift, Benson said, of being a great singer who was also a great yodeler. "Yodeling is a trick to most," Benson said, "but to Don, it was an art."
Walser's voice was was the sound that time forgot, powerful enough to transport listeners to the glory days of country music. The big man with the Andy Devine laugh was clearly digging his time on the stage and never took the audience, which returned his love tenfold, for granted.
"It didn't matter where we played," Walser said in 2003, pausing for air. "Whether I was just sitting on a bunk in the barracks playing for the fellas or at Lincoln Center — as long as people were enjoying the music, we had a ball."
Walser is survived by wife Pat and their four children.