He'd been playing his whole life. He "couldn't live without it," he told Derek Richardson in an interview back in 1999, seven years before his death at the age of seventy-two. He had realized his biggest dream and sung for the first time at the Grand Ole Opry just two weeks prior. By then he was known as the "Pavarotti of the Plains." An accomplished guitarist, singer and songwriter. A yodeling cowboy. Slim Whitman's chummy and chubby doppelganger.
He sure had come a long way from that shy kid who'd climb trees and sing only to the wind.
Strumming what's known as roots music since he was eleven, at the age of sixteen he shared local club bills with fourteen year old Buddy Holly, who lived sixty miles north of the older musician, up Highway 87—a straight shot from Lamesa to Lubbock—at the southern edge of the Texas Panhandle.
Nine years later, Buddy would be killed in a plane wreck.
Had he imagined what if? If he had played Holly's final concert in Clear Lake, Iowa? If he hadn't refused to change his style? If he had chosen to leave Texas, lured by rock'n'roll and dreams of celebrity and riches? If he'd been chartering planes? If he'd been on the Beachcraft that hit the frozen, snow-covered cornfield outside of Clear Lake in the early morning of February 3, 1959?
His name was Don Walser. And to wonder would have been a luxury. Walser had stayed in the Panhandle, sidelined his music aspirations to raise a family in the dusty plains, high winds and boundless horizons of the northwestern Texan sky. He'd grease gears as a mechanic and work as an auditor for the National Guard. At night, he'd scrub his hands with powdered Boraxo, pick out the grime from under his nails, and leave his small ranch house to play local clubs with The Texas Plainsmen. Or he and his band might gather at a radio station and bang out a few numbers for its listeners.
But all of Texas had known him anyway. If he'd not put family before fame, he might easily have been just as much a household name as Holly. All of Texas had sung his songs, had waltzed and two-stepped and howled (and in later years, even moshed) with Don Walser for nearly half a century. All of Texas had heard the radio dispatches from Lubbock's KDAV deejay, High Pockets, rooting out a teenage Walser—who had no phone—so that he might appear in a local gig.
Walser would later play festivals with Tommy Allsup, one of Holly's back-up band members who took the bus that fateful February evening after losing the coin toss (for a plane seat) to Richie Valens.
When Walser was first discovered in 1990 by a talent scout who found him playing in Austin with his new band, Pure Texas Gang, he was singing Rolling Stone From Texas, a song he'd written at least thirty years earlier.
(Music kicks in at 1:08 -- WAIT for the yodel at 1:55!)
In 1994, at almost sixty years of age, and after he had retired from forty-five years of serving and working for the the Guard, Walser signed his first record deal.
In 1996, he opened for Johnny Cash at the Erwin Center in Austin, TX.
Don Walser—family man, gifted musician, happy cowpoke, cultural treasure of the Lone Star State—died in 2006. He'll forever be remembered for his music, his perfect tenor voice, his down-home sensibility, and his masterful yodeling.
Like Holly, Walser's music appealed not only to country fans, but also to rock'n'rollers around the globe. The old Texas country music with which he'd spent a lifetime preserving was embraced even by punk rockers. I wonder if the little guy who sang in trees would have ever imagined that.
Yodelhayhee, yodelhayhee, yodelhoo.
What a beautiful life. He sounds like a man who followed his heart, in more ways than one.ReplyDelete
I don't like country music, but with most other music I don't like, when I hear the personal story behind it or about the person, I can love it. Because of this beautiful story, I can I love his music. Love the yodeling - almost a entire minute! Reminds me of my grandmother who loved to sing and yodel, and she was really good!!! I want to pull out my spoons and slap my knee!ReplyDelete
Joanne- He sure did follow his heart. He didn't have many years in the limelight but he made the best of them!ReplyDelete
Lin Ann- You just said exactly how I feel about country music. I have only a few select albums of that genre, and Walser is one of them. I first heard him sing with Nancy Griffith on one of her records, and fell in love with his unique style. His story is about unending devotion to his family, and his craft. You have to love a guy who never compromised his beliefs, lived a simple life under the radar, and was finally able to fulfill his dreams. Must have been fun listening to your grandma yodel. :)
excellent, kinda like a heavy slim whitman.ReplyDelete
Jeez....this is kinda freaky. I was listening to some Don Walser the other night when I was cleaning up some of my music collection. I sorta forgot I had this stuff and therefore reacquainted myself with him...what a joy it was.ReplyDelete
Btw I found a whole bunch of old Slim Whitman, Mac Wiseman, Louvin Brothers, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Flatt & Scruggs and Tex Morton as well...twas a great night of music, much to my surly neighbours chagrin.
Nice post and a great, informative bio.
Keep these 'Friday Night Frolics' a comin' J-Girl, I love 'em.
BP- Yes! And I love Whitman's Cattle Call. :)ReplyDelete
Dan- Flatt & Scruggs - that's some good pickin'! Sounds like a great night of classic country/bluegrass listening. You want to hold on to that collection. Isn't it funny - half way round the world, yet we've rather parallel musical sensibilities - just illustrates the universal and transcendent appeal of music. ;)
What an inspiration. Always, always, follow your dreams.ReplyDelete
Tana- Exactly! I always fret over being a late bloomer (in just about everything!), but Don gives me hope, he inspires. :)ReplyDelete
I had the good fortune of hearing him in Austin in 2002 at a little hole in the wall club--complete with peanut shells on the floor. Oh, you do capture the spirit of West Texas and the Panhandle here and make me kinda homesick for the Lone Star!ReplyDelete
Lord Wellbourne- How fortunate - you saw him not long before health issues forced him to retire from public performances. I've been to Texas only once, but the experience left an impression - the hearts of Texan people are as big and colorful as Texas' vast and varied landscape. I'll be returning - next time, to Austin!ReplyDelete
Never too late to do what we want. Good life lesson. Thanks for sharing this with us.ReplyDelete
I so enjoyed your blog! I am glad you commented on my blog, it led me to yours. It was such an interesting piece.ReplyDelete
As far as getting away from my brother, I am trying, but as I said I rent to him so I have to go thru a process. And unfortunatley, after everything I have done for him over the last 15 years it would appear he cannot be trusted.
I mean, he has come to me for help so many times, I have never turned him away, and ONCE several years ago, during his sober period, I made a dumb decision, got myself in a situation, and out of shear desperation I went to him. Sadly, he hs said several times, that if I do anything "against" him, he will go to my husband with what he knows.
Now that is brotherly love for ya. I didn't cheat or anything like that, but I did get into something I know would really cause problems for my family. So I am kind of stuck