Big country

Don Walser sings deep from the heart of Texas

Walser recorded three locally released cassettes--later compiled on two CDs by Austin's Watermelon Records under the name The Archive Series--that focused attention on his music. In the typically Austin fashion, some local self-anointed pundits regard them as a Holy Grail; but for all their charm and spirit and even their handful of stunning moments, these recordings are loose and low-tech, hinting at greatness without quite delivering it.

His following albums on Watermelon (including 1994's Rolling Stone From Texas and '96's Texas Top Hand) and the new Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In, which was released on Watermelon but distributed through Sire, take the other tack; they're occasionally a bit too slick, produced by Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson at his high-tech digital Bismeaux Studio in Austin. When Benson didn't use Walser's band on the first disc, it caused a bit of a local flap with Walser loyalists, though it's often true that even the best club bands can't cut it when the tape is rolling.

The fact that Walser is building a catalog and a career in his 60s has made his story ideal media fodder. He's earned a slew of rave national reviews--Charles M. Young's Playboy rave dubbing Walser "the Pavarotti of the plains" is the most widely quoted one--and been profiled on ABC's PrimeTime Live, where he was forced to teach the reporter how to yodel on air, as though Walser's some trained seal. He's got a song on The Horse Whisperer soundtrack and will appear in the upcoming movie High Low Country.

For someone finally getting his due in his retirement years, it's all rather tasty gravy. Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In, after all, bears the stamp of special attention from Sire honcho Seymour Stein, who signed everyone from Madonna to Talking Heads.

"The thing about Seymour is that he can sing them old cowboy songs, them old country songs, and he don't just know one verse, he knows the whole song," Walser raves. "He don't sing real well, but he's a likable guy, and he can do the same thing with blues or jazz or rock and roll or anything else. And he knows the music business better than anyone I ever seen. And he's the only one that I thought knew as many songs as I do."

Walser's favorite moment on the new CD is his take on "Cherokee Maiden," the classic written by Cindy Walker, probably country's finest female songwriter. "It was a real privilege to do one of Cindy Walker's songs," he says. "And what a sweet lady she is. You know what she did? She called somebody at TNN. A young lady from there called me and said, 'I don't know you, but I know of you and I hear your music and I love it.' She said Cindy had called her, and said to her, 'I want you to go down to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and pick up Don Walser's latest CD, and then I want you to listen to it, and then I want you to call me back and let me know what you think.'

"So the gal went down and bought it and listened to it, and called Cindy and said, 'Well, I think it's really nice.' Then Cindy told her, 'Well, one of his great dreams in life is to be on the Grand Ole Opry. I want you to get busy and help get him on the Grand Ole Opry.' She did send me a copy of a letter she sent to 'em. But then she called back and said they didn't want me right now. But maybe later on or something." A hint of sadness pervades Walser's voice as he says this.

"I had two goals--one was to play Cain's Ballroom [in Tulsa]. Well, I've done that four or five times now. So to have the other one, and play the Grand Ole Opry, would be great."

I can think of nobody more deserving of that honor. And Walser, though obviously disappointed by the rejection, bounces back quickly to insist that he'll continue to play "anywhere that good music should be played." At 64, the road can be hard on him, especially after heart bypass surgery; now, because of health concerns, Walser must remain seated when he plays. "It's not real bad," the singer insists. "When I'm not singing, I'm usually resting in my hotel room. It's harder on my wife, Pat, because she does most of the driving."

Walser knows he's fortunate to have been given the second chance to make a living playing music; maybe it's his third chance now--he's lost track. But it's nice to know that a man at his age still approaches what he does with a child's enthusiasm and a grown-up's wisdom; he still dreams of going on the Opry or standing on the venerable stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, but he knows well enough that his regular weekly gigs in Austin are part of that very same fantasy.

"It can't get anything but better if I can keep my health," he says. "This is my home, and I love the people here. I wouldn't trade 'em for nothin'. It's just where I meet so many people, and they come back year after year from different places in the United States, and they come to Babe's and Jovita's, and they expect me to be there. I'm sure that if I didn't play those little places, I'd have more well-paying jobs in bigger places maybe or something. But money's not everything."

Don Walser performs June 20 at the Gypsy Tea Room.

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