Big country

Down in Austin, there are people who insist that Don Walser is the greatest country singer in the world. Of course, if you happen to have spent time in that town three hours south of Dallas at any point since the 1960s, you probably know there are folks there who will make all kinds of absurd and even insane proclamations as though they are the gospel truth. After all, the city that can't stop calling itself "The Live Music Capital of the World" is indeed a fecund breeding ground for the most fantastic sort of hyperbole, especially when it comes to the local music scene.

But to call Don Walser the greatest country singer in the world is absolute foolishness. Which isn't to say that Walser doesn't deserve praise, admiration, honor, and attention; it isn't to dispute his indisputable greatness or his most impressive voice. But I doubt Walser himself, a fervent admirer of country music's many great singers, would agree with the statement, and not just because he's as modest and sweet a man as you might ever meet.

Just last week, the 64-year-old Walser was forced to cancel a scheduled appearance on the live broadcast of Prairie Home Companion from Austin; Walser was losing his voice from a touch of bronchitis. But if he was at all disappointed about surrendering a little bigger national stage on Garrison Keillor's syndicated radio show, it was because Walser wanted to take his music, not himself, to a larger audience. "It's not just me," he says a few days after the show was to be taped. "It's the old music I'm keeping alive."

Walser assesses his new album, Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In--his first with the involvement of the recently revived major label Sire Records--with a similar attitude. "It seems to be the best one I've done," he observes. "I really appreciate this new record and all the musicianship that went into making it a great album. You know, that's what makes good music--the pickers and the singers. The singers aren't as important to me as the music."

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And while Walser is a delightful singer and charming yodeler with a voice that rolls like lapping waves, he's still a workmanlike writer, and hardly a visionary like Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Jimmie Rodgers, or Lefty Frizzell. Instead, it's his faith in the music that makes him great, an undeniable love you can feel when he sings something he's written or a Louvin Brothers gem ("Are You Teasing Me?," a duet with Mandy Barnett) or an old Irving Berlin standard ("Marie"); the man's revivalist enough to recut Johnny Bush's "An Eye for an Eye" and revisionist enough to hire out for the Kronos Quartet on Oscar Hammerstein's "Rose Marie" (it's a magical pairing, and you only wish there were more).

But hailing Walser as country's best singer has neither the prosaic ring nor the spiritual truth of Steve Earle's boast about Townes Van Zandt--that Townes was the best damned songwriter in the world, and Earle would stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in his cowboy boots to proclaim it. Instead, it's merely the sort of blindness--or maybe better, slightly deaf ear--that comes from buying into the myth that Austin is some sort of musical paradise.

But on the other hand, the city has been just that for Walser. It's a place where a dream held close to his heart for nearly 50 years has come amazingly and wonderfully true--to become a full-time country singer, making albums and touring the country when so many folks are pricing houses at Sun City, the city's retirement enclave. It's an amazing tale that attests to the power of genuine old-style country-and-western music, and the conviction of its true believers.

Nobody believes more truly and strongly in country music than Walser, not even his most devoted (and hyperbolic) Austin fans. You can read it in the notes he's written about every song he's recorded on all five CDs he now has on the market, and hear it in the way he talks about the music he's playing, sitting onstage like some beatific West Texas Buddha. And certainly you can hear it in his voice--the sweet zeal and tender love he brings to every song.

Country music captured Walser's ear and imagination quite firmly as a youth growing up in the little West Texas town of Lamesa; growing up in Panhandle country, he even once shared the stage with Buddy Holly, or so the legend goes. But perhaps even more importantly, it sustained him through an adult life working for the National Guard in various Texas towns, playing country music in his spare time. Like every talented singer, he'd had his nibbles and brushes: a favorable review in Billboard in the mid-'60s on a self-produced single, "Rolling Stone From Texas," and even some stints overseas as a musical ambassador for Texas. There was even the obligatory trip to Nashville, where he was told that his music was great, but 20 years behind the time.  

Walser's response? "Well, when you see me 20 years from now, I'll still be doing it."

True to his word, when Walser moved to Austin in 1984, he formed his Pure Texas Band and started playing small local clubs, most significantly a shot-'n-beer bar called Henry's in North Austin (or what once was North Austin before the booms of the 1980s and '90s). Old Austin hands wax rhapsodically about Henry's, and in this case, it's a reputation well deserved. Gathering a multi-generational crowd of people who'd grown up seeing Hank Thompson and Ernest Tubb, hearing them on their parents' records, or wishing they did, Henry's nurtured the current Austin neo-traditional country scene, providing acts like Walser, Junior Brown, and the Cornell Hurd Band with an intimate space and a supportive audience of dancers and listeners.

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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