In 1996, a 61-year-old white male singing country music--the gen-yew-wine article, that is, not this pop-pretty-guys-and-doll garbage NashVegas sticks a hat on and calls country--is a novelty, so much so that Prime-Time Live recently sent a Yankee down here to learn how to yodel from Don Walser. Guys like Walser exist in every Texas town, big or small, but Walser is the current heavyweight of the moment; last year it was Junior Brown (rhymes with "Ernest Tubb"), tomorrow it might be Wayne Hancock (smells like Hank Williams), but right now it's Big Bad Don--the grand middle-aged man with the voice of Jimmie Rogers and the heart of Marty Robbins, a veritable country jukebox famous mostly for his knowledge of the genre and ability to spit out a honky-tonk favorite as quick as any old Wurlitzer.
This is what country music has come down to: Either it's labeled "alternative country," which is the music rockers make once they find they can't pay the rent no more, or it's the sound of young men belching up the past. (Who says jazz and country have nothing in common?) Ask George Jones, who started showing up on time for gigs when the crowds started ambling in late; or Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson, two cosmic cowboys who keep reaching for the stars only to grab hold of the ceiling.
All that is now left is the men and women who play the small honky-tonks, musicians like Walser--there to breathe life into the barely beating body of country music, resuscitating a sound that hasn't much changed in a decade or five. When Walser sings "Dixie Blues" or anything by Ernie Ford or Eddie Arnold or Marty Robbins, he does so with undefinable class; there's no doubt he deserves his burgeoning reputation as the rare purist among whores. There is no reason to denigrate or question his passion and conviction, but Walser often doesn't inspire.
Oh, he reminds you of what was great about country music back before it was co-oped by pop and models, and he conjures the echoes of the past, sitting in with the ghosts of Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb and Jimmie R. every time he straps on a guitar and sits on a stage and yodels until the beer mugs crack. Yet over the course of his newfound career as a minor celebrity awaiting the larger honky-tonk, Walser has never had the material to transcend his status as the grand old man who never hit the Grand Ole Opry, never had the song to match his conviction and his range, never been given a pitch to hit 483 feet.
It's early yet, and there's hope. For Walser, whose new Texas Top Hand hits stores this week, this is just spring training, and it's a long season.
Don Walser performs March 23 at the Sons of Hermann Hall. The Old 97's open.
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