For 9-year-old Dave Walser, the inspiration that would propel him through the next 55 years seemed to strike out of nowhere. As a boy living in West Texas, Walser was still learning to play the guitar but had mainly been learning the traditional folk and bluegrass songs his parents and grandparents loved. Rock 'n' roll, still in its infancy, wasn’t on his musical radar.
Until Sunday, February 9, 1964, that is. Along with a reported 73 million other Ed Sullivan Show viewers who watched the Beatles' performance that night, young Dave came down with an incurable case of Beatlemania.
“I didn’t know who the Beatles were at that point, I had never heard of them,” Walser, the leader of Dallas-based Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Bluegrass Band, says over the phone. “Out of nowhere, my mom said, ‘Dave, come in here and hear the Beatles play,’ which was the weirdest thing for me to hear my mom say, because, again, I didn’t even know there was a band named the Beatles.”
A few moments later, it was as if a long-dormant light had suddenly been switched on for him, illuminating a fascinating new terrain to be explored.
“From the very first chord, it was like a magical moment,” he says of the Fab Four. “A whole new universe had opened up. Everything about seeing them on that show was great, the melodies, the harmonies, everything. Even at 9 years old, I knew I was seeing something big.”
Walser’s current band, active since 2012, isn’t his first run at twisting the Beatles catalog into twangy flavors. From 2003 until 2011, Walser fronted Beatlesgras, another Fab Four-centric outfit. In the nearly 40 years between the Ed Sullivan-powered epiphany and starting his first Beatles and bluegrass combo, Walser made a few attempts at combining his two musical loves, even if others weren’t quite ready for it.
“I was in a bluegrass band in the late ‘70s,” he says with a bit of a laugh. “One day, I threw it out there, ‘Hey, why don’t we do a Beatles song?’ The other guys looked at me like I had lost my freaking mind. I thought it was a good idea, but I let it go because they thought we’d get laughed at.”
Tribute bands featuring lookalike players mimicking the moves and styles of their musical heroes have become as popular as ever, especially in Dallas. Walser bristles at the mere idea of being labeled as a tribute band. He’s not opposed to folks having fun, but his goal is to take something that exists already and give it a new life in a way only he and his band can.
“I would be embarrassed to be in a Beatles tribute band and to dress up like Paul McCartney or George Harrison,” he says. “It would be the most humiliating thing. It would be the same as being an Elvis impersonator. There are some great cover bands that let people live through a bit of nostalgia, but my thing is that I want to be as true to myself as I am to Beatles music.”
Perhaps the primary reason Walser views what he does with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Bluegrass Band as different from tribute acts pertains to the musical rather than aesthetic components. The songs from the group’s 2016 self-titled record were worked on collectively, with the group hammering out new, original arrangements together. Some Beatles cuts seem tailor-made for bluegrass or folk-style music, such as the breezy “Here Comes the Sun” and the acoustic classic “Blackbird.”
But even the psychedelic, game-changing songs from the Beatles canon can lend themselves to bluegrass arrangements, as Walser and his band found. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” from the 1966 Revolver LP, represented a drastic stylistic departure for Lennon, McCartney and company, and on the surface, it doesn’t seem as though the LSD-influenced track with tape loops and various sorts of electronic manipulation could find a home in a bluegrass band’s arsenal. But according to Walser, it wasn’t as challenging as it might sound.
“For that song, we started with a groove our bass player came up with,” he says. “And then our banjo player jumped in, and we turned it into a bluegrass breakdown but keeping its rock thing going on. We don’t change the vocals. The way the Beatles harmonize on so many songs is similar to the way a bluegrass group would. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, and if something’s only ‘just OK,' then we don’t do that either.”
Indeed, there were many years in between Walser first thinking about merging bluegrass and the Beatles and when he finally “couldn’t hold it in any longer,” he says, in 2003, when he formed Beatlesgras. Part of the reason he waited so long was due to the primarily conservative, traditional leanings of bluegrass audiences. But as long as it took for him to finally give into his own desires, Walser’s found that audience acceptance of less-than-traditional sounds and songs has increased a great deal in just the past few years.
“There were some closed minds to what we were doing in 2003,” he says. “When we would play a bluegrass festival back then, the crowd would be about half and half in terms of the people who liked what we did and the more traditional ones who just wanted to hear ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown' again. But we just closed out a festival in Wylie recently, and you could tell the attitudes and acceptance of what we do is greater now than ever before.”
Later in the year, the band has gigs scheduled in Pennsylvania, New York and back in Texas. But before then, Walser is also promoting his latest record, This Road. It’s not a Beatles-inspired effort, but his first-ever release under his own name. But in order to stay true to himself as well as the music he knows his fans are eager to hear, his solo-project sets will feature plenty of folk-flavored Beatles numbers. Dave Walser and friends perform this Saturday night at the Courtyard Theater in Plano.
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Whether it’s balancing between the Beatles and bluegrass, or between his bands old and new, Walker revels in the liberty his approach and musical loves affords him. That flexibility is exemplified in the vast, rich Beatles catalog he and his bandmates dive into during rehearsals.
“What I love about what we do,” he says, “is if we get tired of trying something or playing one particular song, we can pick another one, because they’re all great, and just see what happens.”
Watch Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Bluegrass Band's version of "Here Comes the Sun" below: