Don Walser holds his memories dear
The voice that thrilled honky-tonks, punk clubs and concert halls is quiet now, but his fans' love still sustains the ailing singer
Don Walser with Howard Kalish on guitar and Jason Roberts on fiddle
By Michael Corcoran - Reprinted with permission
Tuesday, November 4, 2003
Don Walser is all eyes as he lies on a recliner, covered from neck to feet by a Dallas Cowboys blanket, in a room of his modest South Austin house full of framed photos and little gifts given to him over the years by fans. The great country singer, dubbed "the Pavarotti of the Plains" by a Playboy reviewer, can barely raise his arms a few inches to shake hands, and his speech is slow. But his eyes light up when his mind is injected with a favorite memory: the standing ovation he received when opening for Johnny Cash at the Erwin Center in 1996, the bouquet of flowers legendary songwriter Cindy Walker sent to his dressing room when he made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry, the punks of Emo's jubilantly thrashing to his old-time cowboy music.
"It didn't matter where we played," Walser says, pausing for air. "Whether I was just sitting on a bunk in the barracks playing for the fellas or at Lincoln Center -- as long as people were enjoying the music, we had a ball."
In late September, the 69-year-old Walser announced his retirement from performing, just as his music was being exposed to a new generation of prospective fans with three songs included in the film "Secondhand Lions." But as his health -- and his live performances -- have deteriorated in recent years, it was a decision that, although difficult, was inevitable.
"I just couldn't do the things I useta do anymore," Walser says. Around 1995, the 300-pounder started sitting during performances because of chronic pain in his knees. Then came the arthritis that made him unable to play the guitar. Walser was diagnosed with neuropathy, a disease of the nervous system, two years ago. Over time, his athletic tenor didn't ring with the same clarity; difficult songs he once sang with ease, such as "Danny Boy" and the yodelfest "Rolling Stone From Texas" had to be dropped from the set list. He had to regularly cancel appearances, including the 10th anniversary of his weekly shows at Jovita's in January, because of his health.
In February, Walser spent three weeks in the hospital due to complications from diabetes. When he got out, he continued to book shows sporadically, even after his agent, Nancy Fly, took him off her client list because of concerns for his fitness.
"Don's old joke was that he wanted to die onstage at 102 years old," says his longtime fiddle player, Howard Kalish [pictured above on guitar.] "It was obvious that he wasn't going to make it to 102, but the other thing could've very well happened." The crowds began dwindling and Walser lost his residency gigs, first Threadgill's, then Jovita's and finally the Broken Spoke.
"Don just loves to sing, but it broke my heart to watch him perform when he was ailin' so badly," says Spoke owner James White, whose club had hosted Walser and his Pure Texas Band for 14 years. After agonizing for weeks and fielding concerns from disappointed fans, some who had come from as far away as Europe and Japan to see Walser, White decided that what would be best for everyone was to scratch his good friend from the schedule. "They didn't take it too well," White says of his phone call to the Walsers. "But I just couldn't bear to book him anymore. I wanted to remember him as one of the greatest country singers who ever graced our stage."
No Austin musician is more beloved, across all lines of age and class, than Don Walser, who raised a family of four kids and spent 39 years in the National Guard before embarking on a full-time music career in his late 50s. "There's not a trace of phoniness in Don," says Kalish. "When he said he was pleased to meet you, he truly was."
Once, arriving for a show on the East Coast, Walser was stunned to see a line around the block. When the promoter started showing Don to his dressing room, the singer said, "Nah, I want to meet these people" and went down the line shaking hands. One woman wept in disbelief upon meeting her hero, ambassador of real country music, but Walser put her at ease by wiping away a tear of his own.
"The thing I miss most is the connection with the people who came out to hear us play," Walser says. "That's probably the thing that kept me going the last few years."
These days, Walser relies on e-mail well-wishers to keep his spirits up. Putting his thumb and forefinger about two inches apart, he says that's how big is the stack of e-mails he's received since he announced his retirement on his Web site. "Michael!" he calls out to his oldest son, who moved his family of five back to his parents' home so he could help care for them. "Michael!" he repeats, his voice the pleasant pierce of old. "Can you bring us those e-mails?"
"I am commanding a transportation battalion in Kuwait and my one get away is music," a homesick Army lieutenant wrote, under the subject heading "Thanks for the music." Such songs as "The John Deere Tractor Song," which Walser wrote after constant prodding from a farmer friend, transport the listener to a place of comfort and familiarity.
His music also rings of the pioneer spirit. A man from Oregon wrote, "It wouldn't be my life without you," underlining "my."
A fan from Dayton, Texas, wrote that he regretted that he had heard of Walser only a couple of years ago.
But then, nobody, except for a handful of western swing connoisseurs, had ever heard of this magnificent vocalist until 1990. That's when he started playing Henry's Bar & Grill on Burnet Road, a hangout for hipsters and barstool regulars until it was torn down to make way for an Auto Zone store in 1993. He didn't get rich -- even in his late '90s heyday Walser and the band made anywhere from $300- $2,500 a gig before expenses -- but Walser had finally fulfilled his childhood fantasy of making records, getting press and cultivating a loyal following all over the world. "Dare To Dream" was the perfect title for his 2001 "Best Of . . ." collection.
"What I remember most of those early days was the completely blissful looks in the crowd when Don sang," says Kalish. "In the beginning, the crowds would practically double every week." The way you first saw Walser perform was to be dragged, superlatives flying, by someone who'd heard him the previous week. Soon, the entire local music scene, from kids in mohawks to senior citizens in beehives, was charmed by the rotund yodeler with the Andy Devine laugh and the powerful singing voice that sounded as swept up in the plains as a tornado.
Walser's sound stood for one thing -- the preservation of traditional country music. But when the classical Kronos Quartet asked him to sing with them at Bass Concert Hall in April 1997, Don loved the idea. "I knew it was still going to be country music if I was singing," he says with a laugh, his eyes twinkling.
Walser, whose energy level seems to increase during the course of a 30-minute interview, is having a good day. Especially compared to the day before, when he fell getting into his motorized wheelchair and Pat, his wife of 52 years, had to call the fire department to get him up.
"I may not be able to get around, but I've got my memories," he says.
If you've got any thoughts or recollections you'd like to share, you can e-mail him at email@example.com.
A late bloomer's highlights
September 1990 -- Still in the National Guard at Camp Mabry, a 56-year-old Don Walser debuts at Henry's Bar & Grill on Burnet Road and soon becomes a local sensation.
Early '90s -- The hardcore country singer is embraced by hardcore punk rockers and opens shows for Butthole Surfers, Ministry and others.
1994 -- Walser's first CD, 'Rolling Stone From Texas,' is released on the Watermelon label. With sales of over 40,000 units, it remains the most popular of his seven albums.
February 1996 -- 'ABC Primetime Live' airs a segment on the yodeling cowboy's unlikely cult-hero status.
1997 -- Walser performs 'I'll Hold You In My Heart' in the film 'The Hi-Lo Country.'
1998 -- Walser becomes a major-label artist when Sire Records releases `Down At the Sky-Vue Drive-In.'
October 1999 -- At age 65, Walser makes his debut at the Grand Ol' Opry.