Born September 14, 1934, in the small west Texas town of Brownfield, and raised in nearby Lamesa, Don Walser was just 11 years old when his mother passed away. As he told it, his widowed father had to work nights while he was left to raise himself, with only the family radio for solace. In the music of west Texas country radio, he found the first of his many gifts: a photographic memory for songs.
As a 15-year-old roughneck, Don lied about his age and joined the Texas National Guard in 1949. He quit the oil fields in 1957 and went full-time with the Guard for what ended up being a 45-year hitch as a recruiter, mechanic and auditor. At 16, he formed his first band with his friend, guitarist Billy Richter. Only a year later he married his wife, Patricia Jane.
In 1959 the 6-foot-tall, broad-shouldered “Little Donnie” Walser and Richter were invited to join a popular local honky-tonk outfit, the Texas Plainsmen. Playing a mix of popular dance music of the day, Don became expert in C&W, Texas swing, and cowboy yodel songs. Don polished his Swiss-style yodel, considered a vocal parlor trick by many, into a thing of great beauty and emotional depth. It was only one of his vocal gifts, however. “I’m a singer who yodels,” he would remind folks who mistook him for a cowboy act.
Walser had his first taste of success with the Plainsmen, scoring four stars on the Billboard C&W charts in 1964 with his own composition “Rolling Stone From Texas”. It was not to last however, as commitment to his new family took precedence.
Don continued to play part-time with pickup bands wherever his job would send him, eventually landing at Camp Mabry in Austin in 1984. There he found ready acceptance within the small community of hardcore country music fans and pickers who still valued the now “old” tunes that were Walser’s specialty. By the late ’80s, he and his Pure Texas Band (featuring legendary steel guitarist Jimmy Day for a time) had secured a weekly residency at a dark little beer joint called Henry’s Bar & Grill.
If not for a chance encounter with members of the Butthole Surfers in 1991, that might have been the end of his story. Surfer bassist Jeff Pinkus dragged anyone he could to Henry’s to hear what was the musical equivalent of a coelacanth; an actual, for-real C&W band with fiddle and steel, led by a convivial singer possessed of an amazing operatic tenor voice and an encyclopedic repertoire of songs, spanning the entirety of country music history. (Don would joke onstage, “We play top-40 music. That is, the top music from 40 years ago.”)
Soon, music hipsters of every stripe made the Monday night pilgrimage. Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones wandered in one night and then got a hotel room for a month so he could see three more shows.
These new fans related not only to the fine music of the band, but to the force of personality that radiated from Don. As longtime Pure Texas Band fiddler Howard Kalish noted, “they came drawn to him, as if they thirsted after his music.” Indeed, this straight-ahead approach to American country music was fast becoming a rarity, especially performed with the sort of moral authority that a lifelong practitioner like Walser had.
When Henry’s was demolished to make way for an auto parts store parking lot, the only natural choice was to move the weekly residency to Emo’s, a bastion of punk rock credibility in downtown Austin. Without the slightest hint of irony, Walser played the same set opening for the Jesus Lizard as he did the following night playing for the two-steppers at the Broken Spoke. Don took people — all people — at face value. In return they loved him, deeply.
With his profile rising in alternative circles, opportunities began to open up for Don elsewhere, even where country music was the currency. He signed to the local independent label Watermelon Records and released several fine CDs that were eventually distributed nationally by Sire Records. Dubbed the “Pavarotti of the Plains” by Playboy magazine, he opened sets for Johnny Cash and recorded with the Kronos Quartet, all the while exposing new audiences to “the good old songs.”
Eventually Don’s efforts in preserving country music, the music that had in fact preserved him for so long, began to be rewarded. He was finally acknowledged by the Nashville establishment and, in a deeply personal triumph, Don was a guest of the Grand Old Opry on multiple occasions. Opry regulars stopped in his dressing room to pay their compliments.
When the spotlight of fame finally shone on him, he, in turn, went out of his way to shine that light on other musicians. Many great singers got their start in Austin sitting in at a Walser gig, with the mighty Pure Texas Band backing them up. Over time, Don was invited to perform at festival stages all around the country, including the Kennedy Center and the White House. He received a National Heritage Award grant in 2000.
By that time, failing health had begun to undermine his ability to perform. Always a tall and strapping man in his youth, Don had grown overweight in later years, so obese, in fact, that he was unable to take the stage under his own power. Unable to lose weight, and suffering terribly from complications of diabetes and arthritis, Don was forced to retire permanently in 2003. Ultimately, he was relegated to a sickbed in his south Austin home, sadly removed from the audience he so deeply cared for.
Husband, father, devout Mormon, veteran, country singer, hillbilly bandleader, Don Walser finally passed away peacefully on September 20 at age 72. He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Patricia Jane, sons Mike and Al, and daughters Donna and Janey.