It was a warm, windless night the last time I had the privilege to hear Mr. Don Walser sing. It was August of 1999 and I was attending my last AFIS Internet conference for NEC in Austin, TX. Little did I know this “Rolling Stone from Texas” would retire just a few months later. With friends Mike, Carol and Laurie in tow, we went to see him at Jovita’s, a little Mexican place where Dave, Jeff and I saw the Ex-Husbands a few times. Jovita’s has great food, including a killer red bean and rice dish, but that’s a story for another time…
Of course, as with most of the great music I’ve heard over the past 10-plus years, Dave and Jeff were responsible for my auspicious awareness of the “Pavarotti of the Plains,” a term of endearment bestowed by Playboy Magazine. As I recall, Jeff, Dave and I were also fortunate enough to see him one afternoon during SXSW at the legendary Broken Spoke and another time at the Continental Club in Austin.
At the end of the Jovita’s set, I nervously approached him to say hello and ask for an autograph. I gave him an Ex-Husbands promo CD and he also signed one that I sent to Dave. We chatted for a couple minutes, I thanked him and then he thanked me. He was so humble and peaceful. If you’re so inclined, here’s a wonderful article on his career written by Michael Corcoran of the Austin American-Statesman.
Here’s the short version as reported by CMT.com in November of 2003, “Traditional Texas country singer Don Walser has been forced to retire due to failing health. The 69-year-old honky tonk favorite was one of country music’s favorite success stories when he began his career in 1994 in his late 50s, after spending 39 years in the National Guard and raising four children. He went on to play the Grand Ole Opry, Lincoln Center and to get a standing ovation when he opened for Johnny Cash at Austin’s Erwin Center. His health has been steadily deteriorating, primarily due to neuropathy, a disease of the nervous system, as well as diabetes. He is now resting at home and can receive mail at email@example.com.”
His website has about ten sound clips. Give yourself a treat and listen to the man sing and yodel!
I’ll Hold You in My Heart (till I can hold you in my arms)
Thanks Mr. Walser.
I have a great, but heartbreaking, story about Don. When I last spoke with his wife in Austin a few years ago (2002?), and then Don at his regular Thursday evening/dinner show at Threadgills across the river, I learned from them both that he can’t walk anymore, so he’s long done touring and making records. We later watched as some young guys literally carried Don on stage to sing with his longtime partner “Skinny Don” on bass guitar (and a crackerjack band, too!). And when Don opened his mouth the angels still flew out! It was amazing, but sad, too, as you could tell that he could barely see and he couldn’t move at all so he sat on a stool motionless, except for being able to strum his acoustic guitar ever so lightly while the band carried the music for him. But that voice! It was still as strong as ever!
That same trip I picked up a double CD from Don himself (we talked about his ill health), recorded from live radio broadcasts on April 4 and 15, 1964 billed as “LIVE On The Air! The Texas Plainsmen with Yodelin’ Donnie Walser.” And get the other band member’s names from back then: Warren “Rocky Rhodes” Powell, Billy “The Kid” Richter, Jim “Alamo” O’Neill, and Carl “Skins” Echols…it’s a precious recording of “real” Texas music and I’m so happy I have it as it’s a very rare and limited edition that Don got license to and made a few hundred copies.
I’ve another great story later about my days in Austin working in the early 1990s when I “discovered” Don Walser and it changed my musical life forever…