Friday 29 September 2006
Donald Ray Walser, singer and guitarist: born Brownfield, Texas 14 September 1934; married 1951 Patricia Robertson (two sons, two daughters); died Austin, Texas 20 September 2006.
Nicknamed "the Pavarotti of the Plains", Don Walser was an institution in the Lone Star State. An important interpreter of traditional country music and a peerless yodeller, his musical integrity had made him an icon of the thriving Austin music scene, a favourite not only with country fans, but also with those drawn to alternative rock.
He believed passionately in the strength of traditional country, becoming an ardent, if good-natured, champion:
The roots of country music are intact, but there are only a few leaves left on the tree. You let the roots die and you lose the whole darn tree.
Walser was born in Brownfield, on the Texas Panhandle, in 1934. His mother's early death and his father's hectic work schedule forced him to combat loneliness by immersing himself in the music he heard on the radio. He was particularly attracted to hillbilly/country yodellers such as Jimmie Rodgers, Elton Britt and Slim Whitman and later recalled that the first yodelling number he learned was Britt's "Chime Bells" (1948).
At 15 he lied about his age and joined the Texas National Guard, remaining with them as a mechanic, superintendent and auditor for 45 years. All the while he performed locally at weekends, even, on a few occasions, finding himself on stage alongside a young Buddy Holly.
In 1959 he formed a group named the Texas Plainsmen and, based in Midland, Texas, found himself starring on a weekly radio show. In 1964 he and the band recorded a single, "Rolling Stone from Texas", but, despite gaining a four-star review in Billboard magazine, it flopped. For the next 30 years he performed at Saturday-night dances across the state, eventually, in 1984, relocating to Austin where, fronting his Pure Texas Band, he became a popular fixture.
Whilst in Austin he met the bandleader and western swing revivalist Ray Benson, who agreed to produce his first "proper" album. Released in 1994, Rolling Stone from Texas set the pattern for his next two discs in featuring musical contributions from members of Benson's band Asleep at the Wheel and in its use of Walser originals alongside covers of songs associated with country legends such as Marty Robbins and Eddy Arnold.
He followed it with the acclaimed Texas Top Hand (1996) and then, two years later, Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In. The latter featured a fine version of the standard "Rose Marie" on which Walser was joined by the Kronos Quartet, marking, he later stated, "the first time a straight-ahead traditional country singer has ever recorded with a classical group".
That same year he contributed to the soundtrack of the movie The Horse Whisperer and in 1999 released Here's to Country Music with guest appearances by Crystal Gayle, Teddy Wilburn and the harmonica virtuoso Charlie McCoy.
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