The immortal, the incomparable, the indefatigable, DON WALSER!
In 2006, Don's memorial service was highlighted by some wonderful talks by his closest friends. Below is what fiddler player Howard Kalish said about Don.
In addition to the wonderfully moving words from Howard Kalish (below), I made this slideshow which played at dad's funeral in 2006.
"I’m very honored that Pat and Jane asked me to talk about Don and what he meant to music in Austin and beyond. What he meant to his fans and the musicians and all the people who worked with him behind the scenes in the music world.
I got to play fiddle and guitar with Don for 14 years and I learned so much from that experience. I know it made me a much better player and a better person too. Don embodied and practiced so many of the principles and values that make a person good. He was fair and honest, he put his wife and family first, he didn’t judge a person but took them on their own terms. He loved people in general and musicians in particular and it radiated out of him like a beacon.
Ol' Don was loved and admired by so many people from all over the world. I kind of knew that, but I didn't realize the extent of his impact until now. I didn’t realize the true depth of feeling that people had for him as a person, not just as an entertainer. The sentiment that people expressed in their cards, internet postings, and in person confirmed for me what I already knew, that Don really was an exceptional man.
It was interesting to read the comments of people who met him and worked with him and were impressed by his gentle and jovial heart before they even knew he had an incredible talent. People could feel the warmth of his personality before he sang a note.
Now, he wasn’t a saint or anything. He did chug a whole pitcher of beer once on a dare when he was at Fort Benning. And he’d get a little smirky smile when he was fixin’ to tell an off-color joke, which was actually pretty rare and of course, never in front of the ladies.
He got frustrated with his health problems and the way they affected his performances towards the end of his singing career. But he always gave 1000% and he made you want to play as well as you possibly could. He was inspirational and still is thanks to the recordings he made.
For example, here’s an entry on the internet guest book from a lady named Meg out in El Paso
Today I played 2 Don Walser CDs for my 3rd grade class while they made mobiles about the Amazon rainforest. After the last CD I asked the kids if they would like to listen to a soundtrack from The PowerPuff Girls or more Don Walser. The answer was a resounding and unanimous, "more Don Walser."
Don, you’re still making fans.
Just looking around the room here today you can see that he means a lot to a wide spectrum of very fine musicians. And I know that for every person here today there’s many more who’d be here if they could. Don had many friends in the music world and not just in country circles. He’s known and respected by practitioners and fans of most of the genres of music in this town – blues, jazz, R&B, tejano and conjunto, Rock & Rollers, even punk rockers, who seemed to really understand and appreciate his genuineness. Those kids loved Don and it was so much fun to see them, with their strangely colored hair, tattoos and piercings, treat Don like a favorite uncle. And he loved them right back. They’re just people, he’d say. People’s just people.
His goal was to keep traditional country music alive and he spread the word wherever he could. He knew that if the young folks could hear the real thing they’d like it and it would enrich their lives. He boasted that he played Top 40 Country music 40 years old. Fact was, it was 40, 50 even 60 years old or more. But he made it fresh and new and his love for the music was infectious.
He likened the music to a tree whose roots had to be nurtured in order for the branches to grow. He tended those roots with his talent and he gave vitality to styles of music that many see as outdated. Don knew otherwise. He knew that there was plenty of life left in those honky-tonk songs, in western swing and cowboy tunes. And if you mix them up just right you can keep the dance floor full all night.
I met Don Walser in 1987 or 88 at the Broken Spoke. I was in the backup band for Al Dressen’s first Western Swing Month show. There were lots of luminaries there, including members of the Texas Playboys and The Sons of the Pioneers. Then Al brings up this big guy in one of those jumpsuits that mechanics and farmers wear. He had dark-rimmed glasses and a big hat. He was exuberant and thrilled to be there.
And then he started to sing. Well, if you ever heard him you know that there’s no doubt that he had it, he was a real deal country singer. A rich tenor with depth and soul, a little grit, lots of affection for the song and all the little curlicues in just the right place. A voice I’d never heard before but one I somehow knew. A voice that seemed so incongruous coming from a big guy like that. I remember thinking, like so many other people when they first heard him, who is this guy and where’s he been?
Of course, where he’d been is a big part of the Don Walser saga. He’d been toiling in honky-tonks and dance halls across the state for decades. A guy who came of age in the 50’s and 60’s and whose music was appreciated, but out of step with the times. A guy who decided to stay with his family and not hit the road and take his chances with music. He kept his day job and played whenever he could for fun and a little extra dough. He waited until he retired to really start his music career in earnest.
After the show that night, I went up to Don to tell him how much I enjoyed his singing. He returned the compliment about my fiddle playing and asked me to play some gigs with him. A few days later he called me for one and that was the beginning of my association with this wonderful man.
Don was a singer. He could yodel, but he didn’t like to think of himself as a yodeler. He was a singer who could yodel. That first night I met him he sang a few songs and knocked everyone out. And then he yodeled. My word, what an extraordinary experience to hear that sound coming from that big man. Wild, gleeful, and musical, it seemed like it was going to careen out of control. But he’d always rein it back in like a lasso.
Smokey Dacus was there that night. He was Bob Wills’ original drummer. He told Don that he didn’t usually like yodeling, but he sure liked Don’s. That made Don so proud, to have Smokey tell him that.
Tommy Hancock told me that out in West Texas yodelers were like grains of sand, they were everywhere. Back when he was running the Cotton Club in Lubbock, he heard Don and was impressed not just by the yodeling but by the singing. Tommy said Don could really sell a country song.
Not only that, Don was a very good songwriter and managed to pen a few classics, which is quite a feat, as any songwriter can tell you. Classics in my estimation anyways. He wrote a lot of songs because he knew that ol’ TJ McFarland was right on the money when he said that if you write 100 songs not all of them can be bad.
When it came to songwriting, Don followed the adage to write what you know. He wrote songs about places, things, a way of life and the people he knew - things they did and said and the consequences of those things. His songs and stories had such wonderful characters, and they were all real. Ace Kincaid, Fuzz Dixon, Cowboy Ramsey, Suckerod Smith, Gene Britt and Donny Koontz, Shade Tree Slim and a bunch of others. I feel like I knew all these people. Some of my personal favorite songs of Don’s are Tomorrow’s a Million Mile Away, a cheatin’ song with an interesting perspective, Fuzz Dixon, about one of his near do well buddies, Cowboy Ramsey, Dixie Blues, The Party Don’t Start Until the Playboys Get Here, and the John Deere Tractor Song.
I’m partial to Cowboy Ramsey because I remember so vividly the first time he sang it for me. We were heading home from the first gig I ever played with him. It was with Shady and Debby Mitchell down around Seguin. I think it was a VFW. He and I were heading home in his big Pontiac. He said Hey I wrote a song about an ol’ boy I knew in West Texas named Cowboy Ramsey and he launched into it accappell awhile we’re cruising down the road. A wonderful song with a jaunty melody, it told a story, it had moral and a hero. All in under 3 minutes.
For awhile Don was a very big fish in a pretty good sized pond and a lot of people have heard of him all around the world. But he was never a big national star. He rarely had his music played on the radio, except for college and community stations. He didn’t have any hits on the Billboard charts. He didn’t have the big machine behind him telling everyone that this is the person whose CDs you should buy. He got some pretty good exposure like the piece on Prime Time live back in the mid-90’s, and getting to play on the Grand Ol’ Opry several times. Receiving the National Heritage Award in 2000 and playing all the wonderful folks festivals around the country, and Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center and the Olympics in 1996. But Don wasn’t well known the way people can be well known in our pop culture. If you’d heard of Don Walser, it meant you went looking for him or you were just lucky to somehow cross paths with his music and have sense enough to recognize that it was special.
Maybe a friend took you to a show or sent you a CD for your birthday. Maybe you lucked into a club or concert, expecting to hear someone else and finding this treasure instead. Maybe you have one of those college or community radio stations in your town and you heard that spine-tingling voice waft out of the radio like fresh air. People came to Don like they were starving for music like his. Pure, from the heart, summarizing life with a straight forward lyric and melody the way that only American country music can do.
I was lucky to get to play on the Grand Ol’ Opry with Don several times. It was a vindication for him and the culmination of so many dreams, including some of my own. One of the main things I recall from those experiences was the genuine admiration that the other legends there had for Don – Billy Walker, Porter Wagoner, Jeannie Sealy, Charlie Walker, Jack Greene, Little Jimmy Dickens. They all came by to tell Don how much they enjoy his music. His peers recognized talent when they heard it and they knew he was a brother in arms.
I know I speak for all the musicians who played in his band that we feel very fortunate to be able to say we helped spread the music with this man. We never took it for granted either. He was the kind of person you would do anything for. Walk the plank, drive for hours, lump the equipment, play the gig, tear down and turnaround and drive on back. Get up and be at your day job on time (which in Don’s case was 7am). Do it again the next day.
He encouraged his players to express themselves, to serve the song but make it your own. He followed in the time honored tradition of Bob Wills, who wanted spontaneity and creativity from his players. And he loved good music of all kinds. I’ll always remember watching Don and Pat backstage at the Washington Monument when we played there on the Fourth of July. They were sitting with Boozoo Chavez and his wife, all four grooving as they watched the Five Blind Boys of Alabama make their glorious music.
I feel so lucky to have been on stage with him and watch him grab an audience by the heart. To see him still a crowd with the first note of Cowpoke or whip them into a frenzy with Yodel Polka or pull their heart strings with Danny Boy or Beggin’ To You. I saw him do this again and again all over the country.
He was a generous performer and always ready to share the microphone and invite up a quest artist. He encouraged many of the people who are out there now playing his kind of music – Justin Trevino, Jason Roberts, Slaid Cleaves, Cornell Hurd, Wayne Hancock, Jon Emery, Libby Bosworth, the DeRailers, Suzanna Van Tassell and many more all benefited from getting up on stage with Don and they knew he wanted them to succeed.
And Don wasn’t just a bandleader. He was one of the guys and a wonderful friend. He had so many jokes and stories and little sayings he could keep you in stitches for hours. Even when you’d heard the jokes 100 times, they’d still tickle him and you couldn’t help but laugh. I’ll always cherish the memories I made while a member of the Pure Texas Band and the remarkable musicians that I got to play with – Skinny Don Keeling, Scott Walls, Phillip Fajardo, Floyd Domino, Rick McRae, Jimmy Day, Bert Rivera, Jason Roberts, Ernie Durawa, Johnny Gimble, Ray Benson, Timmy Campbell, Earl Pool Ball and a raft of others. He always made you want to play your best and we had a lot of fun.
Cornell Hurd and I were talking the other day about our favorite Don songs, and I’d have to agree with his choice of the John Deere Tractor song. Don said it’s one of those songs that grew inside him for years and then came out one day when he was challenged by his friend James Stewart, a farmer out in Loraine, Tx, to write a song about his tractor. It’s hard to write a song about a thing, an object, and not have it turn out silly. But Don came up with a masterpiece of melody and meaning. A metaphor of life and the constantly turning wheel of death and renewal. I’d like to recite the last verse of that song for you:
When I’m standing in the twilight of my days
And my final harvest has been made
I want to walk them golden stairs
Go through them pearly gates
And work my old John Deere Tractor everyday
And for those folks who ever saw our live show, you know I had a little spiel that I’d do to get the crowd going when I introduced Don after one of his astounding yodel numbers. I want to give that spiel one more time in the presence of the man:
The immortal, the incomparable, the indefatigable and intercontinental Don Walser ladies and gentlemen, the Pavarotti of the Plains, the West Texas Buda, the New Big Daddy of Country music.
Rest in peace my friend. You are deeply loved."
Friend/ Fiddler Pure Texas Band