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At his age, Don Walser still isn't the retiring type

By Robert Wooldridge, November 1999

At an age when most people are planning their rocking years, 65-year-old Don Walser is experiencing his greatest success. With the release of his new album "Here's To Country Music" on Sire, guest shots on other albums and even a movie appearance, Walser may be busier even now than in the days before his retirement from the Texas National Guard a few years ago.

Walser, labelled the "Pavarotti of the Plains" for his unique high-pitched singing voice and yodeling, has loved country music since his childhood days in Lamesa, Texas. "I don't remember ever not listening to country music," Walser recalls. He also loved to sing, but as a youngster Walser's shyness caused him to seek privacy.

"I'd get up in a tree or on top of the barn where I didn't think no one could see me because I had to sing every day," Walser says. "It's kind of part of my nature, and I was bashful."

What Walser didn't learn until later was that neighbors would gather around to listen to the singing boy in the tree.

In his teens, Walser began to play in bands, but chose to do it as a sideline rather than pursue musical stardom. "When you start to go down the road as a professional musician you gotta starve for a couple of years," Walser observes.

"I was willing to starve myself, but I didn't want to put my family through it so I decided early on that I wasn't going to do it for a living."

Instead Walser was content to work in the National Guard and play music on weekends. It wasn't until after his retirement from the Guard at 60 that Walser's musical career gained momentum.

After two independently produced tapes sold well regionally, Walser caught the attention of Watermelon Records. In 1994, he released "Rolling Stone From Texas" his first album on Watermelon and later "The Archive Series," which re-released his earlier independent recordings.

Walser's recording career stalled when Watermelon experienced financial difficulties. Rather than admit their problem Walser says Watermelon kept him hanging by scheduling and canceling recording sessions.

"Those people gave me a chance, and I'd have done anything for them," Walser says of Watermelon. "They did a lot for me." The label filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

After he was freed of his contract with Watermelon, Sire outbid Sony for the chance to record Walser and in 1998 released "Down at the Sky-Vue Drive In."

On his latest Sire release, Walser expresses his view of the current country music scene with Hank Thompson's "Here's to Country Music." "What hurts me more than anything is that nobody plays the melody anymore. They just play riffs and chords. It kept us from getting a little portion of the radio. When they call that country, then they have to call us alternative."

Walser notes that traditional country has "oldies stations that will play Merle Haggard stuff that's 20 years old, but nothing he records today. It makes it tough for the great old singers that we've still got with us, but we can't hear them."

Walser is encouraged by the exposure he and other traditional artists get on Americana radio, particularly with the younger audiences he plays for.

"It's really thrilling to me. They'll sing my songs right along with me. It's unbelievable. I think they're looking for something honest and good, you know, like that old music is."

The latest album was recorded in Nashville with producer Stuart Colman because Walser's favorite producer, Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, was tied up on other projects.

Walser also wanted the chance to work with some of his favorite Nashville musicians. "I've always wanted to record with Buddy Spicher and Buddy Emmons. I think it's the best I've done so far."

One of the standout tracks is "Paper Rosie," a late '70's hit for Gene Watson. "He's one of my heroes. I really love to hear him sing. I thought it would be nice to do 'Paper Rosie' because my son likes that song. But Gene Watson probably did a better job on it."

On "Take Off Time," Walser shows a harder edge than usual. "I did it a little different. I speeded it up some and made it sort of a rocking song. It's fun to sing."

Other highlights are "Arkansas," a Wilburn Brothers tune on which Teddy Wilburn cameos, and "We Could, You and I," a duet with Crystal Gayle. "When she hit that high note right above me, it was just thrilling," raves Walser.

In addition to his own new album, Walser has been keeping busy making guest appearances as well. On the recent Asleep at the Wheel release "Ride With Bob" Walser performs Cindy Walker's "I Ain't Got Nobody." "You know," says Walser, "That's the song Tommy Duncan did when he was trying out for (Bob Wills') band."

Walser also appeared in the recent film "Hi-Lo Country" with Woody Harrelson, and contributed the Eddy Arnold classic "I'll Hold You In My Heart" to the soundtrack. "That song was on the chart longer than any other song ever recorded," says Walser. "Over a year it was on the chart."

In the immediate future Walser plans to tour in support of "Here's to Country Music," and makes his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry on October 30.

Even with his recent success, Walser remains humble and inspired. "When I was growing up I never did the top ten or 20 or whatever they do these days. I had to get a lot of requests for a song before I would add it to my repertoire. I've done that for all these years so I don't know anything but the real good songs. I may not be the greatest singer around, but I am singing the best songs."