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Don Walser yodels along

By Brian Wahlert, May 1996

In looking for the quintessential country artist, fans of traditional country need to look no farther than Don Walser.

The Watermelon Records artist, who just released his second album of new music, "Texas Top Hand," hits all styles from honky tonk on the Faron Young song "Wind Me Up" to western swing onBob Wills' "Whose Heart Are You Breaking Now" to cowboy music on the Sons of the Pioneers' "Tumbling Tumbleweeds."

Walser says, "I like to record some of those obscure songs.... Some of those great old songs deserve to come back."

Looking at the covers of his CD booklets, it's hard to believe that this man is part of the future of traditional country music. He's not a twenty-something pretty boy who jumped on the country bandwagon when the music started getting popular.

In fact, he's about as far from the typical country star as possible. He's in his sixties to start with, and he's not exactly a hunk. He's slow to speak in his Texas drawl and quick to laugh, and he seems just as happy to talk about the country music of 50 years ago as he is to talk about his own. Hear him sing, though, or better yet, yodel, and you know that this guy is the real deal.

His partiality toward country music of the Forties and Fifties can be explained by his childhood, much of which was spent listening to the radio in his hometown of Lamesa in west Texas.

Now Walser is finally getting the chance to carry on the torch of traditional country music by reviving some of his favorite old songs. For example, his 1994 disc, "Rolling Stone From Texas," contained eight covers, including songs originally recorded by Jimmie Rodgers, Marty Robbins, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Willie Nelson.

It's easy to imagine that narrowing down the past 70 years of country music into a 12-song CD could be quite a challenge. Indeed, in recording "Texas Top Hand," Walser says, "We had 70 or 80 songs to choose from - the puppy list, we called it - and we would scratch them off one at a time, just like killing little puppies."

The resulting CD includes nine covers that are, in Walser's opinion, some of the greatest country songs ever recorded. Besides the aforementioned tunes, Walser also sings songs originally recorded by Hank Williams, Merle Travis and Johnny Horton.

The song he's most proud of, though, is "Whose Heart Are You Breaking Now" with its great big band sound. "All my life, I always wanted to record something like that," Walser says of the tune, taking the listener back to the years of World War II with its classic horns.

He's not a cover artist, however. He takes old songs that most country fans haven't ever heard before and makes them his own, and he also writes his own music. He says of his songwriting, "I'm not prolific, but sometimes I write good songs, even great songs.

One of those would have to be the title song of the new CD. It's a fun cowboy song that gives Walser a chance to show off his incredible yodeling.

That song was actually co-written by Ray Benson,co-producer on both of Walser's new Watermelon albums, and with whom Walser shares some common ground. Just like Walser is working hard to keep honky tonk and cowboy music alive, Benson, the leader of Asleep At the Wheel, is "on a crusade to keep western swing alive. He's on the fringes, too. We're just too country for country."

Although he is a talented songwriter, Walser is very critical of his own music. His general philosophy is that there are so many great old songs few people have heard. If one of his new songs doesn't measure up to those standards, he'd just as soon record the old tune.

"There are a lot of writers who wrote some terrible songs, but won't admit it to themselves," he says, and he's determined not to become one of them.

While the recording contract with Watermelon is a relatively new development, Walser has been playing music all his life, ever since his teens when he sometimes shared the stage with Buddy Holly. Soon he had to raise a family, however, so he got a real job working for the National Guard, although he never quit playing music entirely.

He even tried going to Nashville a few times, although he was roundly rejected by the record companies each time. It wasn't that they didn't like his music. On the contrary, he got quite a few compliments, but everyone he talked to told him the same thing:His music was just too country.

All the while, he continued working and playing.

After releasing "The Rolling Stone From Texas," Watermelon also offered older studio recordings, "The Archive Series Vol. I and II."

Now that he's retired, he has the chance to work on his music full time, and not surprisingly, he's doing it in Austin, not Nashville. He seems to be having a great time, too. He talks about the 15-month-old girl who danced in front of the stage during his show the night before, and he mentions Emu's, a punk-rock club, where he's seen "an old hippie-looking guy dancing with some gal with blue hair. It's fun to watch," he says.

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