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Pure-D Purty

Don Walser's yodeling can bring tears, even to the eyes of a Nashville record exec

There's a bunch of ways to describe a man's singing voice, but Don Walser's crying, yodeling, crooning pipes suggest an adjective that's hard to argue with. Don Walser's voice is purty.

Everyone who's heard it knows it, too. The Butthole Surfers, of all the stylistically divergent people, are fans. They hand-picked Walser to play their record release party a few years back in Austin, and those critics and insiders in attendance who hadn't long-succumbed to alt-rock cynicism pretty well forgot that they were supposed to be hobnobbing with Gibby and Bob Mould out on the basketball court, opting instead to shuffle on the cornmeal-dusted dance floor, or just sit at their picnic tables drooling barbecue sauce at the sound of Walser's river-pure voice.

'Course, that little anecdote might be misleading, because while Walser gracefully welcomes the interest of anyone with ears, he's the furthest thing from some retro-semi-novelty act dredging up old Spike Jones tunes to give the kids a few pseudo-ironic yuks. He is instead what my grandfather, who fancied himself an authority on such things, called the Gen-u-ine Article. A late-middle-age son of west Texas -- where the distinction between the two kinds of music, country and western, is alive and well -- Walser cut his teeth on a tour circuit of dance halls where the sound of the fiddle in your band was a lot more important than the cut of your jawline. Walser played in a series of popular swing bands ("Of course," he admits, "when you're popular in west Texas, you may not have been heard of") before moving out of El Paso ten years ago to set up shop in Austin, where an eclectic scene of western purists and curious kids readily adopted him.

It's easy to see Walser's attraction for the purists. His voice and his music are modeled on the greats, folks like Jimmie Rodgers, Spike Jones, Bob Wills, Slim Whitman, Mel Tillis and Ernest Tubb, and what he learned was variety. "Back when I was growing up you'd have a Webb Pierce singing one way, Ernest Tubb doing something else, Marty Robbins doing something else, Mel Tillis... and none of those guys sounded alike." Walser sounds like none of the above, though he slips into the tradition like a comfortable pair of boots. He's a big man, and that voice glides out of him with a powerful rush, wrapping itself around ballads and yodels and crying falsetto runs the likes of which haven't been heard since, well, for the younger crowd anyway, the likes of Walser's voice have probably never been heard.

And if the largely cowboy-ignorant kids want to join the two-steppers on the dance floor, that's just dandy. Walser's even got an idea why: "They recognize that it's pure and it's honest and it's not packaged. And it doesn't have the standard beat to it. You got some two-fours, some shuffles, some waltzes.... I think that's what it is."

As for that packaging thing, Walser's not particularly worried about it. When I spoke with him last year about this time, he'd heard a glimmer of interest from Nashville -- which had recently shown some willingness to stray from formula with a western-oriented sub-label distributing several disks of cowboy music and poetry -- but didn't have any illusions about his marketability. "I went to Nashville about 20 years ago. One guy actually had tears in his eyes, he loved that stuff so much. But one way or the other they all told me, 'We haven't done that stuff in 20 years.' I told 'em, 'Twenty years from now I'll still be doing it,' so I never went back. Ha!"

True to his word so far. It's one year later and Walser's still doing that stuff, though he has been back to Nashville to play with fellow purists Asleep at the Wheel. He's not presently shopping to labels, either, having been picked up earlier this year by Austin's tiny but prestigious Watermelon Records, home of Alejandro Escovedo and Steve Young; Rolling Stone from Texas is due out in early July. Famed swing fiddler Johnny Gimble is along for the ride, Walser's original pedal steel player and session whiz Jimmy Day is back in the band, and Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson produced and played guitar throughout.

It's the record Walser's been trying to make for a long time. "We tried to keep the old sound, and the old instrumentation," he tells me, trying to explain the impact of those old "Spade Coolie-type licks" he's after.

"We used the best equipment we could get our hands on -- not the most expensive, but the best for bright, separated, good sounds. That's what I've always wanted to be able to do with this music. If Bob Wills was alive today, he wouldn't have circled his wagon around that one microphone like he did. He'd be using the technology."

Rolling Stone from Texas comes with versions of Willie Nelson's "Three Days" and Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Shotgun Boogie" in the cover department, and a remake of "Cowpoke" -- which Walser tells me is an old Elton Britt song, but which is identified on his own Texas Souvenir as a Spike Jones tune, so who can tell -- with a concertina stirred into the mix. The album's at least half originals, but Walser has no problem recycling material for the sake of an audience, much of which has yet to find him.

"I always try to learn the songs that we get the most requests for. And we try to do the three major types of Texas country music: cowboy yodeling, honky-tonk and western swing. I really think the public would enjoy hearing the more traditional-type stuff if they could."

Don Walser and the Pure Texas Band play at 9 p.m. Saturday, June 25 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, 528-5999. $7.

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