Keeping the Faith

Look up the word "grateful" in your Webster's, and don't be surprised if you see the smiling cherubic countenance of Don Walser pictured there. After all, here's a man who has loved country music since he was old enough to switch on the radio. Over the course of four decades, he has performed in near total obscurity in West Texas. Yet now, at the age of 66, Walser has finally fulfilled the desire of every C&W upstart who has ever stepped foot onto a stage: appearing on the Grand Ole Opry, the mother church of country music. Not just once, but twice, and soon to be three times.

Ask Walser if he's seen his dreams come true, and his answer is quick and hearty: "Oh, you bet I have." In the past six years or so, he's gotten to make five albums that have garnered him considerable national attention, if not acclaim. Just a few months back, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Walser a $10,000 National Heritage Fellowship at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. His first reaction to the news: "I thought, "Why me?' " The recognition that eluded Walser when he was younger has come to him in his golden years. And when he talks about recent events, you can hear that Walser is tickled a very deep pink.

Yet there's something that still sticks in his craw, tainting his blessed existence. "I've been playing country music for 50 years. And all of a sudden I'm "alternative country.' That don't make sense to me," bemoans Walser. He has a point, because music doesn't get much more country than Walser.

"I don't care for the soft rock sound they call country nowadays," he says, following the observation with a generosity of spirit one also can sense in his music. "I don't want to take nothing away from the Top 40 bunch. As long as they're playing from the heart and doing what they want to do, I don't fault 'em for that. I just think it's wrong to call it "country' when it's not."

If one were to explain to a Martian -- or even a radio programmer, for that matter -- what country music is, Walser's albums would be a good place to start. And the best point of entry into this singing senior citizen's oeuvre just might be his latest offering, I'll Hold You in My Heart. Unlike previous Walser releases, it is country music as Walser basically hears it and plays it with his Pure Texas Band. As before, Walser mixes classics from his repertory of, he estimates, "several thousand songs," with his originals, which are simple yet potent works. With the exception of the title tune, which Walser cut with a big band of western swing greats for the Stephen Frears film The Hi-Lo Country, the album captures the Pure Texas Band so purely that one can almost see couples shuffling across the dance floor as the music plays.

His first three official albums were produced by Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson and sound -- big surprise -- like Walser at the wheel of the Wheel. "We were trying to get some airplay on those earlier CDs," he says succinctly. For his last album, Here's to Country Music, "I got to go to Nashville and play with the super-pickers up there, which I always wanted to do. They've been my heroes for 30, 40 years, most of those guys who played on it, like Buddy Emmons and Buddy Spicher."

The Pure Texas Band had been featured on the lo-fi recordings Walser cut in Austin during the early '90s and later rereleased on Watermelon Records, the now-defunct Capitol City indie that propelled Walser to national fame and landed him a major-label deal through Sire Records. But the label had been loath to use Walser's band, which caused a bit of a stink with his loyal followers. Walser's new record company, Valley Entertainment, "wanted the sound that we get at Jovita's and places like that," he explains. "Which was good for me, because the other labels" making offers "were wanting me to do something different. But I wanted something that was kind of like it was at Henry's."

The original Henry's Bar & Grill and Jovita's are two off-the-beaten-path Austin music venues that Walser and the Pure Texas Band have called home. The former was a small, cramped, no-frills North Austin beer joint, complete with jars of pickled eggs on the bar; Walser, Junior Brown, the Cornell Hurd Band and others regularly played there in the early '90s. In the same way that Willie Nelson united the Austin dopers and ropers when he played the Armadillo World Headquarters, spawning the great progressive country movement, Henry's got the hicks and hipsters to two-step together, fomenting the city's current neotraditional country scene. Like many vital Austin venues, it was plowed over in the name of progress, in this case to build yet another AutoZone.

Jovita's is a South Austin Mexican restaurant and music venue that Walser and his band play each Tuesday night. Sure, Walser can command a good fee on tour, but he still maintains his local gigs. "We don't make any money to speak of," he says. "But we don't have to pay for a rehearsal hall either. We get a good dinner, and we can work out new songs and old songs. And it keeps the band sharp."

Clearly, as Walser insists, "I'm not doing this for the money." And he really means it: Unlike many young artists who know only this labor of love called music, Walser had a previous career, in the Texas National Guard, and he has a pension to prove it. As a result, he doesn't worry too much about marketing and airplay and the like, as other recording artists must. Still, Walser remains concerned that this so-called state of country music just might be marginalizing some of the other artists who play the real deal. "The older guys like Merle Haggard and them guys, they still have a fan base, and they can make a living. But what about the young people who want to play traditional country music? They're sleeping on people's couches and eating beans and taters, and not being able to get airplay," Walser laments.

But maybe in the same way as Walser did for some 40 years, the new traditionalists are keeping the faith. "Yeah, they're keeping the faith and not making any money." Well, that's something Walser knows all about. "I sure do," he admits with a laugh. "If I was doing it for the money, I'd have quit long ago."

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Rob Patterson