Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Don Walser article in The Rocket, March 1995

[This was published in the late, great Seattle biweekly music publication The Rocket as a preview for a tw0-night stand at The Backstage featuring Don Walser, Butch Hancock, Santiago Jimenez and Tish Hinojosa on March 28-29, 1995.]

By Peter Blackstock

For a well-traveled man of 60 who just recently retired from his day job, Don Walser sure seems a lot like a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed teenager.

He may not quite have that youthful jump in his step as we slowly shuffle back to the office of Babe's, a restaurant in Austin where he and his Pure Texas Band play every Monday night, to do an interview before the gig. But once you get Walser talking, there's no mistaking the sprightly youthfulness in his manner -- from the beaming gleam in his eyes, to the wide-as-a-tractor-trailer grin that splits his double-chinned mug ear-to-ear, to the giddy giggle reminiscent of a juvenile junior-high prankster.

Not to mention some of the company he keeps in Austin. "Are you familiar with the Butthole Surfers, and ol' Jeff Pinkus, who used to play with them?" he says, when I bring up the subject of how he has become a favorite at Emo's, Austin's most popular alternative-rock nightclub. "Well, we were one of their favorite bands, and they always hung out with us when they were in town. And they finally got us down to Emo's to play.

"Oh, and there's another guy that comes out to see us all the time. He usually comes to Jovita's (a Mexican restaurant where Walser and his band play every Tuesday night). He has a group called Ministry. Do you know who I'm talking about?" Al Jourgenson? "Al Jourgenson, yeah, that's the guy. Anyway, I went out to his place one day, just me and my guitar, and we played a little bit. And he showed me his new studio he had. And right on the board, he had a bumper sticker, Pure Texas Band! And he told me, 'Your CD's the first thing we played on this thing!' "

Exactly how or why the Buttholes and Jourgenson became such big fans of someone who plays music so totally different than their own is anyone's guess, unless you simply accept that you don't necessarily have to play classic country music to appreciate it. And it's almost impossible not to appreciate Walser, who has a keen ear for the most revered songs country music has produced since the beginning -- and also a voice to belt it out like probably no one you've ever heard.

At one point during our interview, Walser ely not believe your ears. And how many singers do you know who can make their voice sound more like a steel guitar than a steel guitar does, as Walser demonstrates on the 1949 Stan Jones gem "Cowpoke"?

Playing songs that are half a decade old is an integral part of what Walser and his Pure Texas Band are all about. "My heart's just not into doing Top 40 country," he says. "When I first started singing, I noticed there were a few bands around that would get together and they would learn the up-to-date tunes, and that was all they did. But what you're doing, you're constantly working up new stuff, and then in two weeks or a month or six months, it's plumb gone and forgot about, and you've spent all that time on those old tunes that are no good. And I just decided I wasn't gonna do that."

Though Rolling Stone from Texas indeed delves significantly into the catalog of classic country music with tunes by the likes of Marty Robbins, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jimmie Rodgers and Willie Nelson, Walser also wrote or co-wrote five of the songs on the album. Not that you'd really notice much of a difference between the covers and the originals; his own material is heavily rooted in the old sounds he dearly loves, even if it has meant he's never gotten much attention from the Nashville cats.

"I had a pretty good bunch of songs that I thought were good about 20 years ago, so I went to Nashville," he recalls. "And they all really liked what I had, but they all told me one way or another real nicely, that, 'This is great stuff, but we haven't done it in 20 years.' So I told 'em, 'Well, when 20 years comes from now, I'll still be doing it.' And I am, I'm still doing it. I just didn't want to play the games that you have to play. And of course now, I'm tryin' to help a few people keep this old traditional country music alive. It's like a big ol' oak tree out there. If you destroy the roots, it's gonna die, and that's what's happening right now, I think."

Walser's efforts seem to be paying off. Seeing a full house of tattooed, nose-pierced twentysomethings spinning and singing along to his band at Emo's on a Friday night is all one needs to confirm that there is indeed room for his beloved old country music in the hearts of the Alternative Nation, as incongruous as it may seem. Of course, there's also the possibility that the kids may see him as nothing more than an entertaining curiosity, but he's not so sure about that.

A 60-year-old solo traditional country act on a showcase full of rock bands at CMJ might seem strange enough -- but then there was the time a couple years back when Walser actually opened a show for his pals the Buttholes in Austin. "It was our band and the Bad Livers and the Butthole Surfers," he recalled. "And I'll never forget Jeff Pinkus -- I was tellin' him, 'Well, good, I've been wantin' to hear y'all play.' And he said, 'Oh, Don, you don't want to hear this band.' And I said, 'Sure I do!' And he said, 'Naw, you really don't. You need to just go on home!' And I said, 'Naw, I'm gonna stay and listen, man!'

"So I got up there on the side of the stage, and I found out pretty soon why he didn't want me to stay. They had these two screens going at one time, and one screen they had a naked lady gyratin', and then on the other screen, they had a sex change operation goin', changin' a guy into a girl! I know that's why ol' Jeff didn't want me to stay!"

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