Song for My Father
The house that Don Walser built, 1934-2006
Let me state it plainly: If you find yourself singing onstage in Austin, Texas, with a guitar strapped around you, wearing a Western shirt, cowboy boots, and a hat, then you do so at the good graces of Don Walser.
You may come from someplace else, and chances are you were still in high school when Don was holding down Monday nights at the late Henry's Bar and Grill on Burnet Road. If you only got here in the last decade or so, you could conceivably be forgiven for not knowing your debt to the man. Those of us who knew and played with Don Walser were irrevocably touched by his music and his outsized personality.
Austin has a reputation for being the place where the hippies met the rednecks, but that was long ago, and pot-smoking, long-hair "cosmic cowboy" country acts fronted by three-named singer-songwriters went out right about the time of George Strait's first Top 10 hit. By the time I got here, from Oklahoma via Dallas in 1989, the local country music scene had gone from "cosmic" to "creepy." The clubs overflowed with a veritable cornucopia of middle-aged hippies-gone-country, firmly stuck in the fast-fading glow of tired groupies, cocaine habits, and better times. It was a scene so insular and cliquish that no one in it was the least bit aware of the latest musical movement taking root here, one that rejected wholesale everything that had come before it. To my knowledge, nobody from the "songwriters guitar pull" at Headliners East was found at the Cannibal Club right down the street. I'm reckoning I was the only guy in town witnessing sets by Rusty Wier and Poison 13 in the same evening.
True, punk rockers down here liked to wear cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and tended to name-check country "outlaws" like George Jones and Johnny Cash. Yet a pitiful few would cop to knowing how to two-step and most certainly wouldn't be caught dead or be welcome for that matter at any of Austin's then C&W joints. All of this changed in time, and Don Wasler was at the heart of that evolutionary shift.
Paul Leary, guitarist for the Butthole Surfers, first told me about Don. I met Leary when he produced a single for my band the Bad Livers in 1990 and then took us out on tour as the Surfers' opening act. He knew I was a fan of traditional country and told me he had heard of a wonderful steel guitarist who played at a little "hole in the wall" joint once a week up on Burnet Road. Established punk rockers were always on the lookout for some cool local dive where they could drink in peace away from the hipsters. The Carousel Lounge and its savant blind pianist had already been overrun by the hooples, but this place, Henry's Bar and Grill, showed great promise. My bandmate Danny Barnes, who put himself through college playing guitar in honky-tonks all over Central Texas, told me he knew the place well and had played there many times before.
That sealed it. I must go.
On my first visit there, I nearly had an asthma attack from decades' worth of cigarette smoke without proper ventilation. It was ultra dark, cool even on the hottest summer day, and as big as a postage stamp with a ceiling so low you had to stoop to sit in a corner chair. I walked in early one Monday evening, and when my eyes finally adjusted, I peered across the room, plastered in a dizzying array of literally thousands of snapshots of country music singers. Leary and his party were sitting at a table near the center of the dance floor.
Crammed into the corner next to the bathroom was a trio of pickers: a slight, skinny man on an ancient electric bass; a silver-haired gentleman hunched over a pedal steel guitar; and between them, perched on a stool, was a big man strumming a big Gibson guitar. I will never forget they were playing George Jones' "Window up Above." I turned to Leary.
"That sounds just like the original record," I blurted.
"It ought to," he replied. "That's the guy who played it."
I had come for the steel guitar, but it was the otherworldly bel canto coming from the singer that held my rapt attention. It was a sound so pure and controlled that it completely overshadowed the otherwise genius playing of country steel legend Jimmy Day. And the choice of material was a C&W fan's wet dream: Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Johnny Bush, Freddie Hart! At the set break, James Henry, the club's convivial owner and the man who took all those photos on the walls, introduced himself and then called over the singer. That's how I met Don Walser.
Henry's Meets Emo's
As time went on, word got out that there was real, live country music going down at this dive in Central Austin on Monday nights. It was at Henry's that I met Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, a fine steel guitarist in his own right. He was in town doing preproduction for a Butthole Surfers album and had become so enamored of Don Walser's Pure Texas Band that he stayed a month longer than planned just to see four more shows. It was also at Henry's that Don got the Bad Livers one of our first local gigs. (We didn't go over so well, actually, but Mr. Henry put an extra $20 in the tip jar to make us feel welcome.) For many years to come, I made it a point to bring out-of-towners there to show off "country music in its native environment," as if it were some kind of an anthropological reserve, which in many ways it was.
Becoming a regular, I got to sit at Henry's private family table and hobnob with the band members. If I was really lucky, bassist "Skinny" Don Keeling would take a break to dance with his wife, and I'd get to play bass with the band. My old pal Ed Miller (not the Scot) drove down every Monday from Fort Worth with his tube-powered reel-to-reel tape recorder just to capture the sounds of the place. (Someday we'll find someone who wants to release it.) The house's local character, "Cowboy," would make his patented bellow and Mr. Henry would have to shut him up and maybe drag him out to the parking lot to cool him off. I got asked to dance by all manner of lovely ladies, most about my grandmother's age, smelling of rose water and Kool unfiltereds. It was all part of the floor show on Burnet Road, but it was the good-natured country singer with the encyclopedic set list that we all came to see.
Beyond his immeasurable vocal talents, Don filled the dead air between songs with the most easygoing and natural repartee, a style of elocution well known to previous generations of music fans but sadly absent in the entertainment business today. If Don thought he was something special, he never let on about it. Sometimes he seemed just as amazed by his gifts as we were, often ending a particularly virtuosic yodel tune with a little laugh, as if he himself were surprised he pulled it off so well. In his mind, he was simply leading a honky-tonk combo, no different from the ones he cut his teeth with out in West Texas growing up. He was blissfully unaware that simply being that made him as special as could be. My weekly pilgrimage there became a master's course in old-school musicianship and show business.
Over time, Walser's Pure Texas Band added a fiddle and then a drummer, playing a style of country music that had for all intents and purposes been pronounced dead by the very culture that spawned it. Hipsters and punk rock freaks turned up at Henry's with regularity. There were as many "kids," as Don called the purple-hair-and-pierced crew, as there were "cowboys" now. It was hippies and rednecks all over again, only this time the punk rockers played the roll of newly minted C&W fans.
And why not? Playing hardcore honky-tonk, drinkin', cheatin'-heart songs was every bit as subversive and counterculture as the latest Henry Rollins project, if not more so. Somewhere around the house I have a poster for a gig at the Austin Music Hall in 1991, promoting the Butthole Surfers and openers the Bad Livers and Don Walser & the Pure Texas Band. A bill such as that may have appeared to the outside world like some kind of goof being perpetrated, a postmodern laugh at the audience, but they'd be wrong. Unlikely as it might have seemed, all three bands were playing to essentially the same audience now.
When Henry's was leveled in favor of AutoZone's parking lot, the logical and natural progression was to thus decamp the residency to the then-bastion of punk credibility, Emo's. There, Walser was able to connect personally with a whole new generation of music fans who took the sincerity of his music completely at face value. Some punters may have come out to see an old hillbilly sing at a punk rock bar, but the force of the music and the honesty of the man resonated deeply in this generation that, to this very day, drives around with beloved Pure Texas Band stickers stuck next to other punk rock band endorsements on car bumpers.
It was this new appreciation and veneration for musical elders that eventually brought Johnny Cash to Emo's in 1994, years after Walser and his band had opened the door. At the same time, the scent of a loyal following lead to opportunities at other venues, even ones where country music was the currency. With his profile buoyed by the popular press, Don now packed dance floors regularly at Jovita's and even the vaunted Broken Spoke. Today, too few remember that he was packing them in at Houston's bygone Emo's long before the two-steppers paid any attention whatsoever.
This acceptance for traditional country music and the ready support of both rockers and rednecks is a confluence we take for granted today in Austin. Those reading this who, like me, go out into the clubs and lead a little combo playing trad Texas dance music, singing the old songs with fiddle and steel, you need to take a moment and realize that you stand in a house that in many ways Don Walser built. That's why as we mourn him now, we must take time to remember what he accomplished here, even if especially if he himself probably never realized his true and lasting influence.
Yet just as certain as we took him for granted, it was just as quickly that he faded from our scene. He left the stage one day, in what seemed like a blink of an eye, and it was suddenly like he'd never been there. Very few people I run into today ever saw or heard Don in person, much less own one of his albums. I fear in time that Don will be best remembered as the disembodied yodel in a Bill Chapman Autos TV spot than as the great musical force he was. And more's the pity. That speaks more about our local culture's inability to appreciate its actual treasures than it does about Don himself. For his part, Walser constantly looked to the "young" folks to pick up the torch and soldier on, to learn the old songs and play them well, get the folks dancing and show them a good time. And to make new songs, ones that tell stories and unfold the truth of life.
There's a lot I could tell you about Don's late-blooming career: the making of his albums and the controversy spurred when his producer found his band unfit for the recording studio; his eventual recognition by the Nashville "establishment"; the movie about his life story that never got made; the appearances on national television, the Grand Ole Opry, a presidential inauguration, and the main stage of the National Folk Festival; photo shoots with Annie Leibovitz and recording sessions with the Kronos Quartet; managers and booking agents; and the long list of musicians who traveled far and wide to learn his music and pay their respects to him.
It's a truly amazing and unlikely story. But I'll leave its dissemination to the music historians. You see, I'm not too good with those sorts of particulars when I'm as emotionally attached to someone as I was to Don Walser. Truth is, friends, I feel like an orphan today.
I lost my father when I was just past my bar mitzvah year. One fine day he went to the hospital and never came back. I made my weekly visit, each time watching him slide a little bit farther away. Two years later, they pulled me out of school to tell me he was finally gone. The death certificate reads "complications due to pancreatic cancer," but a systemwide failure due to poor health and a too-stressful workload was the real culprit.
As the eldest son of a conservatively Jewish household, I was thoughtfully instructed on the customs and duties of the Jewish life cycle. I was given a solid, sensible foundation for a young man's behavior in the processes of life and death. Before my father took ill, we had a wonderful relationship, and the way he lived his life remains a constant inspiration to me. If I have any great regrets at all about not having my old man around, it's simply that he never got to see me excel in the world of music. Outside his family, music was what he loved most in life, and he never missed an opportunity to teach me to honor and respect it. He himself was a lifelong musician, making time to play his baritone horn in community concert bands wherever our family landed. As I clumsily advanced toward adolescence, my parents were scared that I'd leave the proper academic track that every Jewish parent demands and run off to join a band. One tour as a roadie for the Flaming Lips did just that.
Every now and again I'm reminded that my father never saw me perform in front of an audience, never read a review of one of my CDs, never screened one of the movies I've made. He never had a chance to be proud of his son's accomplishments. He got sick and died leaving a wife and three kids, not knowing what would become of them. It must have been terrifying for him. In the intervening years, my extended family has worked hard, and has done well, to step into the void left by his passing. On more than one occasion, one of my dad's old running buddies will pull me aside and tell me how proud he'd be of my accomplishments. It helps, but only a fraction, as anyone who's lost a parent early in life will tell you.
What I mean to convey here is that I'm a pretty centered guy and not one casting around for a father figure in my life, someone to take me under his wing and show me the ropes. Someone to love very deeply, requiring both his admiration and validation. Imagine my great surprise when Don Walser appeared quite unexpectedly in my life and became that man.
As I came to know him and his family, I found many parallels in our lives that we could relate to other than music. Don too had lost a parent, his mother, when he was only 11 and, like me, was pretty much left to raise himself. Also like me, his only real escape and refuge was music. In his innate talent to entertain, he found the tools to craft a well-functioning personality despite the traumas of his upbringing.
I also discovered he was raised a practicing Mormon in Lamesa, which on the not-like-your-neighbors scale rates very close in social disenfranchisement to my being raised a practicing Jew in Stillwater, Okla. We were both drawn to the sense of community and continuity of traditional music and the culture that produces it. True to our commonality, he thoroughly invested himself in its promotion and cultivation, often times at the expense of his own best economic interests.
Don could have been my dad another way, too. In size. The Walser and Rubin families share a molasses-slow metabolism coupled with an oversized appetite. Get out your Dr. Phil books, and you could probably diagnose a vast panoply of childhood losses and traumas that lead to self-loathing and self-abusive behavior the sort of deeply ingrained emotional chasms that only 2 pounds of peanut brittle administered every three hours can fill, for instance.
In his youth, Don was a tall and strapping young man, ironically nicknamed "Little" Donnie, in fact. In his later years, however, he was no longer able to carry his own weight, requiring assistance even to mount the stage. I can speak with more than passing experience that the morbidly obese have an extra set of hurdles in the music business, other than obvious health issues. Besides shortening our life spans and effectively restricting the range of touring abilities, there's the public's obsession with everything pretty that passes into in the public eye. For your edification, go back into the journalistic record and see how many adjectives were added to Don's description simply to state that he was mighty fat and getting bigger every day.
I know all too well what it's like to live that way; to be trapped inside your body but seemingly unable to regulate or modify your behavior to stem the damage you create. Food for some can be as destructive as any as drug or alcohol dependence. In fact, as I write these words, I recognize my own inability to lose the weight that will most certainly kill me, too, in time. It's a sense of helplessness and despair that no amount of rational thought, or innumerable counseling, has been able to correct.
I watched as Don ate himself into his diabetes. I watched as some of his closest friends tried to intervene, and I watched as he uniformly ignored their pleas. I even watched as many close to him, myself included I'm ashamed to tell you, drew away from Don when he wouldn't aid in his own well-being. It was too painful to watch. You could see how the story was going to end, but no amount of prodding nor pleading made any difference. It was made all the more difficult when I looked into my own mirror every morning and saw plainly what will become of me if I don't change my own behavior. God almighty, even as I watched him die, I still can't stop overeating myself. (I will start crying right now, and still I think of cheeseburgers.) If anything, I hope I can illustrate for you just how deep an addiction Don had to contend with.
Don had no intention of retiring from public performance. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he was cashiered from the local clubs effectively let go from the very venues that he helped prosper for not looking "good" onstage. To be fair, there was no doubt about it. He looked bad, and it was considered an unseemly image for a nightclub stage. It was painful for everyone else to watch. And I don't wish to sound harsh or critical to those who felt uncomfortable putting Don onstage in those later times, but in my opinion, it was this forced retirement that helped speed the end of his life. It separated him from the audience the community that he truly, deeply loved. Rather than being among people he sought to bring happiness to and entertain his whole life, he was thus reduced to a bed in his South Austin home staring at the ceiling. Just like my old man, Don was propped up in a hospital bed, with only the occasional visitor to brighten his day. It was really only a matter of time. Personally, I think he deserved better for his last days.
I'll Hold You in My Heart
On one of my last visits with Don, I wanted to clear the books with him. This year I've lost too many people in my life Clifford Antone, my Jewish music mentor German Goldenshteyn, Tex-Mex drummer Cookie Martinez, my grandmother without them knowing how I felt about them. I wasn't going to let Don pass without the knowledge of what he did for me.
I told him I felt that the Almighty had put him into my path. I felt that my father, of blessed memory, had sent me into Henry's Bar and Grill the night I first met Don and put him there to be my guide. We talked about the many pitfalls in our chosen line of work, the temptations running on tap in the taverns, and roadhouses we'd find ourselves playing nightly. I told him that it gave me great courage and strength to know that you could be a genuinely good guy a mensch, as my people say and still operate with success in the music business. You don't have to screw people over to turn a coin. It's possible to be kind and thoughtful.
I let him know that after I'd been embraced by the Walsers, my extended family, I now had a new set of folks to live up to, a new level of responsibility. If I screwed up, it would be that much harder to face them. All my girlfriends had to come to the Broken Spoke to dance and meet my folks, Mr. and Mrs. Walser. I let Don know that if I'd ever done anything worthwhile in this business, I owed it in no small part to his influence. And not just as musician, as a man.
As usual, he deflected the attention and, as was his custom, turned my expression of love around to give back to me again. It was always frustrating trying to pay Don a compliment, and here at the end it was no different. He really did think the world of you. He really was prouder of you. He really, really loved you more. It wasn't mere words. Like the lyrics of the songs he sang so intently, he really meant it.
These are the last words Don Walser said to me:
"I hope I never offended anyone, especially my friends. I like to think that I stood by my friends and that I never gave any advice to someone that I didn't live by myself. I've tried to live my life like an open book. I done about as good as I could, you know. I might have done a few little things differently, but not much. As for the music business, I ain't got too much to say about it. Music to me is not like it is to most folks."
No, indeed, music was not to Don Walser what it was like to most folks.