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By Christopher Gray, September 29, 2006, Music

Texas Top Hand

Don Walser, the rotund, perpetually smiling plainsman who became the face of Austin country music in the Nineties, passed away last Wednesday afternoon at his South Austin home after a long battle with diabetes. A gentle giant never shy about ceding the spotlight to his band members and fellow musicians, Walser had celebrated his 72nd birthday six days before, and his death cast a pall over the entire local music community.

"He's left a Don Walser-sized hole in the heart of our community, one we'll be very hard-pressed to fill again," says Walser's close friend Mark Rubin, who spent many hours at Walser's bedside in his last days (see "Song for My Father").

Donald Ray Walser was born Sept. 14, 1934, in the small West Texas town of Brownfield and grew up in nearby Lamesa. Walser's mother died when he was 11, and his dad worked nights, leaving him plenty of time to listen to Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell on the radio and watch Gene Autry at the local picture show. Walser left school after the eighth grade and enlisted in the Texas National Guard – claiming he was two years older to bypass the age limit – but, his childhood friend Keith Ball remembered at Walser's funeral Monday, he often showed up at the local high school with his guitar to sing his former classmates songs he'd written about them.

Walser credited "High Pockets" Duncan, a deejay at Lubbock's KDAV, with helping him get started in music, although he was somewhat hard to reach. He didn't have a home phone in Lamesa, he told the Chronicle's Lee Nichols in 1992, so "old High Pockets would get on the radio and say, 'Anybody over there in Lamesa, if you see ol' Don Walser, tell him I want him to be at such-and-such place at such-and-such time.'"

In the late Fifties, Walser recorded "Rolling Stone From Texas," which became the title song of his 1994 breakthrough album on Austin's Watermelon Records, and sent it to Billboard magazine, which rated the record four stars. Even then, however, Walser, who served the National Guard for 45 years as a mechanic, superintendent, and auditor, only pursued music as a sideline while he raised his family.

The Walsers moved to Austin in 1984 when Walser was assigned to Camp Mabry, and by the late Eighties, he was back on the bandstand. He began singing with Al Dressen's Super Swing Revue, where he came to the attention of Broken Spoke owner James White.

"I loved the way he sounded and went up and talked to him," says White. "I told him, 'When you get a band of your own, call me. I'd love to have you out here.'"

Around 1990, Walser and his newly formed Pure Texas Band began playing Monday nights at Burnet Road honky-tonk Henry's. Word quickly spread about the cowboy singer with the otherworldly yodel, and people from all walks of life began packing the tiny bar and grill. Besides occasional drop-ins like Jimmie Dale Gilmore, other Monday-night regulars included the Butthole Surfers. "I couldn't believe how cool it was to have something so far under the radar in the neighborhood," says former BHS and current Honky bassist Jeff Pinkus.

When Henry's closed in 1993, Walser was in need of a residency, and Pinkus introduced him to Emo's then manager Dave Thomson. He began playing Wednesday nights at the Red River club, and the tattooed-and-pierced crowd embraced Walser as much as the honky-tonkers at Henry's had. Walser likewise did his part to fit in at the club.

"His first show, he starts playing Chuck Berry songs," remembers Pinkus. "I said, 'Don, what are you doing?' He said, 'I'm playing rock & roll for the kids.' I said, 'No, I want you to do what you do. We're up for anything.' So the very next song he says, 'This here's a song about murder,' and played 'The Long Black Veil.'

"It sent shivers down my spine."

Walser retired from the National Guard in 1994, at which point his musical career took off. Besides his Emo's residency, which lasted the better part of a year – he remains the only artist to have had a regular gig at the club – he played Monday nights at Babe's on Sixth Street and Tuesdays at Jovita's on South First. He opened for the Butthole Surfers and Old 97's at Liberty Lunch, Johnny Cash at the Frank Erwin Center, Charlie Louvin at the Spoke, and the Kronos Quartet, with whom he recorded a song for his 1998 LP, Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In, at Bass Concert Hall. Walser played the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, the Grand Ole Opry in 1999, and received the National Heritage Award at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in September 2000.

Walser severely curtailed his schedule after suffering a mild stroke in March 2002, and his declining health eventually forced him to retire for good. One of his final shows came at James White's South Lamar dance emporium in September 2003. In barely more than a decade, the jovial former civil servant had become a genuine Austin legend, as renowned for his generosity and benevolence as his high-pitched laugh and crystalline vocals. He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Patricia Jane; their children, Jeanne, Donna, Michael, and Al; and seven grandchildren.

"He loved people in general and musicians in particular," Pure Texas Band fiddler Howard Kalish said Monday. "It radiated out of him like a beacon."

Jimmy LaFave, Hayes Carll, the South Austin Jug Band, and many others play a celebration of Don Walser's life Sunday, Oct. 1, at Threadgill's World Headquarters. $10 cover benefits the Don Walser Memorial Fund.

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