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Head Like a Jukebox Don Walser “Don’t Know Nothing But Great Old Songs” BY BRAD TYER “Nothing valid or true is ever canceled outyou can add to it or increase its significance with resonant symbolism if you know exactly what you’re doing, but even the most peasantlike or humble truth remains a grain of gold and therefore a plus factor in the world.” Seymour Krim, “What’s This Cat’s Story?” IF NASHVILLE, or country radio for that matter, had any cojones whatever, Austin-based singer Don Walser might not be necessary. But since Nashville’s hatact culture continues to create “contemporary country artists” out of tight jeans and sharp jawlines, and since you’d have a better chance of hearing the Rolling Stones on your local country station than anything by George Jones or Merle Haggard or, Lord forbid, Bob Wills, there’s an almost perfect void in which Walser can ply his trade. That trade is traditional country music, presented lovingly straight and without gimmick, and Walser has all the tools to make himself king of the hill: a preservationist’s sense of mission, a crack band, a head full of what he calls “all those great old songs,” and the soaring, diving, yodeling voice of a 300-pound angel. Folks, finally, are beginning to take notice. Walser grew up in Lamesa, Texas, in the southern Panhandle between Lubbock and Big Spring, son of a mother who passed away when he was 12 and a father who spent most of the year working night shifts at the local cotton oil mill. The way he remembers it, the young Walser spent his youthful nights alone, listening as the sounds of Mexican border stations and the Grand Ole Opry beamed into his sleep through the family radio. He was singing at four, and carrying a plastic guitar with him to school. “I had a gift back then,” he recalls. “I could hear a song one time and learn it. My cousins used to bet on it. We’d go into this drugstore and they’d find someone and say, ‘we’ll betcha a nickel that you can play any song on this jukebox and we’ll go outside and Don’ll sing it for you.’ They won a lot of money off me that way. Sometimes they’d play one I’d never even heard before, and I could learn it and Brad Tyer is a freelance writer and music critic living in Houston. Don Walser go outside and sing it. It was kind of like a record playing in my brain.” If Walser’s head is like a jukebox, it’s a jukebox that would fill a warehouse. He figures by now he’s got the words to well over a thousand tunes tucked away in his head, and from Spike Jones to Eddy Arnold, they’re all classics. “I did everything right as far as the songs, all my life,” he claims. “I never did Top 40 ever, because I seen those guys that have to get together two or three times a week and learn the new stuff that’s on the radio. They’re constantly throwing away great old songs to do the mediocre songs, because three-quarters of everything that’s recorded is not any good anyway. I don’t care if it does make it to the charts. In six months it’s never heard of again, and a lot of it don’t deserve to be heard again. “But what I try to do is learn those songs that everybody just had to hear. And so all ALAN PAPPE my life I’ve not learnt any songs that aren’t great old songs. I don’t know nothing but great old songs,” he says, giggling at the thought. For years, Walser’s singing career took a back seat to the demands of family”I don’t mind starving,” he says, “but I didn’t want them to starve, you know…”and it wasn’t until the 1980s that he started selling self-produced cassettes of his faithful takes on the great old songs, alongside a few select originals, at shows. Last year, Walser took retirement from his job with the internal audit division of the Texas National Guard, and Austin’s Watermelon Records signed him up to record Rolling Stone From Texas, a vibrant slab of country nostalgia produced by Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson. Rolling Stone is Walser’s first product to receive national distribution, and it’s sold in the neighborhood of 40,000 copies to date, garnering Walser glowing THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19