(The Pete Seeger of Country Music)
By Paul Johnston
Born: Donald Ray Walser on September 14, 1934 in Brownfield, Texas; he moved to Lamesa, Texas at just under one year of age.
Parents: Mother, Verda King; Father, Lemuel Loretta Walser.
Siblings: Two years before Don was born, he had an older brother, Siden Edsel, who died after about 30 hours of life. Don has three sisters: Olive Virginia, Vida Joe and Arlis Lavida.
Interests: Don spent many hours listening to the radio as a youth.
"We listened to the big stations, of course at night. They had radio programs
like The Creaking Door and Amos ‘n Andy, Fibber Mcgee and Molly, The Shadow, The
Grand Ole Opry (Wheeling, West Virginia). I listened to all them stations like that. In the daytimes, we use
to listen to a little old station in Lamesa, KPET. We did have a couple of hours of bluegrass and a couple hours
of some music that the black people would enjoy'n at that time, Spanish music. It was a multiple format station
back in those days, as a lot of them was."
Did you build any of these radios, like a crystal radio?
"No, I never did do that. I always use to listened to Dad's ole big radios he had.
Do you remember what model of radio he had?
"No, it was just one of them old ones. I can't remember...you've seen a dozen of them.
Tell us about "tree-top singing?"
"Well, what happened was see, I've had to find a place to where I could sing. I've always had to sing everyday and so I had to get up in the trees amongst the leaves there in the Spring of the year and sing. If there was a lot of people around, well, I'd wait ‘til it got dark and come in the house. Or, if this was in the other part of the year where there wasn't no leaves, I'd go down and get up on top of the barn. I was bashful, but I had to sing, you know."
What age did you start singing?
"Oh, I don't know. I don't ever remember not singing, so it must have been four or five years old anyway when I started to talk....but in a tree, I'd say somewhere around ten years old, ten to fourteen, you know. I spent a lot of time up in that tree!"
Could you harmonize with the birds?
"Yes I could. But I figured that if I am among the leaves, they don't see me, they don't hear me, but I found out later that they'd come out in the evening and sit on their front porch or sit out in their front yard and listen to me without realizing it."
Did you ever sing in a church choir when you were growing up?
"No, I tried a choir one time but they sang in a straight line, you know, and I got squiggles and wiggles in mine. I stood by everybody in that choir and I couldn't find nobody singing the melody."
What year did your family move to La Mesa, Texas?
"1934 or maybe ‘35. I don't know. I was born in Brownfield which is 37 mile up the road from Lamesa. Then they moved from Terry County. Daddy quit farming. I was about a year old, I guess, 1935 probably when they moved to Lamesa. We lived in rented houses for a few times and then Dad bought three lots and one little house down on Sixth Street. That's where we was raised , 911 South Sixth."
Why did your family move to Lamesa?
"Well, it was during the Depression, coming out of the Depression, and Dad couldn't make it farming so he went to work for the Lamesa Cotton Oil Mill. He helped build the old one and then he helped build the new one. Course the new one is 60 years old."
Share some of your memories of Lamesa?
"Well, it was just a good time to live in. They had lots of cotton, grew lot of cotton. They'd bring in migrant workers from Mexico every year to take care of the crops. You know, harvest the crops. They had cotton pickers and cotton boll pullers."
Did you ever pick cotton?
"Oh, I never picked any but I pulled bolls....drag a sack along behind you. Get right on top of the row and pull the bolls off and put them in the sack and you'd weigh it and you got so much for each hundred pound you pulled, you know. If you could pull seven or eight hundred pounds you could make pretty good money in the daytime."
Being in a small town like that, everyone knew everybody?
"Oh yeah, you bet! Nobody locked their doors. Never worry about nobody stealing nothing."
You were young when your mother died. How old were you and what was the cause of her death?
"1946 is when she actually died. Well, she has some kind of female problem. I don't know whether she had a hysterectomy or what. I walked down the hallway of the hospital and I heard Dr. Frazier chewing some nurses out, said, ‘This woman don't have to be laying in there dying if ya'll had got her up and walked her. This blood clot would not have come around.' That's what killed was the blood clot. They did not get her up and exercise her like the doctor told them to."
How did that make you feel when you heard that?
"Well, it made me mad, but there was not much I could do about it. And course back then we didn't sue the doctor for something somebody else done, and the nurses wouldn't have done it on purpose."
How did the loss of your mother when you were young affect you?
"Well, it was pretty bad. I got to where I wouldn't eat nothing. They took me over to one of my cousin's house to live and her and her husband. And they had three little boys, Fred, Ed, and Frank. I wouldn't eat so Roy Clement, who's my cousin, he took me down to the grocery store and walked all through there and I sat at a table. ‘I'm just not hungry.' you know. I would not eat. Took me down to the grocery store and went all over everywhere and led me up and down the aisles and said, ‘You find anything that you will eat and I'll buy it for you.' It kind of made me feel bad and I told him, ‘Roy, I eat anything that you eat.' It kind of shamed me. You know he didn't do it to shame me. He wanted me to eat something. So, from then on I ate. I made myself eat ‘cause I knew how much he thought of me where he wouldn't have done that."
At least you had your mother during your younger years.
"Yeah, she was a good one too."
What age did you start working in the oil fields?
"I started working in the oil fields when I was about fifteen."
Was that around Lamesa?
"Yeah, right around...Roy was a driller. I rough necked for him and worked at the oil mill for my dad and for the other guy that run the days when I did day work."
How long did you do oil field work?
"Well, let see...I started in about 1948, I guess, when I was about fifteen. I worked as a roughneck and then I worked on a seismograph crew huntin' oil and then I rough necked some more and then I went to work for Brit Trucking Company and hauled oil field equipment around that you know moved rigs and things like that until I guess 1957 when I quit the oil field. ‘Bout nine years all told in the oil field and then I went to work for the National Guard as a mechanic and stayed as a mechanic until 1970 and then I switched over and became a unit administrator and stayed there until 1984. In ‘84 I became an internal auditor and was moved up to Austin, here in Austin. That's what I was when I retired."
The evening you performed at The Armadillo Christmas Bazaar in 1998, you said that was your forty- seventh wedding anniversary with you wife?
"What happened was my dad went down to Denison, Texas in 1951, right in the first part of the year. He met this women. She had been unmarried since ‘46. He met and married this lady. She had a daughter and I met her daughter and we got married [At age 17, Don married in 1951 to Patricia Robertson.]. Dad and I married mother and daughter! Part of the reason why I'm still married to her, see cause, if I got mad and went home to Daddy, she'd get mad and go home to Momma and we'd still be together! I'm joking."
[In Don's 1998 performance at the Armadillo Bazaar, Don had fun with the audience by feeding them a little information at a time. He announced that night was his 47th wedding anniversary. The audience applauded. Then he said, "To my first wife." The audience laughs and then he said something along the line of, "Of course my present wife is my first wife!" and more laughter ensues.]
Uncle Sam Wants Don
What year did you join the National Guard?
"1949, I was 16 years old. No I wasn't. I just turned 15 and I went in there...me and old, I can't think of who that other guy was, but we were both 15. I thought you had to be 17. No, I thought you had to be 16. So, we told them we were 16 and that guy said, ‘You boys are going to have to be 17 years old.' Said, ‘Next time you come, well, you need to be 17.' So, we got out and walked around a little bit and come back in and he said, ‘How old are you boys?' and we said, ‘Seventeen.' He said, ‘You're just right!' and he signed us up."
What year did you retire from the National Guard?
" I actually quit making drills in 1989 or ‘90, 1990 I guess it's somewhere along in there. I worked until the state decided to have to do the same thing I was doing, internal auditing work."
When you joined the National Guard, you could also do your oil field work at the same time?
"Yeah, you just drill on weekends. After 1957 though, my whole career was with the National Guard. I was in the Guard a total of 45 years. Got my inactive year waiting for retirement."
How did you decide to join the National Guard?
"Uh....He! He! Heee! Well, I tell you what the truth is. We tried to get girls, you know. Them kids from Lubbock, lot of them belonged to the Civil Air Patrol and they had the neatest uniforms, you know. We had to find something so we could wear uniforms, but we couldn't go all the way to Lubbock to those meetings, you know, the ones that had the prettiest uniforms so we picked the National Guard so it would help to get girls. I don't know if it helped to get any girls or not!"
I've only know you as a singer. It is kind of hard picturing you in the National Guard.
"Yeah, I'm glad I'm out. I was the First Sargent so many years that it kind of grows on you. I don't like consultation. As the First Sargent you've got to make everything work. You have nobody arguing with you. But now, I walk fifty miles out of the way to keep from having problems with anybody, but when you are First Sargent you got to handle all kinds of people. Some of um you got to yell at. Some of um if you yell at they'll come to pieces. Mostly I'd....I had the commanders tell me I'm too easy on the men and I asked this one I said, ‘What do you mean?' He said, ‘Well I never see you chew them out.' I said, ‘No and you won't either!' I said but how many times you see me and somebody drop by your office and say we're going to get a cup of coffee?' If I had something to say to him I'd get him away. I wouldn't go down and chew a guy out in front of his men. That takes his authority away from him when you do that. If you go down and take over what he is doing and change it, he's the one that's got to change it. You don't."
[I related a story about an Inspector General's inspection when I was in the Army. Our company had gasoline for the lawnmowers stored in the paint shed and this was apparently a violation of some type. My First Sargent began to get nervous on this matter when I spoke up. I politely apologized to the Inspector and told him we would get this changed and did not realize the mistake. Afterward, the First Sargent said to me, "Johnston, you did good!"
This prompted Don with some additional comments concerning inspections.]
"I always like the men around when we were going to get an inspection but I didn't like the company commander being there, cause they are always trying to....they are volunteering too much information. They argue with the inspector. The best thing to do is let him write everything down that he sees wrong. He's got to go back to the motel or wherever he's at and write the report. When he writes the report he's got to put chapter and verse in there if it's wrong. If you argue with him, you just keep digging, but if you'll be nice to them they'll write it all down but then when they go to....it won't come out in a report because they can't back it up. I've seem them write stuff down that was just ludicrous and I knew it never would come out in a report because they have to quote regulations when you can't do something, you know."
[ I related another story about my experiences with my First Sargent. I always tried to do well by him and make him look good when it counted. In return, he cut me a lot of slack and let me off the hook when I should have gotten in trouble. Don, again, responds to my story.]
"Well, there is some of them you got to do that and others you got to bear down on. I just didn't like doing that. I didn't like doing anything that had to do with people, but I had to do it for many years. You got to treat everybody alike and that's hard to do. Course some of them people you just hate and others you dearly love. It's hard to treat the ones you love better than to, I mean the ones you don't care anything about. Course, I cared about all of them really but some of them drive you nuts. I had a [ Don gives a tickled laugh] lady soldier one time that nobody could handle. I'll never forget her. Boy she was something else! I finally put her in there....well, the Captain was going to take care of her and she was a mechanic and that guy down there couldn't get her to work. Then they wanted to put her in the cook section and they couldn't get her to work. The Captain was going to use her as a driver or something. They couldn't get along. So I told them....I said, ‘I've had enough of this mess!' I called her in and she started yelling at me and all the officers and NCOs [Non Commissioned Officers] and all just cleared out of the Orderly Room. I told her, ‘I going to tell you something. We're starting all over again. You come in here 30 minutes late, you might as well stay at home ‘cause you're not going to get paid for the drill.' I said, ‘ If you are going to work for me you're going to work but we're starting all over, all over. You work for me or I'll work you plumb out of the Guard.' [Don giggles.] So, she worked for me. I had a lot of trouble with her but she worked for me when she wouldn't work for nobody else. A couple years after I had left, I think they finally got rid of her."
One other question, when you were in the National Guard, did you ever have to serve overseas?
"No, we never did get activated all the time I was in the Guard."
It's obvious you had a devotion to both your family and work. Tell us about your decision to limit your music career to the weekends until you retired from the National Guard?
"Well, I really, I wanted to go do it full time but I've talked to a lot of full time musicians. Most of them guys were either starving or had been starving, you know and I didn't want that for my family. I was raising a family and I just didn't have a great education and I didn't figure I could let them starve for a few years. I always knew I could make it in music. I thought I could, you know but, but I just didn't want to spend that time. So, I didn't like being away from them two or three months at a time like lots of them do you know. So, I decided that I would do my "weekend warrior" stuff and my weekend playing and playing music during the week a little bit, a once in a while, let that just be it. I never did even try to get a recording contract or anything, so but I enjoyed playing at weddings, VFWs, American Legions, honky tonks and stuff around that part of Texas where I grew up."
You had four children. Do you remember what years they were born in?
"My oldest was born in ‘56 [Donna] and then Janey was born in ‘65 and the two boys were born in 1970, actually, six and a half months apart. One of them is adopted and Janey is adopted. We had a daughter who was about ten years old and it didn't look like we were going to have any more kids, so we adopted a girl. She was about five years old. We adopted Michael thirty first of January in ‘70 and then in August we had another natural born, Allen. He is the one who keeps the web page up. He was born the eighteenth of August, I believe."
You also had foster children. What year did you begin doing this?
"Well, we just done it for a few years there in Sweet Water [Texas]. We kept three little boys for about a year, you know and then when we come to El Paso, we had one boy about, almost a year there. Then we got out of that foster child business and just tried to raise our own."
What year did you begin helping foster children?
"Well, it was about 1975, I guess. What happened was....somebody told....they had three little boys they took from their mother and they were looking for a home for them and they called us and said, ‘We hear you like kids?' [Don laughs] Yeah. ‘We got three we got that we would like to leave in your home for a couple of days ‘til we can find a place for them.' Heck, we kept them a year."
Have you had any contact with them since they have been grown?
"Well, I know the last night time we lived as a family one of the little boys cried all night. He did not want to go back to his Momma, but they put them all three back in her home and we use to see them when we come to Sweet Water years ago, but it has been a long time since we have seen any of them. I heard one of them committed suicide, the oldest one. I'm not sure that's true, but I think it probably is, but we kept in touch with them for a few years and then it just got so far away. We moved up, lived up in Port Arthur, up in there, and moved to El Paso and everything."
After having been a foster parent, what are your summary thought on the subject?
"Well, you gotta work hard at it. You gotta try to set an example for kids. I always told mine anything they see me do they had the right to do it too. The only way you can teach anybody anything is set an example. You can't.....if you know, just like being a First Sargent, if you treat one guy better than the other, it'll come back to haunt you. The same way with kids, you got to treat them alike, you know."
As a parent, what kind of lessons did you learn about being a parent?
"Well, I learned that every kid is different! Every one of them is different. Some of them you can spat them on the butt and they'll mind better. Some of them...my boy Michael, you could whip him to death and it wouldn't have made him any difference. You had to take him like he is to try to, you know, be good to him and try to get him to do the right thing, you know. But, so far, none of my kids smoke or drinks, so, well Michael smokes but he hid that from me for years. [Don laughs]."
Before you came to Austin around 1984, you played in some bands. Do you remember the names of these bands?
" I actually played in a couple of bands that weren't my bands, you know. I played with, oh, I don't remember what he called his group....I can't even....let see the fiddle player name was...I can't even think of his name, but...Arbry Lowden, don't ask me how to spell that, I don't know, but he had a little band and he hired me to sing in it, weekend band in 1985 I think it was. Then in about 1988, somewhere, ‘86, ‘88, between them lengths of time, I can't remember....we, I run on to ole Howard Kalish that plays fiddle with me. He'd been playing down at Henry's Bar and Grill some so, he said, ‘ let's go out there and play on Monday night.' They wanted someone to play on Monday night, so, me and Howard went out there and played and we did all right except we sure did need a bass man and I'd played with Don Keeling previously in another band or two. The next week we got Don Keeling to play with us. We had a little trio and we played a few weeks like that and then Howard needed off on Monday and I was doing this Stars over Austin once a week where they had nice band together. Jimmy Day was playing steel in the band. We asked Jimmy if he wanted to come play with just me and Skinny Don [Don Keeling] and so he did and they liked him so much they offered to pay more money to get him to play, so, we wound with a steel and a fiddle and a bass and me. Then we added a ....Jason Roberts who was going to school in Lampasas. He lived about half way between Austin and Lampasas. He's the same little kid that's playing, well, he isn't a kid anymore, he's about twenty two I think now. He plays with Asleep at the Wheel. He played with us through high school and [the band] had two fiddles, steel and we got us a drummer. We had a six piece band, just playing on Mondays and then we use to playing out. That's where we got out name, Pure Texas Band. We're playing pure music, you know, pure country music."
When did your musical performing career begin and where did you perform?
"Well, I guess the first job that I remember, me and Billy and Gene Richter there in Lamesa. Gene was about a year younger than me and Billy was about two years younger than me. He was about fourteen. I guess I was about sixteen years old. We started playing around Lamesa. I've still got a tape or two from back in those days, heh hee!"
Were those reel to reel type tapes?
"Yeah, that's what it's on but now I've, years ago, put them on cassette off that reel to reel. That's where they're at, reel to reel, and of course, they are deteriorating, I guess, probably now. I started playing with them. We played for different function around town. We'd rent out the armory and throw a dance out at the armory. When I moved to Midland and started playing with a group called the Texas Plainsmen, we played together for about seven or eight years."
What year did you move to Midland?
"In 1959 moved to Midland and we had a group called The Texas Plainsmen and we had a radio
program for about two years....taped all the radio shows as they came off the radio. Lately, we've baked all them and put them on DATS."
Are you going to publish them sometime?
"Well, Mark Ruben is working on that now. I don't know what he is going to come up with but it won't be a Don Walser thing , it'll be a Texas Plainsmen with Don Walser as vocalist, you know, ‘cause that's what it was back in them days."
|Yes, the 1964 radio recordings were published in 1999. Those that want to really be a complete collector of Don Walser memorabilia will really enjoy having this in their collection. This recording features "The Texas Plainsmen" on their weekly, 30 minute radio program. The original recording dates of these two programs took place on April 4, 1964 and August 15, 1964 at 4:25 P.M. on a Saturday afternoon. As you listen to the banter between Don and the boys, you can hear Don's up-beat happiness come shining through. Since the live radio commercials are included in this broadcast recording, one gets a real flavor of the small town radio station in the mid-sixties.|
The earlier tapes you mentioned that you put on cassette, are you going to publish them someday?
" I don't know if the quality would be good enough for them or not, but it's fun to listen to, you know."
When did you take your obligatory trip to Nashville?
"Well, I can't remember, it was in the early seventies, I went up there. I thought here I'm too old to be a recording artist. I'll just take some of these old songs I wrote of mine up there see if I can peddle them. They all listened to me. They all told me, you know, it's good stuff but we ain't done that in twenty years. I said, ‘Well, if you see me twenty years from now, that's what I'm going to be doing.' I never went back."
You are one of the few who tries to keep traditional country music alive. What inspires you to do this ?
"Well, because its real music, you know. You take the top forty stuff you got today, there's no music in it. They may be a great singer and a great song but the people playing the instruments are playing chords and riffs and they hold up the singer, but that's about all they do, you know. They've taken the music out. I'm a singer. I can sing, but to make music, I got to have a great band and that's what they don't have anymore. They probably gotten some great musicians. The guy that's playing the steel guitar with me right now worked for a top forty band for two years. I talked to him out in front of a music store a couple of years ago and he said, ‘Well Don, I'm quitting my top forty band.' Course he told me who his band was and all that. I said, ‘What's the matter, you don't like the guy?' He said, ‘I think he's a great fella. He's nice to me.' I said, ‘What about not paying you enough?' He said, ‘No, he pays me good.' I said, ‘Why you quitting?' He said, ‘ If I was playing in that band another year, I won't be able to play my steel guitar, because all we do is riffs and chords and I learned that when I was five years old.'"
"If you don't use your talent, you lose it. If they don't change their music up one of these days, they're not going to find any musicians can play anything but riffs and chords."
How did you develop the desire to yodel?
"Oh, I just found out that I could do it when I was singing them ole Jimmy Rogers songs. Dad had a bunch of ole Jimmy Rogers records. Then I heard Slim Whitman and, oh see what's the other guys name,....Chime Bells..., Elton Brit and I just had to learn to do that and I don't know how I taught myself to do it but I finally did, you know."
How do you learn how to yodel?
"I couldn't tell nobody how. I mean....there's a guy named Sourdough Slim that had a little system as to teaching people how to yodel. He could make anybody yodel, you know. He came and sat in with us one time when we were playing at Babe's. He'd mentioned all the different vowels you use in it, you know. It made sense to me, but I'd never thought of it like that."
So, you listened to the music and then tried to imitate the yodel to learn how?
"That's all I did. And then, just like any song....I could....use to hear one one time and learn it, you know, just real quick. It'd be just like a record playing in my head and I'd sing along with that record. And after I'd done it several times, well then, the record would go away and I'd beginning making it my own. As I sung it I would change it just a little bit or unbeknownst....not planning it but then I could listen to a tape that I'd when I first learned the song and then listen to it a year later, well it's different, not much, just a subtle difference. And once it comes like that, then it's yours forever then."
Is yodeling ever written in musical notation?
"I don't think so, but it might be. I don't know. I don't know how to read music."
Are there names for different types of yodels?
"Well, I've heard them called ‘Swiss Yodels' and I've heard them called ‘Cowboy Yodeling,' you know. Of course, the ole ‘Jimmy Roger's.' His was a real simple yodel."
How do you decide whether to put a yodel in a song and what type to use if you do put a yodel in a song?
"Well, sometimes I put yodels in songs if it looks likes it fits and I put them in songs that wasn't in them before. You know like All Around Cowboy that Marty Robbins recorded, you know. I put a yodel in it. It's a waltz time and it was easy to stick a yodel in there."
One of the songs that you did with the Kronos Quartet that I really like is Rose Marie. I think that it is a very beautiful and unique song.
"Yeah, it was good. I enjoyed that. We did a show with the Kronos when they came to town. They are a four piece classical string quartet."
How do you go about writing a song?
"Well, you know, there's not many new words. You got to find a new way in telling a story. If you can get good line....I know, a good thought build on it when it's easier than it is if you just try to go out and write a song without having a any real ideas. I know there's a fella, Chip Snead, he's a friend of mine, called me up one day and said, ‘Don, I got a line for you for a song.' ‘She's got everything but me.' Now you think about that. Here's a guy that just called me on the phone, he said, ‘She's got everything but me.' Well, that right there tells me that what I've got to write about real quick. Within twenty minutes I had it wrote and I called him back and sung it to him and he couldn't believe it. That's the fastest I ever wrote a song, but I think if you have a good solid idea and build on it, you can write a good song. I don't like to write songs that don't make sense. I like to write songs that tell a story."
Do you sit down with your guitar to write a song? When do you put the song down on paper?
"Well, most of the songs I've written went for years without writing them down on paper. You know, had them in my head, you know. I realized that I needed to put some of them down. There's still some that I got in my head that I haven't written down."
It sounds like you have a really good memory for the words to songs?
"Yeah, I do have. My teachers use to tell me if I could think and make everything rhyme, I would be a genius. [Don giggles.]"
Tell me the story about your song, Tomorrow's a Million Miles Away.
"I knew an ole First Sargent one time. He cheated on his wife every time he went anywhere. I'd say, ‘Boy, she's going to catch you one of these days!' He said, ‘Aaaaaah, tomorrow's a million miles away.' That's where I got the idea to write the song."
A New Record Album
Do you have any new musical projects in the works now?
"Yeah, we're fixing to start. We've got a tentative date of ten May to start recording another album."
What types of songs are going to go on it?
"It shows fourteen, but I don't know which twelves going to go on there, but we're going to record fourteen to have that much to pick from. We're going to do songs like Polk-a-Dot Blues. I'm going to do a duet with Crystal Gale if it works out all right. That's not for sure yet. I wouldn't want to tell anybody necessarily, but it'll be on one called We Could, You and I. Teddy Wilburn of the Wilburn Brothers is going to, suppose to if it works out which I hope it will, sing one of our songs called Arkansas. And, let's see, there's Sugar Moon (Cindy Walker), Castle in the Sky, an ole Marty Robbins tune, At the End of a Long Lonely Day. There's a total of fourteen, anyway. I don't have them in front of me right now."
Do you record here in Austin?
"Well, not this time, I'm going to Nashville.
When you do recording work, how is it determined where you do recording work?
"Well, the producer I had last year was Ray Benson, see, and he's got a wonderful studio. I used him on all the others except this one. I got a new producer this time, but the reason I didn't use Ray is not because he wasn't the greatest around, but because he's so busy that once you start a project with him it's liable to take you a year to finish it. You know it takes a long time, because you can't do nothing when he's out of the country. He works real hard and he gives you a good record, so it just takes time."
When you do a duet with Crystal Gayle or work with someone else on a song, how does the idea come about to work with a specific person?
"Well, this time I asked Buddy Spiker up there in Nashville. You know he is a fiddle player that works for her and I asked him if she might be ready to do one with me. She's the one that mentioned that song, We Could You and I. It's an ole Charlie Pride song, you've heard it, I believe, or do you remember if you've heard it or not? [I sure do!] It's a pretty song. And Arkansas, you may not have heard that, it's an old one. [ At this point, Don burst forth a capella into a beautiful verse of Arkansas. I thought, how wonderful! It was a personal performance of Don for me!] That's the way it goes. It's a beautiful song. I always wanted to record it every since I first heard it."
When you select songs that you want to record, what is the process of getting permission to use them?
"Well, it's real easy. What you do is...the publisher has to be paid and your record label takes care of all that. I think they pay them for however many they press. If they press ten thousand of them to sell, they pay for ten thousand of them up front. I'm not sure about this, but I think they have to pay so much a record whether they sell them or give the away or used for promotion or anything else. I think they have to pay the writers royalties, but they are going to pay writers royalties no matter what. It don't matter to them. I don't have enough good songs to put them all on my stuff on a record. I not greedy enough to want to make all the money off them either. I just want to keep them old, good old country music songs alive and if one of mine happens to major up to it, well, I'll put it on there. So far, I've got one on there that's mine and that's all I'm putting on it, one song. It's called, "My Ride With Jimmy." It's about this guy that gets on the...well, he's laying there on the bed and hears the old train go by and he thinks bout the time he was hoboing and he gets on the train and hears a old song being sung and sees this little guy with a brakeman's uniform on with the hoboes gathered ‘round sing with him. And then the guy listens to him for a while and when he opens his eyes he's found he's all alone. My Ride With Jimmy was just and old railroad vision that must still be hanging around. It's got a yodel in it."
So the song is connected to Jimmy Rogers?
"Yeah, that's who it is suppose to be, Jimmy Rogers and a bunch of hobos singing and then all of a sudden they weren't there anymore. He was just there by his self."
How did you get the idea for this song?
"I'm not sure. I co-wrote that with Pat Bowman and I'm not sure who come up with that...who came up with the idea, whether we independently did it or he...whether I did it or he did it, I just don't remember."
Have you ever thought of performing some songs with Nanci Griffith. In her own way, she has tried to keep
other folk singers' music alive?
No, I never even thought about that.
I wonder how you and Tish Hinojosa would sound together on some songs?
" I don't know. I traveled with Tish for about, off and on for four months, but we never did any duos together. I'm not a very good harmony singer, you know. Whoever records with me has got to do the harmony. I just don't know how to do it. Most everybody can sing better harmony than I can. It's just not one of my gifts. I just can't do it, and I never have done it before except with Skinny Don and that don't matter too much, you know. ‘Cause Skinny Don is like me, he sings harmony with me and neither one of us is great harmony singers, but he's better than I am at it."
On your Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In Album, there is a picture of you and your wife in the front seat of your car looking at the screen of a drive-in. Where was that photograph taken?
"In Lamesa, where I grew up. That ole Sky-Vue is still going. Yeah, we use to get up on top of the projection booth and play. Buddy Holly, he has one of the gigs, he come down and play on top of there too."
Is there any type of musical venue's that you particularly enjoy playing?
"Well, I like them where they're not....when they're small enough to where you visit with the crowd. I enjoy the festivals and the response you get from a huge crowd, but I like Threadgill's and Jovita's and the Broken Spoke, you know, because you can be with the people and we always give away pictures and bumper stickers and you can actually talk to the people and find out what they like. That's the kind that I like the best."
Do you have any favorite performers you particularly enjoy listening to?
"Well, I've got a lot of them, really. I like Merle Haggard and Mel Tillis, Hank Thompson and, oh mercy, Johnny Bush and, gosh, I could go on and on, George Jones. I liked ole Hank Williams, Senior, Carl Smith, Webb Pierce and Faron Young."
Did you ever play with The Browns?
"No, I never did. Jim Ed and Maxine and Bonnie Brown. Yeah, they were really tight back in their days."
Did you ever play with Jim Reeves?
"No, I met him one time when I was a kid. He had a song out called, Bimbo. Came through west Texas and stopped at the radio station right before, or right after we had...no, it was right before we performed our radio show. He came during the news. As soon as the news was over I carried him in there and introduced him to the disc jockey and they interviewed him on the air and played Bimbo."
What kind of a person did Jim Reeves come across as?
"Well, he seemed like a real nice fella to me. They called him ‘Gentleman Jim'.......He was nice when I met him."
Did you ever meet and perform with Mr. Kenneth Threadgill?
" I just saw him one time is all. I didn't get to meet him then, if I did I just shook his hand. I didn't visit with him or anything, you know."
Did you ever play at The Armadillo World Headquarters?
"No, that was before my time."
Have you ever worked with Willie Nelson?
"Just been around him a few times, played a few with him, that's all.
What is Mr. Nelson like?
" Oh, he's a nice guy! Went out to his house to his daughter's wedding when she married ole Johnny Rodriquez."
Willie has done a lot for the farmers.
"Yeah, I was going to do on one of those farm aides but they moved it way up back east somewhere and I didn't get to go."
A year or so ago, I believe it was on KUT radio station, on a Saturday morning program called Folkways, you
responded to a performer who was reading poetry. Your response expressed one of your core beliefs of life. Can
you recall what you said at that time?
"That must have been the guy who was reading poetry and stuff. There was some guy reading different things out of a book he wrote? Well, they asked me something. I don't remember how they worded it but...I told them that the greatest gift the good Lord gives people is free agency. You know, to do what they want to do. You know what I'm saying? That's the greatest gift we've got. We've got our free agency to choose how we're gonna live. Responsibility goes along with that free agency and when we impose our will on somebody else and it causes us grief, well it's our free agency to do that, but they have natural laws that go along with the free agency. A way a person is the happiest they can be is when they live by the laws. You know, a natural law is like... you got your free agency to crawl upon top of a building and jump off. You're free to do that, but the law of gravity is going to take effect. You're going to be punished by it by falling rather abruptly to the ground. You know what I mean? As you grow older you discover more laws, if you live by them, that's when you can be the happiest because there's
eternal laws that never can be changed. You know, you can overcome a law by using a parachute, come the law of gravity you can slow it down, it still works, but that slows it down. But, I don't know if I am making myself clear on that or not?"
Does this have to do with religion?
"Well, it's the core of most religions there are. If you kill somebody, you know there's the law of the land will prosecute you, if you get caught. If you don't, the good Lord will fix you up some day, I think. The greatest gift we got is to be able to do what we dang well please! But if you got your free agency to take dope and ruin your body or overeat like I do, you got to pay the price. You know, if you overeat and get fat, your knees are going to wear out before they're suppose to. That's what's happened to mine. Here I'm free to eat all I want to eat, but it's done me wrong! You know I didn't have to eat that much. You know what I'm saying? And if people who are on cigarettes, they're liable to get lung cancer and stuff like that. It's just some things you have to find out about them, I don't know, I call them eternal laws but maybe there's something else, I don't know."
Besides learning that actions have consequences, what are the lesson of life that has really stuck in your mind?
"Well, I think The Golden Rule is the best thing that ever come down the pike. If you'd stop before you said something to somebody and say how would this come across if I was standing over there where he's at and he's standing where I'm at and saying those things to me or doing something that I wouldn't want nobody doing to me...and every one of the religions has The Golden Rule in it someway worded someway."
Performing at different venues you experience different life styles that might be quite different than what
you practice, does that cause you any problems?
"No...everybody knows I don't....there's nobody tries to buy me a drink that knows me. Those that don't, I just tell them I don't drink and I don't smoke, you know, and things like that. They don't mentioned it any more and I don't either, you know."
For a performer, Don, don't you think you are very unique in this aspect?
"Well, when I's a growing up I watched people when they would drink a lot and get around forty or forty-five years old and they's start losing their voice and by the time they are as old as I am, they weren't able to sing any more and I didn't want that to happen to me. And too, you don't really know what's going on if all in a stupor over drinking too much, you know. So, I never did pick up the habit. If I was to drink and smoke, I don't think I would be singing right now."
How is your health overall?
"I just need to lose weight. I need to get my knees replaced. I'm going to the doctor the first part of April and see if I can talk him into replacing both of my knees."
You think you will have both knees replace at the same time?
"Yeah, he'd do both at one time."
Get some new treads for you, huh?
"Yeah, and hopefully by then I can get into some kind of exercise program. But the way things are now, my old feet and legs swell, and I am on water pills a few days and when they get down a little bit and with being on water pills, the mucous that comes from your nose will come down and stick on your vocal cords and you have to cough it off or something, you know, and it makes it kind of tough to sing because it's drying you up. One way it's danged if you don't and danged if you do. But, so far I'm making it all right, you know, health wise, I'm pretty healthy as far as that goes. It's just my bad knees and swelling in the legs, you know. I don't get enough exercise."
Not eating much is tough to do because one has to eat something.
"Well, I don't eat very much, you know, it's just that I don't get any exercise to get rid of it. If I's to stay out late to three or four o'clock in the morning, well, it takes me a couple of days to get over it, being up that late, you know, ‘cause I'm older, you know. It's just nothing any different than anyone else my age, you know."
When you were singing at the
Christmas Bazaar, I noticed on the music stand in front of you, you had some knob controls. What are those used
"That's my pre-amp for my guitar. It runs into that pre-amp and then on over to the board. I can control the volume and the tone both from right where I am sitting."
Are you active on the Internet?
"My boy [Allen] does most of my Internet stuff. He keeps it up and answers a good part of the email that I get, but there's always four or five people a month, or maybe more than that he'll pull it off the Internet and fax it to me and then I'll write up something and fax it back to him and he'll put it on the net."
I noticed at the Bazaar a young man sitting over by you wife?
"That was my grandson, I think. His name is Chip Roberts. He's my roadie! Him and his brother they...let see, Chip lives with us, but he just graduated from high school last year. He lives with us now. And then, Jimmy, his brother, whenever there's Spring break or whenever he can, he'll come help us too, you know...make himself a little bit of money for school and this, that, and another, you know."
As we have been talking, has there been any additional thoughts that you would like to express to your audience?
"Well, I just hope that, you know, we can get more younger people playing the old style country music. I tell everybody that they's the roots of country music are still alive but there's not many leaves left on the tree and that's just about right. I'd like to see them...and I believe from traveling all over the United States that there's a big hunger for that kind of music, you know, and the people are not being able to get it because the radio stations won't play it. I think it's a shame to have people like Merle Haggard around still recording...the guy that plays piano for me, Floyd Domino, he's out there right now recording stuff with Merle Haggard in California, and I'd be real surprised if any of it got played on top forty radio, ‘cause he's too country. Asleep at the Wheel puts some of the most beautiful music you ever heard out and they don't get played either. I'd like to see a change throughout the United States to where they'd play what they wanted to play.
Is this similar to popular music like the Beatles who were very popular and on top of the game at one time and the music moves on and there are other groups that are born and die, just a natural progression of things?
"No way, the way they do it now by consultants and stuff like that. If every bit of the music that is recorded would get a chance, you know, the best way to do that is from a disc jockey and the public, what him and the public likes, but they don't let anything that sounds real country put in the mix. You go down and get you a fruit salad and they don't put no apples in it, for example, you don't know what an apple taste like. And it is the same way if you put music out there, call it country music when it's really not country music for the most part it's rock and roll, what we use to call soft-rock, you know. They call it one thing but it's not country. The real country music is pushed aside. Merle Haggard, we mentioned him a little bit ago, they got these oldie stations that will play his old music some he did twenty years ago, but they don't play his new stuff on that radio station. They got another radio station that's top forty and his new stuff don't fit the venue, so it don't get played at all, not even on the oldie station for the most part."
Is the Grand Ole Opry today....
"Pretty much like it was forty years ago."
Have you played there?
"No, its one venue I hadn't got to play yet. I'd love to do it!
That seems like the place you ought to be there, right?
"Well, I'd love to be there. I know I hadn't been able to get on it yet, but maybe someday."
Who decides who gets on the Opry?
"Well, I think somebody said they just changed to a new guy that picks it. They've been people trying to get me on the Grand Ole Opry for about three or four years now and they hadn't none of them had a chance. Even Cindy Walker put a plea into them and it didn't do any good. I really don't know the reasoning for it. It could be my weight, I don't know, or age...
I do not see what that would have to do with it?
"Well, I know I...you know I was in High Low Country in the movies itself, actually I was in there and sung a song in it and I do lots of commercials for people, radio commercials....I know one time we had a commercial for Southwest Airlines and someone decided I's too fat, but they used my voice, had Porter Wagner mouth the words; then when the yodel come in, everybody looked at each other as if ‘Where did that coming from?' You know, it's just one of those things you got to live with when you're overweight, you know."
You are doing traditional country music. They have had Grandpa Jones, String Bean, and older guys than you on there.
"I think that the guy that was running it was going in a different direction. That may be reason why he's not doing it anymore, I don't know. There's always a chance that I'll get to do it someday."
[ Don's chance to sing at the Grand Ole Opry came in October 1999 and he enjoyed it very much. He said they liked his singing and invited him back, but he doesn't know when his return trip would be.]
Don Walser Interview on 3-23-1999; Austin, Texas
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