Don Walser band reunites at the Broken Spoke

22 Feb

QuisenberryatWalserreunionReal estate agent by day, Janie Quisenberry donned a red and gold-fringed western outfit, boots, and a cowgirl hat one cold January night to sing again beneath spotlights on a southwest Austin honky tonk stage.

Quisenberry and other part-time local country stars – all senior citizens – left behind day jobs or retirement Jan. 21 to perform at the Broken Spoke on South Lamar.

Until midnight – on a weeknight – they yodeled and crooned before hundreds of aged fans to honor the late Texas Swing Hall of Fame great Don Walser at his fourth tribute and reunion since he died in 2006 at the age of 72.

Walser didn’t cut his first album, Rolling Stone from Texas, until he was 61 years old and a local talent scout “discovered” the country singer and bit actor who had retired from the National Guard and moved to Austin in 1994. One of Walser’s biggest hits, “John Deer Tractor,” Brennen Leigh sang for him that Tuesday night.

All of the musicians who came out on a week night shared stories or sang some songs Walser once did in the style of Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers or other traditional country music stars.

“I didn’t make that the criteria when I invited people – that they had to sing a Don Walser song,” Kalish said. “We sang a lot of standards, but we did those that were his songs too.”

Slaid Cleaves performed a set filled with Walser’s songs.  He also sang one that he wrote about the man who later became his mentor:

“And every soul in that roadhouse

felt the power of his song.

Through life’s joys and sorrows

he brought us together as one.

They called him ‘God’s own yodeler,

The Pavoratti of the plains.’

There’s no bigger voice in Texas.

Don Walser was his name.”

     Cleaves, who also plays guitar, may be the only guy who can yodel anywhere near the Don Walser artistry, Kalish said.

Fiddler Chojo Jacques from Dripping Springs played a duet with Cleaves on stage as part of the tribute.

“Many years ago, when I was just starting out I played an opening set for Don Walser and the Pure Texas Band.  I was just a solo act at the time, and my songs were all of the tragic folk variety.  Don said to me after my set, ‘Slaid, you sure do know how to make ’em cry!  But you need to learn how to make ’em laugh, too.’  Don saw that I was interested in and influenced by the country music of his generation.  And I got the feeling it warmed his heart that someone 30 years younger was keeping a bit of his music and his memory alive,” Cleaves said.

Carl Hutchins sang “Cattle Call,” and “Don’t Worry About Me,” two songs that Walser used to sing often at the Broken Spoke.  The band also performed “Whiskey River” and other classics of country music.

Fiddler Howard Kalish and legendary bassist “Skinny” Don Keeling performed with Walser for more than 14 years and played together at the Broken Spoke for the first time in 1991.

“A lot of these people are those who Don Walser enjoyed, like Janie Quisenberry and Ted Roddy. He (Walser) always liked Ted’s voice and the way he did (the song) ‘Borrowed Angel,’ which we got Ted to do,” Kalish said. “So we covered quite a few of Don’s tunes.”

Quisenberry said she first met Walser in 1984.

“I was managing a BMI Music publishing company called Texas Crude. Our meager little office was located in what was originally the Sheraton Terrace Motel at the corner of South Congress and Academy Drive,” Quisenberry said. “Willie Nelson and Tim O’Conner were also housed there.”

One day Walser walked into Quisenberry’s office with a few cassette recordings of his songs in hand.

“Good thing because all the equipment I had was a small mint green radio/cassette player,” she said.  “He introduced himself and asked if I might have time to listen to a couple of songs he had written. As I recall he was still living in Bastrop and finishing up his National Guard work, but I can’t swear to that. He put on a tape and I fell apart.”

At the time Quisenberry tried to interest her connections in Nashville into buying Walser’s songs.

“I went to Nashville with the intent of pushing Don’s songs to one the coolest swing players I knew. I did and I guess just because of fate and the world of music, it was clear that the only person in the world created to sing Don’s songs was Don Walser.  He had a start early in life and put it on hold for many, many years, but when he took that second chance at his dream he caught the gold ring.”

Kalish said anyone who sings Walser’s songs has a hard act to follow.

“It’s kind of intimidating to tell people, ‘oh here’s a Don Walser song that you need to sing like Don Walser,’ you know. If it’s ‘Waltz Across Texas,’ it can be sort of scary. He was one of the best singers,” Kalish said.

Some Walser fans have been dancing at the Broken Spoke for the past three decades including Marcia Koch and her husband of Bastrop.

“We remember a lot of these performers from years ago when they played with Don Walser,” Koch said. “It’s great to see them all again and to be here dancing – it feels like yesterday.”

A lot of the people in the audience at Walser’s tribute, Kalish remembered seeing 20 years earlier dancing on that same dance floor.

“Going by, I thought ‘oh hey, there they are,’ you know?” Kalish said.

Keeling said seeing those older couples brought back a lot of memories. He said the band members knew regular singles who met on that dance floor and became romantic couples.

“We would see these stag people – independent girls and boys — who would start dancing together and five years later they married,” Keeling said. “Consequently, we played a lot of weddings.”

In the early years, Walser became somewhat of a wedding singer for his large fan-based following.

“So we played a lot of weddings as a result of our gigs, not only at the Broken Spoke, but everywhere,” Kalish said. “We would play a wedding and Don Walser would say ‘If I play your wedding then you can’t ever get divorced.’”

Kalish together with fiddler and singer Jason Roberts Jan. 21 used hand signals to alert  Keeling to chord changes and key signatures for songs they performed; they gestured with two or three fingers held to their chests as the band started songs in each set.

“On songs I don’t know, he (Kalish) gives me the numbers,” Keeling said. “For the big band songs, I know a lot of them, but some of ‘em I don’t. Neither he nor Jason (Roberts) need to say a word. They just turn around and give me the numbers.”

Keeling said he learned to play by ear on both guitar and stand up bass, which he played for 20 years before switching to electric bass.

After graduating McCallum High School Keeling performed as a freelance musician playing bass in various local bands in the late 1950s including Jimmy Martin, considered the king of bluegrass and Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys of Tennessee. Keeling played bass with Charlie and Ira Louvin of the Louvin Brothers band. The Louvin Brothers, opened for late great stars such as George Jones at Hilltop Inn and Elvis Presley first at Dessau Hall in Pflugerville and again in the Louisiana Hayride at Houston City Auditorium in the 1950s. For a short time, Keeling also played with High Noon, a rockabilly trio.

By the time Keeling joined Walser’s band in 1989 he had gained a name for his style of  “walking the bass,” a chord progression that rises and falls in pitch over several bars, in quarter note movement, by holding two, three or four beats. It’s a sound that forms the heartbeat of any good country song.

Kalish and another Walser band member, piano player Floyd Domino, taught Keeling  how to perform a few baseline riffs “back in the day,” Keeling said.

“Kalish said ‘there it is.’ And I said ‘I’ll be darned; this is what I’ve been looking for.’  It’s amazing. It was the grandest thing that ever happened. Floyd or Howard would tell me, ‘that’s three, two short, then two.’ Till then, come to find out I had been leaving it out of half the songs,” Keeling said. “Today I’ve still got it. I can slap it too.”

Walser and the band played at the Broken Spoke regularly until his diabetes made him too ill to perform in 2003.

During the 1960s Walser called his band, The Texas Plainsmen. They didn’t become known as the Pure Texas Band until the 1980s.

“Before I started playing with him, he was kind of regional. He would perform in the areas where he lived,” Kalish said. “Once he gained some national attention, we did some national tours and he did a few on his own without us, with a different group.”

Walser gained attention for the hit “John Deer Tractor,” a song off the Rolling Stone From Texas album produced in Austin by Ray Benson of the Asleep at the Wheel band on independent label, Watermelon Records.

“He (Walser) never got top 40 hit air play or anything, but he got lots of attention and he had a following,” Kalish said. “His songs played on what you call underground stations and college radio – that was really before there was an Internet of any consequence. Somehow, though, people heard about him, however they hear about people who are under the radar.”

The Austin Chronicle voted Walser “Best Performing Country Band” in 1996 and he received a National Association of Recording Artists award in 1997, for his independently produced album. The National Endowment for the Arts bestowed Walser with at lifetime heritage award in 2000 and he performed at the Grand Ole Opry in both 1999 and 2001.

“At the Grand Ole Opry, when we performed ‘Riders in the Sky,’ all the other performers came up to shake Don’s hand and said ‘we’ve never heard yodeling like this,’” Keeling said. “Not since Elton Britt.”

Britt, a native of Arkansas, set the American standard for country yodeling from the 1940s through the 1960s, following a tradition set in the 1930s by late great Jimmie Rodgers. Walser captured their famous yodeling styles and more from Slim Whitman, best remembered for his three-octave falsetto and his tour with Elvis Presley in the 1950s and direct television marketing in the 1970s.  Whitman died in June last year.

“Don had a bunch of different kinds of yodels that were interesting. He had Elton Britt’s kind of turkey yodel. If you listen closely to both, you can tell that Don definitely listened to Elton Britt, who was a protégé’ of Jimmie Rodgers,” Kalish said. “Don liked Slim Whitman a lot because Whitman had a falsetto and Don had an amazing falsetto as well.”

Walser used to often say that he thought of himself as a country singer who could yodel, Kalish said.

“He didn’t think of himself as a yodeler because to him that was like a ‘one trick pony’ you know. When I first heard him sing, he didn’t yodel at all; I was just amazed by his voice. Then he did the yodeling and I thought my god, that knocked it up a couple of notches,” Kalish said.

Whenever Walser performed at the Broken Spoke, close to 400 people would show up to see him. Walser would perform about five songs and then would invite Kalish and Keeling to each sing a few songs. He would introduce the two by saying:  “You get tired of picking up diamonds,” Keeling said.

Keeling performed “Blue House Painted White” and “More and More,” during the Walser tribute performance in January.

“I’m old, but I just keep going,” Keeling said. “My heart runs like a jet airplane.”

Keeling received a Pacemaker that doctors surgically installed in his chest eight years ago that helps his heart keep time, he said.

Walser’s drummer Phil Fajardo recently also received his Pacemaker a few weeks ago.

The Broken Spoke’s owner, James M. White, joined the group’s unofficial Pacemaker club last fall. On the night of the tribute and reunion, White was home preparing for endoscopic sinus surgery scheduled for Jan. 30.

“We would always look forward to James White singing ‘Back in the Saddle Again.’ He would honor us and he did a pretty good job of it,” Keeling said. “Walser loved him and he loves Don.”

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2 Responses to “Don Walser band reunites at the Broken Spoke”

  1. John Reiley September 15, 2016 at 6:50 am #

    It’s slightly disappointing that none of Don Walser’s children(two of which, Al and Janey, were there at most if not virtually all of his gigs, including The Grand Ol’ Opry) are heard from in the article.

    Like

    • Donna Marie Miller October 2, 2016 at 1:11 pm #

      Hi John. I wish I had known. I would have loved to have interviewed Walser’s children for this article and for my book about the Broken Spoke as well. The book publishes this spring with Texas A&M University Press.

      Like

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