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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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Girl Scout Cookie Sales 2014

22 Feb

GSCTXcookiesales    Troop 887 leader Nichol Lee and her 10-year-old daughter, Grace, will sell Girl Scout cookies faithfully at the front doors of several Oak Hill commercial businesses seven days a week for 37 days throughout January and February.

The Lees join nearly 80 other troops in the Oak Hill unit of the Girl Scouts of Central Texas (GSCTX) council who are selling cookies in front of local businesses like Randall’s, Torchy’s Tacos, Starbucks, Subway, and Walgreens.

The Girl Scouts sell whatever cookies they have on hand for immediate consumption from 3:30 until 8 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends, come rain or shine. And they’ll sell cookies by cash, check, credit or debit card.

“I do it for the girls,” Lee said. “I was not a Girl Scout in the small town in Illinois where I grew up because Maroa didn’t have a troop; I was in 4-H, but I love Girl Scouts.”

For every box of cookies the girls sell, the GSCTX receives $3.60 and each troop earns .40 cents. Troop 887 plans to use the money raised from selling cookies to create support kits for children with cancer at Dell’s Children’s Hospital, Nichol Lee said. The kits will also help them earn their Bronze Awards in Girl Scouts.

“Even if you don’t want any cookies, you can help us support kids who have cancer,” said Grace Lee.

Troop 887 member Sydney Dean, 10, pitched her own sales agenda.

“The money goes to kids who have cancer and you can help us support them,” Dean said.

Both Grace Lee and Dean hope to support Dell’s Children’s Hospital patients by making knit caps out of T-shirt material for kids who have lost their hair due to chemotherapy treatments. They plan to give the caps to pre-teen child cancer patients along with a special support kit complete with books, crayons, pencils, note pads, and Rainbow Loom kits. For younger patients, they would like to give the caps along with My Little Pony color books, action figures, and Matchbox Cars, they said.

“But before they can start that project to earn their Bronze Awards, they have to go on a journey to learn how to save energy in Austin,” Nichol Lee said.

At Kiker Elementary, the girls also hope to spend a couple of weeks teaching their peers the importance of turning off the lights at home when rooms are not in use.

In Oak Hill alone, 80 Girl Scout troops including 622 girls sold 68,939 boxes of cookies last year.  This year, the neighborhood troops ordered 49,968 boxes, said product program manager Sierra Fernandes of GSCTX, which stretches from Stephenville to San Marcos.

Girl Scouts from six local elementaries including: Kiker, Mills, Baldwin, Clayton, Oak Hill and Patton, along with Gorzycki and Small middle schools, and James Bowie High School will sell cookies until they are all gone.

For as long as they last, six types of cookies will be offered in Oak Hill, including: the overall universal favorite Thin Mints, as well as Tagalongs, Samoas, Do-si-dos, Trefoils and the new Savannah Smiles specialties. However, some may find the new cookie names confusing.

Four types of Girl Scout’s cookies share two names because different bakers – Little Brownie Bakers and ABC Bakers — produce them. Regardless of the names, the cookies look similar and taste familiar. While each box of Girl Scout cookies cost $4, not all cookies are equal, when it comes to calories.

The nationwide favorite, vegan Thin Mints have only one name and still remain coated in a layer of rich chocolaty confection; four cookies serve up 160 calories.

The Samoas represent the second most popular Girl Scout cookie camouflaged in a chewy slathering of caramel stripes on top of toasted coconut, also known as Carmel deLites.  However, just two Samoas amount to 150 calories. Two Tagalongs, or Peanut Butter Patties offer 130 calories with a layer of peanut butter hiding inside a chocolate-like shell.  The Shortbread cookies are also known as Trefoils; five cookies equal 160 calories per serving. Do-si-dos are also called Peanut Butter Sandwich; three cookies serve up 160 calories.

This year’s newest offering, Savannah Smiles, sell by only one name; five of the lemon cookies dusted in powdered sugar hold just 120 calories. The tart treat celebrates more than 100 years of Girl Scouts and the city where Juliette Gordon Low founded the Georgia organization in 1912. Last year, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Low the Presidential Medal of Freedom to recognize her contributions to private and public civic service.

Service represents the foundation of the Girl Scouts organization, said Lois Garcia-Baab, director of marketing and communications for GSCTX.

“We’ve always been about service,” Garcia-Baab said. “For everything we do in Girl Scouts, service is a part of it.”

Patrons may donate to the Girl Scouts of Central Texas Council by buying a seventh box or “virtual cookies,” sold as part of the national program, “Operation Cookie,” Garcia-Baab said. For every box of virtual cookies sold, the Girl Scout council will drop ship any variety to United States military personnel stationed around the world, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other American military bases served include Kuwait, Africa and Honduras.

This year, when customers buy those virtual boxes, the cookies will be sent to soldiers overseas and GSCTX will cooperate with the F7 Group, a women’s veteran organization that provides care packages to female military members and their families. However, the F7 Group is not the sole beneficiary of the program, Garcia-Baab said.

The F7 Group also provides ongoing retreats and motivational boot camps as well as regular camaraderie for female military veterans. The fellowship helps women veterans deal both with depression and post traumatic stress syndrome that can accompany their discharge from active military service.

Veteran U.S. Army Sgt. Adria Garcia said she counts on the F7 Group for support daily.  Garcia was serving one tour of active duty on Sept. 11, 2004, when she and other members of her unit suffered severe injuries after being hit by shrapnel when mortar from enemy fire penetrated the perimeter of the U.S. Embassy in Bagdad.

Garcia became one of two from her unit to earn a Purple Heart that year, but after her military service ended she felt isolated and she would have ended up homeless had it not been for the help she received from the F7 Group.

“As women, we wear many hats; we take care of our families and we put ourselves last, but we also have dreams and we want to do things,” Garcia said.

“The Girl Scouts help to remind me that there are other people out there who need my help and to remind me to count my blessings. What I might be taking for granted someone else is praying for.”

Garcia, a 42-year-old old grandmother of two, said her both she and her daughter, Erika Manker, plan to become Girl Scout leaders. Garcia volunteered to help load boxes into cars for four hours at the GSCTX Mega Cookie Drop.

F7 Group CEO and founder Cassaundra Melgar-C’DeBaca also volunteered at the Mega Cookie Drop by loading boxes of cookies for the Girl Scouts at Freescale Jan. 11.

“Everybody on my leadership team in F7 Group is ‘of the cloth’ – either a veteran or a spouse of a veteran,” Melgar-C’DeBaca said. “There is a level of camaraderie and trust that comes from going through similar experiences and paths walked in the military. I don’t necessarily have to suffer a bomb attack like Adria Garcia, but we are all connected through friends and family by building relationships through the military.”

F7 Group celebrates its third birthday in Austin May 7, she said. For more information about F7 Group, go to:

“We (F7 Group members) just get back to being center. As we’re women, we’re always serving. That’s just who we are,” Melgar-C’DeBaca said. “As veterans, that’s exponentially so because by nature, we are all servants and givers. By nurture – by military training, sacrifice is what we are trained to do. Everything is about the mission. Someone’s life is on the line with those decisions. After serving in the military, women lose their identity because they no longer have that mission anymore. They don’t know their value anymore.”

Melgar-C’DeBaca said that she joined the Brownies as a youngster growing up in the 1970s at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, the daughter of a U.S. Army career officer. Today, she recognizes that a large number of female military veterans share a love for the Girl Scout organization.

“Many of our soldiers have served in Girl Scouts. Everyone on base was in scouts when I was growing up; that was just part of our culture,” Melgar-C’DeBaca said.

Helping others served as the primary motivation for Gabriella Castillo, a sophomore at San Juan Diego Catholic High School, who joined Brownies and Girl Scouts 11 years ago, she said.

“It’s important to help others and to work together,” Castillo said. “When we get together with friends, the work is just fun.”

Castillo together with her friend, Teresa Oreilla, also a sophomore, at St. Dominic Savio Catholic High School, are working to obtain their Gold Awards in Girl Scouts.

“Volunteering is fun,” Oreilla said. “It’s a lot of fun doing all of the activities we do, like the Mega Drop.”

In the early morning hours of Saturday Jan. 11 volunteers unloaded thousands of cases of confections from six semi trailer trucks onto the asphalt parking lot at Freescale Semiconductor Inc. in Oak Hill.

The GSCTX volunteers, dressed in goldenrod T-shirts that read “Mega Drop,” and created tall towers of cases of Girl Scout cookies three to four lanes wide with six stations each and distributed to a non-stop caravan of cars.

Others held clipboards and announced orders to fellow volunteers who loaded car trunks and truck flatbeds all day long in assembly line fashion, cheerfully without stopping for longer than moments at a time.  The women made easy work of the tasks at hand, despite the 15-20 mph winds, a heavy dusting of cedar pollen and chilly temperatures in the 50s.

This year’s Mega Cookie Drop for the Oak Hill service unit of GSCTX drew volunteers and carloads of people from all over Austin and adjacent subdivision.

“It’s a well-oiled machine. It’s pretty impressive,” said Michelle Gonzales, of Meridian subdivision and leader of Oak Hill’s Troop 258, volunteered at the mega drop for the first time as a loading leader.  She and her three daughters, Elise, 10, and Cara, 8, have sold cookies for the past six years. The youngest, Amy, at two and a half years old, just isn’t old enough yet.

“I love what Girl Scouts has taught my daughters – to be independent along with the camaraderie and adventure camps. Because of Girl Scouts, we’ve done things together we wouldn’t normally have done otherwise.”

Mary Henderson, of Troop 237, said she has served as a volunteer for the past 12 years at the Mega Cookie Drop.

Henderson’s daughter, Aidan, 14, has been a member of the Brownies or the Girl Scouts since she was in the first grade. Both Aidan and Kristen Loewe, also 14, earned their Bronze Awards together, said Loewe’s mom, Jan.

The GSCTX unit based in Austin serves about 14,000 girls in 46 counties with Brownwood, Bryan/College Station, Kileen, San Angelo, Stephenville, Temple and Waco.

The $700 million 2014 Girl Scout Cookie Program represents the largest girl-led sales event in the United States with more than 3.2 million girls and adult members. In addition to building confidence, the seasonal activity teaches the girls to make their own decisions, that their decisions count, and how to make change matter. For more information about GSCTX go to: or for more information about the Girl Scouts in general, go to: :

Published in the Oak Hill Gazette

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