Country singer and yodeler Don Walser was born in Brownfield, Texas, on September 14, 1934. He was one of five children of Verda King and Lemuel Loretta Walser. Lemuel Walser was a farmer in Brownfield, but shortly after Don Walser’s birth, he moved the family to Lamesa, Texas, and went to work for the Lamesa Cotton Oil Mill. Verda King died of a blood clot when Don was eleven years old.
At a very early age Don Walser became enamored with country music after hearing it on border radio stations. Inspired by the yodeling cowboys and the western swing music he heard, young Don would climb trees, sit there for hours, and practice his own yodeling and singing skills in homage to Jimmie Rodgers, Eddy Arnold, Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, and other popular artists. These childhood musical heroes would continue to inspire Walser throughout his career and help shape his roots-country repertoire.
In 1948 at the age of fourteen, Walser received his first guitar. The following year as a fifteen year old, he joined the Texas National Guard after telling the recruiter that he was seventeen. At sixteen years of age Walser formed his first band, the Panhandle Playboys, who occasionally shared billing with a young and as-yet-unknown Buddy Holly. Not having a phone at his house, Walser often learned of where he was playing by listening to local radio disc jockeys.
In 1951 Walser married Patricia Robertson. The couple raised two biological children, two adopted children, and several foster children. For most of his life, Walser’s devotion to his family, his involvement in the Texas National Guard, and his refusal to leave Texas prevented him from pursuing his musical career beyond simply a weekend hobby.
As the years passed, Walser formed new bands such as the Texas Plainsmen and the El Paso Amigos. In 1964 he finally received national recognition when Billboard magazine gave his song, “Rolling Stone from Texas,” a four-star review. Still a member of the National Guard, in 1984 Walser relocated to Austin where he was stationed at Camp Mabry. By the end of the decade he began playing at such popular local venues as the Broken Spoke. However it was not until he started performing regularly at Henry’s Bar and Grill on Burnet Road that he gained a large following. By 1990 he was playing with his own group Pure Texas Band.
As a direct result of his growing success, Walser caught the attention of talent scout T. J. McFarland in 1990. After Walser retired from the National Guard in 1994, the sixty-year-old musician became able, for the first time in his life, to pursue music on a full-time basis. Shortly thereafter he signed with Watermelon Records and released his first LP entitled Rolling Stone from Texas. The next few years proved increasingly successful for Walser. His reputation soon spread beyond Texas, and he became popular throughout the United States and abroad.
Walser received a number of awards and accolades. In 1996 the Austin Chronicle voted his group the Top Country Band of the year. In 1997 he received an Indie award from the Association for Independent Music. In that same year he performed with the classical Kronos Quartet at Bass Concert Hall. He also played the Grand Ole Opry in 1999 and again in 2001. In 2000 Walser received a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in the same year he and the Pure Texas Band played at New York’s Kennedy Center. A writer for Playboy magazine was so impressed with Walser’s talents that he dubbed him the “Pavarotti of the Plains.” In 1998 Walser appeared in the movie The Hi-Lo Country, and three of his songs were included in the soundtrack to another film, Secondhand Lions (2003).
Walser especially enjoyed performing older and more obscure cowboy and country songs for audiences who were largely unfamiliar with more traditional music. In addition to having many older and middle-aged fans, he also attracted younger audiences, including many punk rock enthusiasts, at such Austin venues as Emo’s. The fact that Walser opened for such bands as the Butthole Surfers and Ministry is a testament to his eclectic tastes and broad popularity among a variety of audiences. Walser also performed with and influenced a number of more traditional folk and country artists including Slaid Cleaves, Gurf Morlix, and Dale Watson.
In 2001 Walser was diagnosed with a disease of the nervous system known as neuropathy, which seriously hindered his ability to perform. By 2003 he was forced to retire from the music business altogether. Due to complications brought on by diabetes, he passed away on September 20, 2006, at the age of seventy-two. Walser was buried with military honors at the San Antonio National Cemetery. He was survived by his wife Pat, his sister Olive Dodson, daughters Donna and Jane, sons Michael and Allan, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was inducted into the Austin Music Memorial in 2012.