|From the liner notes by John Morthland:
THE TIME AND PLACE
Today, Don Walser has emerged from
Austin as perhaps the last of God's great pure country singers, with a
national and international following among those who like the real deal.
But late in the summer of 1959, Walser, a mechanic for the National Guard
who sang country music on the side, had just been transferred from Lemesa
to Midland, and shortly after arriving, he spotted an ad in the paper.
From here on out, he tells the story.
"They were looking for a country
singer, to play with the Texas Plainsmen. Well, the name existed, but they
were still trying to organize the band. Jim O' Neill had played with Warren
Powell, "Rocky Rhodes," up in Fort Worth, and he had moved to Midland and
went to work, so he bought a rent house and moved ol' Rocky out there,
helped him get a job so he'd have somebody to play with. I answered
the ad and then it was just the three of us for a little while. Then
we got ol' Carl Echols to join us and that made four. We played as a four-piece
quite a while. I had played with
Billy Richter in Lamesa, and after I talked Billy into moving over to Midland
we had a five-piece band. Never did have a bass player. We had some play
with us every once in a while, especially on radio.
"The other bands there was Buzz Busby,
Billy Thompson, I believe that the Gatlins were just starting out right
then. Roy Orbison was in that part of the country before he got known.
Hoyle Nix was the big band that everybody admired. Hoyle was from Big Spring,
but he played all over Texas, sometimes he'd even get out of Texas. Hoyle
worked most of the old Bob Wills guys; when they wanted to quit drinking,
they would go to Hoyle. He was kinda the Betty Ford of West Texas; he wouldn't
let 'em drink and he'd work 'em out there on the farm and he'd sweat some
of that stuff out of 'em. He played them old Bob Wills tunes, strictly
a dancehall guy. Out there, if you put Hoyle Nix in some kind of a joint
on one side of the street and put somebody well known on the other side
of the street, Hoyle'd have the crowd.
"I guess we were a pretty typical West
Texas band, doing pretty much what everyone else was doing. I think
out there we leaned a little more towards western swing than bands in other
parts of Texas. They'd be doing a lot more Tennessee stuff, but we did
some Tennessee stuff too. We also did things Bob Wills did, Spade Cooley,
Cliff Bruner had a band back then. We practiced once a week on Wednesday
or Thursday night, I don't remember for sure which, and it was my job to
always bring new lyrics and songs to the band. First part of the practice
session we'd work on songs we hadn‚t been doing. And then the next part
of it would be to do what we were gonna do on the show that Saturday on
the radio. Carl and his mother always taped the show, and afterwards we'd
go back to Carl's house and lay on the bed and listen to the show and talk
about it, what we needed to keep or change."
"We had a time when we first moved there
that was real slack, there wasn't any oil going and then right around the
time we moved it boomed, and then it went out again periodically like it
does out there. At the time these recordings were made, the economy was
fair, but nothing like it had been. I played with this band from 1959 to
1966. We played Odessa, Andrews, Lamesa, Big Spring, out in the Big Bend
area, Abilene. We played for the Elks Lodge, the Moose Lodge, the VFW,
the American Legion; we played a few honky tonks, not many, and did a lot
of private parties. We were a weekend band. When we did play honky tonks
it was mostly one-night gigs, we didn't do any three-and-four-nights-a-week
stuff like we do now. We all had nicknames. We did this radio show every
Saturday afternoon. Ol' Jim got the radio show, he went out and sold advertising,
you can tell from the tapes,
Branding Iron Steak House, I got Bill
Allen Shell station to sign up, we'd just all work together to try
to find somebody to buy the advertising."
"Alamo" Jim O'Neill, fiddle.
Jim O‚Neill did the announcing on the
radio show, and Jim booked the band. He was a landman for Ralph Lowe at
that time. Ralph was a big oil guy and well known in West Texas and probably
all over the oil bidness. Jim later on worked for himself, started his
own bidness as a landman; he'd just go out and lease land for people
to drill on, things like that. He's retired now. He was one of the most
precious men you‚d ever meet, ol' Jim O'Neill. Jim's an Irishman, little
Catholic boy with a whole gang of kids. I'll never forget, oh, I gotta
tell you this: one year during Lent he gave up drinking. And boy he was
a bear that whole time. And then when Lent was over, he tied one
on. (Laughs) I never will forget that."
Carl "Skins" Echols, drums.
"His dad owned Echols Oil Corporation
there. Carl was a good drummer. He was legally blind. He went to work later
for the IRS, and he just passed away in 1998."
Warren "Rocky Rhodes" Powell,
"Rocky was a building engineer down at
the Oil and Gas Building back when we were playing. He just passed away
a couple years ago. He was a good steelman, fine fellow to be around. 'Course,
I liked him cuz he's bald-headed."
Billy "Little Billy Bonnie" Richter,
"Billy and I played together when we was
kids, first band I was ever in; we called ourselves the Panhandle Playboys,
me and Billy Richter and Gene Richter, his brother. Then we branched out
from there, we'd have eight or nine pieces in the band. We didn‚t make
any money but we made a lot of music. I think he was working for
a steel company that had oil pipes; now he's working as a building engineer,
kinda like the way Warren Powell was doing at one time. Billy and Jim are
still in Midland."
Don "Donnie" Walser, vocals and
"I sang with the band. I wrote a few songs,
but I was about the only one in the band to write. Sometimes they called
me "Yodeling Don," I always did three or four yodeling songs to
whet the appetite. Slim Whitman and Elton Britt was my yodeling influences,
and Jimmie Rodgers of course."
"We just did the old, old songs, kinda
what I'm doing now. Did a little
western swing. 'Course back then
they was playing hard-core country
music on the radio, so we did a lot of
the stuff that was on the radio.
But we wasn't a cover band as such, you
know; we didn‚t just cover what
was on the radio. We didn't throw an old
good song away to pick up
something new that might not be as good.
We got a lot of requests for
'em and we learned 'em. I remember when
the "Limbo Rock" came out. I
hated that song, but everybody wanted
to do the "Limbo Rock"‚ I told the
band I wasn't gonna do it, they was just
gonna have to learn it
themselves and do it as an instrumental.
We did it instrumental for a
long time. I got to rehearsal one
night and all the rest of them was
there, they cornered me and said, "You
gonna learn it, I've got the
words here, you gonna learn it. We ain't
gonna just play it, you gonna
sing it." So I had to learn it, but after
the fad went out, I forgot the
words, thank goodness.
"They pretty well let me sing what I wanted
to if they could play it,
and most of the time they could. If they
were good songs, we learned
them. We did a lot of Eddie Arnold songs
like "Then I Turned and Walked
Slowly Away"‚ "Each Minute Seems
a Million Years," the stuff he did in
the '40s and early '50s; when he started
doing crossover stuff, I kinda
lost interest. But he had such a wonderful
voice. We did "Cattle Call"‚
We did a few Merle Travis. "Makes No
Difference Now," Floyd Tillman.
"Lonesome 77203"‚ We did some Ray
Price tunes, 'course, "Crazy Arms,"
"My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You."
We did a lotta George Jones tunes,
even "White Lightnin" back then.
Couple of Jim Reeves songs. I met him
once; he came through Lamesa back when
his song "Bimbo" was hot. 'Course
we did a lotta the old Jimmie Rodgers
stuff, like "All around the water tank / waiting for a train"‚ "California
Blues"‚ those old blue yodel tunes. We did a lot of what they call
shuffle songs nowadays. They really weren't shuffle songs but they were
songs with a 4-4 beat behind them. "Jack to a King" was the
only real shuffle song I ever heard, really. What makes that
shuffle sound is piano, working back and forth. The younger people nowadays
think it's the guitar making that sound, but it's not. They're all downbeats
on the guitar.
"We used to do "Five foot two, eyes
of blue", and Billy every once in a
while would sing "Won't You Ride In
My Little Red Wagon"‚ We probably
coulda played a thousand songs, but we
didn't do that many; we stuck to
the best ones or the ones they liked the
best. Back in the '50s, we had to do a few rock 'n‚ roll tunes, you know,
the old rock 'n‚ roll. Chuck Berry stuff. It wasn't my bag. I love Chuck
Berry, though, and I love them old songs. It's just not what I'm about."
I wrote it. It was to the tune of "I
Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart."
Rocky Rhodes Stomp
"Rocky wrote that himself, some kinda
little instrumental, he may have borrowed some of it off somebody else
for all I know. This was his showcase."
Rainbow on the Rio Colorado
"That's an old cowboy song. I dont know
if it's public domain or not, but it's a beautiful waltz tune, and it's
got a yodel in it. I actually put the yodel in; it didn't have one when
I first heard it. It goes so far back I don't remember how I heard it;
most of 'em I do, but for the life of me I can't remember."
"Billy did that, and the other guys helped
him. They always let everybody do their thing, kinda like eatin‚ a watermelon
and everybody'd get their slice. Bill probably got it off the Bill Doggett
original version that was a big hit. Western swing in Bob Wills‚ day was
actually jazz and blues musicians anyway, when they started playing his
kind of stuff. It's a thread running through everything, all of that stuff
is akin to each other."
Rolling Stone from Texas
I wrote that in about 1951. I didn't know
enough yodel tunes, and I was driving an old oilfield rig truck between
Lamesa and Seminole, Texas, and I started singing that song, trying to
get some words in my head, and between there and Seminole I wrote that
song, and I sung it over and over so I wouldn't forget it. It was probably
ten years before I ever wrote the words down, it was just in my head. We
put it out on a little single, Plainsmen label, our own little label, in
the '60s with the Texas Plainsmen. Carl Echols sent it off to Billboard
they rated it four stars on one side, two stars on the other side. I thought
that was pretty good. We didn't know what to do, of course. That's the
only one we released. And we played it every show, they always wanted
to hear a yodel, and so we'd do this and "Casting My Lasso‚" and
Steel Guitar Waltz
"I wrote that myself. Rocky put his own
melody to it in his part. I sung it one way, he played it a different way;
it's actually got two melodies, and we just changed 'em back and forth.
He'd play his line at the beginning and I'd sing my melody, and he played
his same line in the middle and then on the end of it too, and I sang my
melody in between. We played a lot of them old country dances, and we'd
play out on a terrace somewhere, and I can still see the people dancing
in all those dim-lit rooms. 'Course back in the '30s, and back when I started
playing, they would move all the furniture outta the room and have a dance,
take it out to the yard. We did a few of those things, and that‚s kinda
where I got the idea. I wanted to do something for 'ol Rocky, too. It was
one of our waltzes, we did it every time, you bet."
Soldier's Joy / Raggedy Ann
"Traditional old fiddle tunes. Jim would
pick the traditional fiddle things we did. Oh lord, we probably knew twenty
or thirty of 'em. He wasnt a great fiddle player, but he was a good
player. He single-noted best; he didn't play harmony with himself
like a lotta fiddlers did. But he was clean with it, y'know, and he worked
Begging To You
That was a Marty Robbins song that was
kind of a hit back in those days, back in the '50s. Everybody was big on
Marty Robbins back then. I did lots of Martys songs. I did "At the End
of a Long Lonely Day‚" (which I just finished recording), "Castle
in the Sky," "White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation,"" El
Paso," later on. When I lived in El Paso I was playing for the El Paso
Tourist and Convention Center to promote tourism in El Paso and I had to
sing that pretty near every place we went."
A String Boogie
"That was just a boogie in A. Most bands
just say, "Let's play a boogie in A‚" and then they just play what they
feel, y'know. It's just an old boogie and it's like all boogies are.
Once we did one, wed come back to it every once in a while if we needed
something. It'd be different every time. Billy'd play every song different
every time, he really was good at it."
"That was an Elton Britt song and I've
recorded it since then. If you watch this Chicago Hope, one segment
of it, this doctor was on top of his roof, he had his jambox and my version
of "Cowpoke" was playing. I've been doing that song a LONG time.
It's just got a beautiful yodel to it."
Steel in C
"That's kinda like the "A String Boogie,"
I guess, but I don't know if that's the real title. I don't know who put
that down, "Steel in C," he probably didn't recognize the tune so
he just put down "Steel in C." (Producers' note: That's
what it's called in Carl Echols meticulous notes.)
"That's another Marty Robbins tune. I
love ballads and slow songs and most of the time they'd wanna show my voice
off, so they'd wanna do songs that I sung the best on the radio. So we
didn't do a lotta shuffles or other kinda songs, mostly picked ballads
that made me sound real good. At parties, we'd do more dance music, but
this was a singer's set for the radio. This is a wonderful song, really
shows my voice off."
"Down Yonder‚" was just an instrumental
we played; Del Wood had done it on piano. When we played for parties we
played quite a few instrumentals because back then they really liked to
rag, and that's just where they shuffle their feet and go around the floor.
Theyd do that old "Cotton Eye Joe" back then. We always had a "Paul
Jones" where the ladies would make a circle on the inside and the men
would face them on the outside and they'd go around and round and somebody
would blow a whistle and they'd grab somebody and the band would fiddle
Casting My Lasso
I saw Slim Whitman once, back in the '40s,
out there in Lamesa, in the ballfield. They had a big crowd for him. When
he started singing "Casting My Lasso"‚ I listened to every word, cuz I
could learn a song hearing it once back then. So I ran off the ballfield
and got away to where I couldn't hear what was going on and sung it about
three or four times over and over until I memorized it, then I run back
and seen the rest of the show. I finally got a copy of that last year,
and I was singing it just a little bit wrong, but it was so good I didn't
change it. I did meet Slim Whitman later, when I was playing with
the Texas Plainsmen. In the '60s he come to Odessa with Jimmie Day playing
steel. I went backstage and met him that time."
"I learned that off the radio. We lived
close to Abilene and we got a lotta requests for it. And it‚s a good dance
tune, too. Another thing we used to have to play every night was "Cowtown."
Ol' boy named Boots Brown, he was a farmer near where we played, he always
liked that, so we'd get to the line where I was supposed to sing "Their
hats are white and their boots are brown‚" and I would sing "Their hats
are white and ol' Boots Brown," and wherever he was at he'd just yell his
head off. I never will forget, he had an ulcer but he liked whiskey. So
he mixed it with milk, he thought that milk would make it okay. He called
it Jersey highballs."
"When I moved from Midland on down to Port
Arthur in 1966-67, they kept playing for another fifteen or twenty years
with a different singer. Same guys, but they added another singer. Fact,
it was a guy we hired to play bass before I left, that's who took my place
as singer. Nix Farriss. Nix played with me a little while back when I was
in Lamesa, then we hired him to play bass and he came about three or four
months before I left. He's in some of the pictures, but he never
was on the radio with us. I haven't seen him. What happened, his little
girl got killed in an accident and it kinda took the wind out of his sails.
He quit and they added another singer after that, I don't know what his
"I think we was just a buncha guys
having fun. All of us had day jobs and we wasn't wanting to go on the road.
We were all raising families. I did have ambition, but I was realistic
too. I always had that thought of, "What if somebody comes by and discovers
me?" But that ain't gonna happen. I didn't realize it back then.
You'd see somebody who looked like he was really interested in what you
was doing and you'd say, I wonder if he's from a record label. You know
how kids are. I was 30 years old in 1964. I think I probably would
have been major label potential back then, if I had been able to starve
a couple years like you had to do. Heck, I was married and had a couple
kids. I couldn't let them starve. A lotta musicians are just workingmen,
they make a living and it's really tough on 'em. We probably got $20-25
a man for a party, so that was pretty good. I was making about $4200 a
year with the National Guard. I think the others were making a little more
than I did. I probably made a little more than Billy, but I think Rocky
and Jim was making quite a bit more than I was. We might make as much as
$50 on two jobs, but that was like $200 now. I had a three-bedroom, two-bath
brick house, and my payments were just $85 a month."
"Both the band and the tapes are
imperfect, but if you ever wondered what West Texas sounded like in the
early to mid 1960s, look no further. Here's your answer."
-Don Walser 8/3/99