Watching Don Walser perform with his Pure Texas Band on Christmas night at the Broken Spoke a couple months ago, Spoke owner James White and I got to talking a little bit about the history of South Austin’s grand old country dance hall. Much of that history is documented in a little “hall of fame” room just off the bar; artifacts from the likes of Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb testify to the story the Spoke began spinning in 1964, a year before I was born.
It seemed appropriate, then, that Walser was onstage that night, because his “new” album is also a year older than me. A live recording of two on-air sessions at radio station KJBC in Midland, Texas, in 1964 (one on April 4, the other on August 15), this disc captures a 30-year-old Walser during his days fronting the Texas Plainsmen, a quarter-century before his career began to blossom in Austin around 1990.
As with some “radio transcription” recordings by bigger-name acts that have been surfacing lately on reissue labels, the songs are interspersed with radio ads of the day, for the likes of a service station, a burger joint and a coiffure shop. All of which simply enhance the marvelous documentary effect of what is, in effect, a cultural time capsule from a long-gone era.
The Texas Plainsmen — Walser, fiddler Jim O’Neill, steel guitarist Warren Powell, electric guitarist Billy Richter and drummer Carl Echols — were a regional draw in the mid-’60s but never really got heard beyond West Texas, largely because families and day jobs came first in their list of priorities. Vocally, Walser was as impressive back then as he is today, and possessed an even greater range for those high yodels (which may seem hard to fathom, given what he’s put to tape in the ’90s).
Some of the songs are quite familiar. Staples of Walser’s recent repertoire such as “Rolling Stone From Texas” and “Cowpoke” are revealed to have stood the test of considerable time. Elsewhere, Marty Robbins favorites “Begging To You” and “Don’t Worry” show off Walser’s vocals, while “Rocky Rhodes Stomp” and “Steel Guitar Waltz” provide a showcase for Powell’s gliding runs. (Powell and Echols both passed away in the past couple of years.)
The liner notes tell a particularly interesting tale about the Slim Whitman classic “Casting My Lasso”, which the Plainsmen performed in their August 15 set. Walser recalls seeing Whitman perform in Lamesa, Texas, in the 1940s: “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.”
(As a footnote, Walser notes that he later met Whitman at a show in Odessa during the ’60s with a band that included legendary steel guitarist Jimmy Day — who, twenty-odd years later, could be found onstage with Walser every Monday night at Henry’s Bar & Grill in Austin.)
It’s quite rare for a document such as this to be unearthed — a recording of performances by a talent musician fully three decades before national recognition finally arrived. That it even exists is a minor miracle; that it’s been released is a real reward.