When it comes to real country music, Don Walser is about as good as it gets. The 6-foot, 4-inch (in cowboy boots) traditionalist that some call the "Pavarotti of the Plains" has been playing his pure brand of music for decades in relative obscurity. But he's now well positioned to surf a new wave known as "alternative country," a movement focused on the classic roots of the music.
Walser's following has slowly grown over the years, boosted by a national tour and opening shows for big names like Johnny Cash; it could widen considerably with the release next month of a new CD now being recorded in an Austin, Texas, studio.
Country fans have complained that their music has been heading south for years, its giants singing off the same playlist that sounds like 1980s pop.
A few mainstream artists like Dwight Yoakam have found it pays to pay attention to tradition. And now big record labels are signing artists who play what they love - the simple sound of cowboy western, honky-tonk, and western swing.
The new fans may not be who you think. Alternative country attracts a diverse audience. At places like the Broken Spoke and Jovitas in Austin, where Walser plays each week, the crowd is a mix of young and old, black and white. Couples in boots and faded jeans two-step as a young man with dreadlocks watches.
"I really think that they are looking for the roots of all kinds of music, not just country," Walser says, laughing as he relays a story about an encounter with a fan. "A young lady with orange hair came up to me. She had an alternative-rock CD in one hand and mine in the other, and I said, 'Which one of these do you want me to sign?' "
That scene is replayed in other venues that Walser plays across the country, including the Barns at Wolftrap in suburban Washington, where even casually dressed policy wonks appreciate tunes like "Shotgun Boogie."
Walser will tour the East and Midwest later this summer.
In the past, Walser has said he was too country for country, but he seemed happy not to follow the herd. His first two CDs, "Rolling Stone From Texas" and "Texas Top Hand," didn't explode onto the charts; like Walser, they've just eased their way into the spotlight.
Walser generally sings three kinds of country music: western music, typified by Marty Robbins; honky-tonk, sung by folks like George Jones and Hank Williams; and western swing, made famous by legends like Bob Wills.
Walser believes some of the appeal is in the lyrics. "I think the songs were written so great back then. People sang about life and about the way things are ... and in some cases depicted life maybe even better than it is. Nowadays I think most things are geared toward depicting life worse than it really is."
Walser wrote the lyrics to "Rolling Stone From Texas" at age 18. That song and others reflect his roots and life spent entirely in Texas. The "John Deere Tractor Song" may be one of the purest-sounding country tunes written.
"When we were living in El Paso, I had a cousin living down around Colorado City, and he said, 'Why don't you write a song about me and my old John Deere tractor?' " Walser recalls. "A lot of them old farmers down there have these old tractors that are 30 or 40 years old."
For decades, Walser played in relative obscurity at VFW halls and weddings. As a young man he roughnecked for a while in Texas oil fields.
He spent most of his career in the Texas National Guard as an administrator. Walser says he made that choice to avoid a constant life on the road either away from his family or dragging them along.
"It's always been in country music that you got to get out there and work for a couple of years. I didn't mind starving for a couple of years, but I didn't want to do my family that way," he says.
Walser's four children are now grown, and his music is making it to the national mainstream on the Watermelon records label.