Most country neotraditionalists are romantics trying to re-create a phenomenon they're too young to have lived through--they've experienced the glory days of the 50s and early 60s only through revered recordings. But Austin's Don Walser heard the hits of Carl Smith, Faron Young, Johnny Horton, and Hank Williams when they were still in heavy rotation; he even opened for Buddy Holly once in the late 50s. Walser, now 64, has been playing music for almost five decades, but he didn't make a career of it until four years ago, after he retired from the Texas National Guard. On his third album since then, Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-in (Watermelon/Sire), he covers the whole range of golden-era styles: there's straight-up honky-tonk balladeering on his sanguine cover of the Hank Locklin hit "Please Help Me I'm Falling," countrypolitan gloss complete with Jordanaires-ish backing vocals on his take on Hank Snow's "Fool Such as I," a bit of Tex-Mex flavor on his own "Ramon," and jaunty western swing on his revamp of Irving Berlin's "Marie." But what truly distinguishes him from the new old-country pack is his voice--they call him the "Pavarotti of the Plains," after all. He's best known for his wild yodeling--"The Devil's Great Grandson" conjures discomfiting images of his portly self stuffed into lederhosen--but where he really shines is on ballads. His last album featured a surprisingly powerful take on "Danny Boy," and this time around he nails "Rose Marie"--backed by, for Pete's sake, the Kronos Quartet, whose delicate but piquant pizzicato actually makes a lovely counterpoint for Walser's overripe croon. Live Walser is always supported by his crack Pure Texas Band, and regardless of what you may think of his records, it's darn near impossible not to be charmed by his presence. Thursday, July 30, 9 PM, FitzGerald's, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn; 708-788-2118. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Wyatt McSpaden.