I wrote this eulogy for Walser on my MySpace page when he died in 2006:
When I was very young, growing up with my grandparents and my mom, my favorite thing to do at night was to sit with my grandpa. Out on the porch swing in Eudora, Kansas, we'd listen to the high school games drifting over from the stadium across the road, or to Royals games on the radio. Even better, I'd listen to his crafty Arkansas-inflected voice tell of hearing Hitler shouting orders at his prison camp during WWII, his working days loading and unloading docks, or skipping out of work to fish for channel cats (grandma would sigh and shake her head if she was on the porch with us). But my favorite things to listen to were his budget tapes of the only music he recognized.
Grandpa wasn't a music snob, but neither was he interested in any new stuff coming out (including my Twisted Sister and Motley Crue tapes, despite my many attempts at sneaking them into his tape player). Like his memories, his musical tastes were trapped in a time warp that ended around the time he started having children.
I'm sure he listened to others, but I can only remember four voices coming out of his tape player - Johnny Cash, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, and Louis Armstrong. He would talk about each like he used to know them. Wills was his buddy during the war; he was so proud of Johnny and Tennessee Ernie, seeing them grow up with him and make good; Satchelmouth the negro with a voice like a frog. These four - the Big Four as I now call them - were to be the foundation of a musical fixation that's plagued me since.
It took me a few years of hair metal in junior high, CCM© in high school, and Nineties alternative in college, but I eventually came back to the Big Four. It was partially due to Cash's stunning Rubin-produced comeback album American Recordings, but it was just as much because of an old guy named Don Walser, whose first proper album came out the same year.
Walser in many ways was like my grandpa. For one, they were both, well, large. During a radio broadcast in the 90s one announcer said Walser made the studio shake when he got going on an uptempo tune; my grandpa, on the other hand, with his skinny legs was more like an apple balanced on toothpicks. They were both military men as well. Walser's lifetime service with the National Guard was what kept him from regularly recording until his retirement in the early Nineties, while my grandpa was an army man, a fact I never thought so important until he received the traditional seven gun salute at his funeral and my grandma received all her ensuing medical care through the VA (my, how times change). But most importantly to me, their love of music was informed most by their love of people.
When I first listened to Walser's joyous, haunting yodel – yes, yodel – it couldn't have been further from what I was into at the time. There was no menace to him, for one thing. Quite the opposite, in fact – I heard him once and felt like he was family. He also would have been unbearably sentimental, if it wasn't so obvious he fundamentally believed every corny line he delivered like scripture.
And I believed him – loved him – from the first chorus he belted. When I heard him sing about John Deere tractors, I heard my grandpa telling me about picking beans and okra on big nameless farms outside Ola, Arkansas. When he sings Cherokee Maiden, I think of my great-great grandpa courting the Sioux girl out of her tribe to dilute her blood to 1/16 by the time I arrived. Hearing him sing of his beloved Patricia Jane, I see the B&W picture of my grandparents sitting together in the sun, my grandpa's goofy grin offsetting my grandma's coy half-smile. When I hear Don Walser, I see my grandpa.
Don Walser died in September of 2006 at 72 years of age, following Satchmo in 1972, Wills in 1975, Tennessee Ernie in 1991, Cash in 2003, and my grandpa in 1997. I'm listening to a rebroadcast of an old WFMU show he did in support of his first album, and I realize I've just passed another stage of life – all my idols are now gone. And being as I don't believe in any gods, the afterimage of my idols will now have to suffice.
RIP, Don. If I'm wrong and there is a heaven, say hello to Grandpa. And thank God there is no time there, as I imagine you two may be talking awhile.