Don Walser is a country music legend who, paradoxically, was virtually unknown up until a few years ago. A veteran of Texas western swing bands of the 50’s, Walser put his musical career on the back burner for many years, serving in the National Guard so he could afford to feed and clothe his family. Only after reaching late middle age did he and his Pure Texas Band meet with success, and recent years have seen Walser releasing numerous CD’s and being showered with accolades, including an NEA National Heritage Award.
Walser’s trademark is his yodel, a talent amply showcased in TJ Morehouse’s rough and ragged documentary, “Pavarotti of the Plains.” Debuting at SXSW with incomplete sound mix and unpolished editing, the film comes off as a sort of anti-“Behind the Music.” There are no drug overdoses, trashed hotel rooms or broken hearts on display – just a love of the holy trinity of “honky tonk, western swing, and cowboy music.” The closest “Pavarotti of the Plains” gets to muckraking is some vaguely disquieting footage of Walser on painkillers after taking a spill following a performance at the Grand Ole Opry (the yodeling cowboy suffers from diabetes and bad knees, and is vastly overweight as a result).
Much of the doc is devoted to Walser achieving his lifelong dream of appearing on the Opry, though we’re also treated to the praise and remembrances of many of his country music colleagues, including Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson. There’s also plenty of the obligatory bitching about the sad state of affairs in the present-day Nashville scene, and yearning for the pure and honest style of country music that Walser represents. The man himself is on hand to reminisce along with his family, and a watery-eyed bunch they are, tearing up at the drop of a ten gallon hat. Walser has an endearing high-pitched giggle that surfaces anytime things seem to be getting too weepy or downbeat. It’s impossible not to feel affection for him, no matter what you think of the music, but fans of old timey twang will especially enjoy this unpolished but warm-hearted tribute.