Cindy Walker: 1917 to 2006
Country music had never seen the likes of Cindy Walker before, and doubtless never will again. One of just four non-performing songwriters in the Country Music Hall of Fame — the others being Harlan Howard and Boudleaux & Felice Bryant — Walker died March 23 in Mexia, Texas, at age 88. Best known for “You Don’t Know Me”, one of the landmark songs of 20th-century American music, she had about 500 tunes recorded overall by artists of every stripe. She wrote cowboy songs and heart songs, honky-tonkers and gospel, novelties and hurtin’ songs; though most were unabashedly romantic and sentimental, she was also capable of a realism that cut right to the bone. She wrote right up to her last months, even though nobody was cutting her songs any longer. Just nine days before her death, Willie Nelson released the tribute album You Don’t Know Me: The Songs Of Cindy Walker.
The irrepressible Walker was born July 20, 1917, to Aubrey and Oree Walker, in Mart, just east of Waco and down the road from Mexia. Her maternal grandfather was gospel songwriter F.L. Eiland (“Hold To God’s Unchanging Hand”). At age 12, after reading about the Dust Bowl in family scrapbooks she found in the attic, she wrote her first song. The strikingly mature “Dusty Skies” was eventually recorded by Bob Wills, who proved to be her best customer, cutting more than 50 Walker songs including “Bubbles in My Beer”, “Sugar Moon”, “Cherokee Maiden”, “Miss Molly” and “You’re From Texas”.
But the first Walker song recorded was “Lone Star Trail”, a pop hit for Bing Crosby in 1941. She’d sold it after talking her way into his offices while on her father Aubrey’s business trip to California, and her demo won her an artist’s contract with Decca. She soon sold five songs to Bob Wills, which led to a contract to write for the western swing star’s five forthcoming movies. She gave him 39 tunes in a couple months, and he used them all. The family decided to stay in Los Angeles.
Cindy appeared in two Gene Autry movies and va-voomed in some of the earliest “soundies” (music shorts akin to today’s videos). As an artist, her only hit was “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again”, which she didn’t write, in 1944. She quit performing to concentrate on songwriting in 1948. In 1954, by which time Aubrey had been dead six years, she and her mother moved back to Mexia, living in a house that Cindy occupied until her death.
Every morning at 5 a.m., she fixed herself a cup of black coffee and went upstairs to her little studio, where she typed lyrics on a pink-trimmed Royal typewriter decorated with stick-on flowers. She and Oree spent October to April at the Continental Apartments in Nashville. Artists came there to enjoy Mama’s chicken and dumplings while they listened to Cindy’s new material, always with Oree on piano, or to give Cindy an idea she could tailor to that particular singer.
Eddy Arnold came up with the title and motif for “You Don’t Know Me”, an interior monologue by a man too scared to divulge his secret love for a female friend. The notion didn’t make sense to Cindy, but several months later she gave Arnold a lyric of bottomless, palpable longing and regret: “No you don’t know the one/Who dreams of you at night/And longs to kiss your lips/And longs to hold you tight.”
Though Arnold could take it only to #10 on the country charts in 1956, Ray Charles made it a #2 pop hit in 1962; Cindy’s favorite version is by Mickey Gilley, from 1981. It’s also been cut by everyone from Elvis to Van Morrison to Carmen McRae to Henry Mancini to Steve Marriott to Bette Midler to Charlie Rich. Over the years, she wrote “Blue Canadian Rockies” for Gene Autry, “Barstool Cowboy From Old Barstow” for Spike Jones (she cut 32 still-unreleased sides of her own with his zany band), “Distant Drums” for Jim Reeves, “Two Glasses, Joe” and “Warm Red Wine” for Ernest Tubb, “In The Misty Moonlight” for Jerry Wallace, “China Doll” (her favorite of her songs) for the Ames Brothers, “I Don’t Care” for Webb Pierce and “Dream Baby” for Roy Orbison.
The Nashville trips ended with Oree’s death in 1991. Giddy, giggly, girlish and gregarious as she was her entire life, Cindy avoided interviews and public appearances, though when she did consent, she threw herself into it. I got an interview in 1999 after trying on and off for more than five years. When it finally came through, the red ribbon was tied to the mailbox of her house on Brooks Street (the phone was still in Oree’s name) as promised, and I was greeted at the door by Willie Mae Adkinson, Cindy’s friend and helper since 1978, who was still there at the end. (For special guests, Cindy commandeered the kitchen from Willie Mae and made the ice cream sundaes herself.)
Cindy told me mostly the same stories that were in the only other interview I’d found while researching her, and told them in almost the same words — but no matter. Her wide-eyed, knee-slapping, can-you-believe-my-luck tone made them new and, yes, unbelievable.
Five years later, Texas Folklife Resources of Austin planned a tribute concert for Walker. Cindy initially declined to take part, but reconsidered after friends such as Johnny Gimble signed on. That night, she and her entourage took seats in the front row; she’d nixed the theater’s opera box to be closer to the action. At one point she wanted to get onstage briefly to tell everyone in the crowd she loved them, which wasn’t easy because the only entry was from backstage. So the 83-year-old in the red dress sort of shimmy-shook herself over the lip of the stage, with performers above pulling her up while her friends pushed from below. Then she danced a jig in the theater aisle as the ensemble closed with “Sweet Dreams”. Days later she called Cornell Hurd, one of the performers, to pitch him some new songs.
The woman who wrote “Don’t Be Ashamed Of Your Age” was fiercely protective of her own, so much so that her Hall of Fame plaque is short by a year. When she was inducted into the Hall in 1997, she brought the show-bizzy festivities to hushed tears by reciting a poem about the dress she was wearing, which had been made by Oree years earlier for just this occasion. Once when Casey Monahan, director of the governor’s Texas Music Office visited her on Brooks Street, she played him a ten-minute tape she’d made of mockingbirds singing outside her window. She liked to serve ice tea to neighborhood kids sitting around the wooden cable spool she used for a table in her front yard.
Her funeral services at First Presbyterian Church in Mexia were, she’d doubtless be happy to know, attended mostly by local friends and fellow church members. Lee Ann Womack was the only star, though Cindy was also mourned by several old-school radio DJs and onetime Texas Playboys singer Leon Rausch (who sang all her demos these last couple decades, and cut the 1998 tribute Close To You: A 20 Song Salute To The Music Of Cindy Walker). Though Walker usually claimed never to have married, she did so once, very briefly. Her sole survivors were a niece and several step-nieces and step-nephews. She also left behind a huge warm glow deep in the heart of Texas.