Funny How Time Slips Away: Remembering Billy Walker
Billy Walker was killed eight years ago today–May 21, 2006–when he lost control of his van and slid off I-65 near Fort Deposit, Ala. The one-car crash also killed Walker’s wife Bettie, bassist Charles Lilly Jr., and guitar player Daniel Patton, and injured his grandson. Billy Walker was on his way back to Nashville from one of the many countless road gigs in his life to appear on the Grand Ole Opry that Saturday night. He was 77.
Country music is rife with tragedy. Many of its brightest stars suddenly extinguished on the Lost Highway or skyway. Hank Williams overdosed in the back seat of his Cadillac on New Years Day, 1953. The plane carrying Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins crashed into a red oak tree on March 5, 1963, killing all on board. Patsy’s watch, found nearby, stopped at 6:20 p.m. Jim Reeves piloted his own plane to the same fate a year later. Johnny Horton’s premonition of his early death on the Lost Highway came true in 1960 when a 19-year-old drunk driver plowed into the singer’s Cadillac. These artists’ genius and legacy combined with their youthful presence and senseless, premature demise propelled them into icon status.
It wasn’t supposed to happen to Billy Walker. Not now, at least.
In fact, Billy Walker was booked on the plane that killed Cline, Copas, and Hawkins. They all appeared at the same charity gig in Kansas City. Billy got an emergency phone call from Nashville and had to fly home immediately. He couldn’t wait for the chartered plane. Hawkins was flying commercial and gave Billy his airline ticket, and told him, “Here kid–you be Hawkshaw Hawkins on that plane tomorrow morning and I’ll take your place on the private plane.” Billy Walker made it back to Nashville earlier than he had hoped. Hawkshaw, Copas, and Cline never did.
I knew Billy Walker personally before I truly appreciated his contribution to country music. When I first met Billy I knew him as the guy who had the original hit with one of Willie Nelson’s finest songs, “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and the guy who recorded one of my favorite Harlan Howard songs, “Down to My Last Cigarette.”
That was certainly enough.
“Down to My Last Cigarette” is the kind of song I would play if someone fresh from North Korea or another planet was sitting on my couch and asked me what country music is.
Billy also happened to be the nicest man I’ve ever met in show business, and everyone who knew him will say the same.
I can see him now, pulling up to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop on Lower Broad, stashing his SUV in the alley with the hazards on so he could run in quickly and drop off the latest order of his cassettes and CDs, which he delivered personally. He was always immaculate, even when dressed down. His unapologetic, jet-black rug perfectly quaffed.
Risking an expensive and almost certain parking citation, he would always take time to shoot the breeze with us. Sometimes taking a seat on the bench, which served as a sort of barber shop waiting chair for visitors, sometimes standing proud and tall right next to the front counter where he spoke genuinely with customers who recognized him. They always did.
But, aside from the two aforementioned records, I didn’t really know his music. In those days the only thing in print by Billy Walker were the latter-day re-recordings he made and sold himself. Columbia Records had no interest in reissuing his classic recordings and no one (other than the German reissue label Bear Family, whose box set of his complete recordings I could not afford) had bothered to license his catalog.
I’ll be honest; the re-recordings didn’t do it for me. I tried to love them, because I loved him. But they lacked that certain something, that record magic. The other classic singles I heard occasionally were “Charlie’s Shoes,” a Number One hit in 1962, and “Cross the Brazos at Waco,” a Marty Robbins-esque western tale (Billy and I once had a great conversation about the significance of Robbins’ influence on him). They were fine but they weren’t the kind of songs that sent shivers up your neck like “Funny How Time Slips Away” or “Down to My Last Cigarette,” with its ominous opening line, “The coffee’s all gone and my eyes burn like fire.”
I knew he had had several top ten records and several dozen charting singles; I just hadn’t heard most of them. I knew he was responsible for getting Elvis Presley on the Louisiana Hayride, which helped to kick start the King’s career. I knew he was the headliner, along with Slim Whitman, the night of Elvis’ very first gig with Scotty and Bill at the Overton Shell in Memphis on July 30, 1954. He described meeting Elvis for the first time that night as “instant electricity.”
I knew the history. But I didn’t know the artistry.
Not until 2005 when KOCH Records released the Columbia Hits compilation, finally showing Billy’s classic 1950’s and 1960’s recordings the light of the modern day. That’s when I first really heard the voice.
That voice. That mournful, vulnerable, beautiful voice, with its smooth, strong but wavering tremolo. My first listen to these records stopped me in my tracks. The Billy I knew was this warm, jovial man and here is this voice that just pierces your heart.
In the 1950’s, Billy was making a name for himself on radio spots and live appearances but he hadn’t had a charting record yet. He needed a killer song to establish himself as an artist. So he went to the best; he called the incomparable Cindy Walker. Cindy, one of the most accomplished and prolific songwriters of any genre, was spent after having just recently written several songs for superstar Eddy Arnold. “But thanks for calling anyway,” she said. Billy told her to use that as a title. She came back with “Thank You For Calling,” Billy’s first hit and one of the eeriest, most desolate records of any genre, of any time. The bizarre piano intro sounded like a Victorian parlor ballad–the ethereal, weeping steel guitar, the telephone sound effects, and Billy’s mournful wail. How the fuck had it taken me this long to hear this?
Beyond the melancholy there was also this conversational element to his delivery. I always felt he almost sang when he spoke, and the opposite is true. “Thank You For Calling” could almost be called a novelty song in that the vocal sings only one half of a phone conversation, and the lyrics draw the listener into the conversation by reference to the other side of the call. Not just any singer could pull it off.
A relatively unknown young songwriter named Willie Nelson was certainly familiar with both Walkers’ work; it’s almost as if Nelson wrote “Funny How Time Slips Away” with Billy in mind. It’s one of those uncanny pairings of singer and song that elevate each other into timelessness. The song follows the same structure as “Thank You For Calling” in that we only hear one side of the conversation, but can easily fill in the blanks. So much is said with so little; the whole story is told with half as much.
Walker interpreted Nelson’s song so well that the young songwriter offered the burgeoning star his latest: a song he called “Crazy.” But, Patsy Cline’s producer Owen Bradley wanted “Crazy” for her. Bradley offered Walker “Charlie’s Shoes” if he would pass on recording “Crazy.” Walker got his only Number One hit out of the deal; Patsy, immortality. Life is funny that way.
I was stunned at the quality and consistency of his catalog. Columbia Hits contained one masterpiece after another: “Forever,” “I Wish You Love,” “The Morning Paper,” and the exquisite “Nobody But A Fool.” I always knew Billy was a good singer with a few great records. I learned then that he was a great singer; a unique voice, with a vast catalog of masterful records.
Then we got the news.
Billy Walker, his wife and band, dead in a wreck out on the Lost Highway. It didn’t make any sense. This kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore. Billy Walker was not a young, wild, free, and reckless kid out on the road for the first time in some pre-air-bag death trap, hopped up on bennies just to make the next gig. Why had he survived so much just to die senselessly on the side of the road in some place called Fort Deposit?
His childhood is the stuff of Dickens, if Dickens had been from Texas. His mother died when he was four, leaving him and his seven siblings in the care of his Methodist minister father. This was the Great Depression and his father simply could not afford to feed eight children. Billy was sent to an orphanage with his two brothers.
I recall my daddy turning loose of my hand, watching him walk away and not seeing him again for five years.
The orphanage “was a cruel place at that time.” Walker recalled one boy who was forced to sleep the entire night sitting on the toilet. The children were beaten. If they dared to wet the bed, their faces were rubbed into the soiled sheets, hair pulled. They were denied food as punishment. It was a house of horrors.
Growing up in such an environment hardens many men. Billy was the softest, mildest mannered gentlemen I ever met. He had music.
My daddy re-married and came to get us when I was 11. He gave me a dime to see a Gene Autry movie. It was called Public Cowboy No. 1. I looked at Gene on that screen and said I can do that.
So he did, all the way to the top.
Billy’s smooth vocal style, his affinity for the western aesthetic, his straight posture and good guy persona all came from the escapism he found in Gene Autry. The unavoidable ache and longing in his voice from all the rest.
Nick Shaffran’s liner notes to the Columbia Hits CD, released just one year before Walker’s untimely death, conclude thusly:
“. . .a true gentleman, and a country music survivor.”
It should be chiseled in stone.