Excerpt from “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” (UNT Press)
“Do you want to hear my new song?” the voice on the other end of the phone asked, as giddy as a teenager. “I just got it back from my demo guys in Fort Worth and I think it’s a real good ’un.” The recording started with a gentle guitar strum from Rich O’Brien, leading into the yearning voice of former Texas Playboys singer Leon Rausch, and out rolled, at a lingering, lovelorn pace, a timeless song that could’ve just as easily been pitched to Lefty Frizzell as Clay Walker. “The woman, the other woman in my life/Is the woman I love besides my wife,” the song opened. But it’s not a cheating song. After a couple verses it turned out that the other woman is “the mother that God gave to me.”
When the tune was over, an 85-year-old Cindy Walker asked, “Do I still have a hit in me?” then let out the hearty, husky laugh of a Western movie saloon keep.
She played a couple other new tunes over the phone, just like they did in the days when MP3 could’ve been the name for some kind of war ration. “Highway 80” rambled down that coast-to-coast stretch of blacktop like a carefree travelogue, while the torchy “Is It Love” conjured a wine glass lying on the floor, either the litter of love or the vessel of empty promises.
The royalty checks mailed to her hometown of Mexia, about 50 miles due east of Waco, may have lost a few zeros since the ’40s and ’50s, when Walker tailor-made hits for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and got her material onto the charts via Roy Orbison (“Dream Baby”), Jim Reeves (“Distant Drums”), Webb Pierce (“I Don’t Care”) and Eddy Arnold (“You Don’t Know Me”). But until she passed away in 2006 at age 87, Walker never stopped writing songs and pitching them. Her favorite tune was always the one she just wrote.
“Cindy Walker has never written a bad song in her life,” said Orbison’s producer Fred Foster, who discovered Dolly Parton, the only female songwriter of country music whose output rivals Walker’s. “She’s just this incredible bundle of talent and energy.” Foster said he once asked Walker how she could write one of the best drinking songs ever, 1948’s “Bubbles In My Beer,” without having ever stepped inside a honky-tonk. “The imagination is a wonderful thing,” she answered.
Her songs, in the hundreds, have been recorded, by everyone from Elvis Presley to Michael Bolton, and yet most people who hear the name Cindy Walker would probably think she’s the actress from Laverne & Shirley. The first woman inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (in 1970) is only the second most famous person from Mexia, right behind Anna Nicole Smith. But where the stripper-turned-national-curiosity painted her fame in gaudy strokes, songwriter Walker was a portrait of class, happily toiling in relative obscurity with the knowledge that notoriety is fleeting, but great songs live forever.
When Cindy Walker declined to give her age, it seemed less an act of vanity than one of compassion for those who whine of burnout at half the years. Her career as a songwriter lasted 65 years, with her first break coming at age 22, when she accompanied her father, a cotton buyer, and mother on a business trip to Los Angeles. The headstrong Cindy wasn’t just there to gawk at movie stars and studio lots. She wanted to pitch the songs she’d been writing on her Martin guitar since she was 12.
“I saw a building called the Crosby Building,” Walker recalled of a drive down Sunset Boulevard. “I told my daddy to pull over, I wanted to get one of my songs to Bing Crosby, but he just laughed.” Just because it was called the Crosby Building, he said, that didn’t mean it had anything to do with Bing Crosby.
The parents humored their daughter, but then were stunned when she ran outside a few minutes later and practically pulled her mother out of the car. It turned out that, indeed, Bing’s brother and manager Larry Crosby was in the building and he just so happened, in that era of Western movies and Zane Grey novels, to be looking for the sort of cowboy songs this gal from Texas wrote.
“I said, ‘Mama, c’mon, you gotta back me up,’” Walker said. Her mother, Oree Walker, the daughter of noted hymn writer F.L. Eiland, was an exceptional piano player who fashioned her daughter’s hummed melodies into full-fledged compositions.
“I was nothing without my Mama,” Walker said, “but she said she wouldn’t do it, she wasn’t prepared.” After some cajoling, Cindy’s mom finally relented under the condition that Cindy not tell anyone that Oree was her mother.
Larry Crosby liked “Lone Star Trail” so much he set up a time the next day for Cindy to play it for Bing, who claimed the tune on the spot.
“I’m a natural-born song plugger,” Walker said. “I’m not intimidated by anyone. My father didn’t know the music business at all, but he told me to treat it like any other business. Know the market and sell, sell, sell.”
When the Crosbys sent Cindy to record demos of other songs, the head of the Decca label happened to be in the studio, and he offered Walker a record deal as an artist. After just two weeks in Los Angeles, Walker had the country’s biggest recording artist cut one of her songs and she had her own record deal. The Walker family decided to stay.
Cindy had a No. 5 hit singing “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again” (which she didn’t write) in 1944 and starred in several “soundies,” three-minute snippets that played between Western double features. But in 1947 she returned to her true calling — full-time songwriting.
“The label was seeing songs that I wrote for other people become hits and so they’d say, ‘Why didn’t you sing that one for us?’ I’d say, ‘Well, I didn’t write that song for me to sing, I wrote it for the one who did it.’”
Besides a gift for simple, evocative lyrics and swaying melodies, Walker had a knack for crafting songs to the strengths of certain artists, like the smooth ballad “Anna Marie” for country crooner Reeves or the wacky “Barstool Cowboy From Old Barstow” for Spike Jones and the City Slickers.
But her most special writer/artist relationship was with “The King of Western Swing,” Bob Wills, who recorded more than 50 Cindy songs. Although Walker had quickly become a favorite writer of such fellow Texpatriates as Tex Ritter, Dale Evans, Al Dexter and Gene Autry, she longed to get songs to Wills and his spectacular band, who were living in Tulsa at the time.
Walker was on her way to the corner mailbox one day to send off a package of songs to Wills when she saw a tour bus with “Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys” emblazoned on the side. “I called up just about every hotel in L.A. looking for Bob Wills,” she said. The persistence proved profitable when Walker finally got ahold of Wills’ manager O.W. Mayo, who said to bring her guitar and her best new songs to his hotel. That afternoon, Walker pitched “Cherokee Maiden,” “Dusty Skies” and “Blue Bonnet Lane,” which would all become Wills standards.
When Wills and the Playboys were tapped by Columbia Pictures to make eight films, they hired Walker to write songs to go with the plots. She wrote 39 tunes for the Wills movies, and not a single one was turned down.
It never dawned on Walker that, as that rare female hit songwriter, she was bucking tradition. The acts having hits with her material certainly weren’t making gender an issue.
“The one thing that everybody in the music business is always looking for is a good song,” she says. “If you could write some, it didn’t matter if you were male, female, orangutan.” Success is a great equalizer.
She didn’t let the guys push her around, either. Ernest Tubb wanted to record Walker’s “China Doll,” for instance, but he wanted to change the line “tiny pale hands” to “little brown hands,” but Walker refused. Tubb declined to record the song as is, but it was eventually taken to the pop charts by the Ames Brothers and George Hamilton IV.
“I don’t feel rejected if someone passes on one of my songs,” Walker says. “I just think, ‘Well, it’s not right for them, but it’s right for someone.’”
Despite a vibrant personality, Cindy Walker had a reputation for being shy of the spotlight. In fact, she initially declined to show up for her own tribute at the Paramount Theater in Austin in 2004, telling organizers she just didn’t want people to make a big fuss over her. But when her close friends Leon Rausch, Rich O’Brien, Ray Benson and Johnny Gimble signed on, Walker had a change of heart. She ended up getting so into the Paramount gala she made song requests to bandleader Sarah Brown (whose all-star cohorts included Lisa Pankratz on drums, Redd Volkaert on guitar, Earl Poole Ball on piano and Cindy Cashdollar on steel guitar) and ended up dancing a jig in front of the stage to the delight of 1,100 on hand.
Cindy Walker, who calls everyone “honey” or “dear,” was not an opera-box kinda gal. Although her mother was able to bring elegant accompaniment to Cindy’s songs, she was unable to get her Rebecca off Sunnybrook Farm. “Mama was just so prim and proper and I was the opposite,” Walker said, with a laugh.
“They were quite a mother and daughter team,” producer Foster said of the Walkers, who stayed at the Continental Apartments on Nashville’s West End for six months out of the year to pitch songs. “They related so well to each other. There was always a lot of banter back and forth when they played. And, oh, how Mama could cook! Her Southern cooking was legendary in Nashville.” Everybody called Oree Walker “Mama,” even those who were older.
So tight were the mother and daughter (Cindy’s father died in 1948) that when Oree Walker passed away in 1991, some friends worried that Cindy, who was married only once and only briefly, would have trouble finding the strength to go on. She still had her songs, though the one who helped give them lift was gone. “I miss Mama every day,” she says. “Every time I sit at the piano, Mama’s grand piano, I remember how she played ‘In the Misty Moonlight’ the day before she died,” Cindy recalled, with a smile you could practically see over the phone. She remembered how she’d get so excited when she finished a song that she’d sometimes wake her mother in the middle of the night to get her to play it. A song was never finished until Mama gave it her touch. “It’ll be just as good in the morning,” Oree Walker would say, then doze on back to sleep.
When Cindy Walker was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997, she brought many in the crowd to tears when she recited a poem about the dress she was wearing, which her mother made. The free-spirited Cindy, then 79, also brought a bit of refreshing energy to the staid proceedings, just by being her buoyant, unpretentious, non-frilly self.
She seemed like someone who could’ve settled the West, instead of just writing songs about the new frontier.
It was a quiet life in Mexia, where Walker lived in the three-bedroom, brick house for 50 years. Although old friends adored her and younger artists and songwriters figuratively kissed her feet at any opportunity, Walker said she didn’t really like too many visitors. You can’t write hit songs with company coming around, after all.
The honors and tributes stacked up, like her 2003 induction into Broadcast Music Inc.’s exclusive “Million-Aires” club, signifying that her songs have been played on the radio more than a million times through the years.
But hearing those songs sung and played masterfully, as Ray Charles did with “You Don’t Know Me” in 1962 and George Jones with “The Warm Red Wine” the same year, is all the reward she ever needed.
“Do you want to hear my new song?” From the lips of Cindy Walker, a true Texas treasure, those words were precious.