This is a re-uploaded post from 2018.
When discussing country music history, it’s easy to focus on the biggest artists of every era as well as the significant events and trends. Writers, producers, and other affiliates working in the background are sometimes only mentioned if they go on to have their own successful careers (Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, for example).
Thankfully, history has shone a spotlight on one particular songwriter who broke barriers and went on to become one of country music’s most important writers. Her name is Cindy Walker, and for all intents and purposes, the story of professional female songwriters begins with her.
Born in Mart, Texas, July 20, 1918, Walker was surrounded by music from the very beginning of her life. Her grandfather, F.L. Eiland, was a well-known hymn writer. Her mother, Oree, was a highly skilled pianist.
As a teenager, Walker was inspired by newspaper accounts of the dust storms on the American prairies in the mid-1930s to write the song “Dusty Skies,” which would later be recorded by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
Before Wills, though, Walker got her big break in 1941. She had appeared in Texas stage shows and enjoyed performing, but her greatest passion was songwriting. When her father had to go to L.A. on a business trip in 1941, he invited his wife and daughter along. Walker knew this was her chance.
She headed for Bing Crosby’s office (her hero) and auditioned for his brother. He was so impressed that Crosby ended up cutting three of her songs, one of which was “Lone Star Trail.” And Walker ended up with a recording contract of her own.
Bound and determined, Walker didn’t stop there. After she impressed her hero, she had her eyes set on the aforementioned Wills. It was a chance spotting of his tour bus in traffic one day in Los Angeles where she tracked him down. It was in July of that same year when Wills cut “Dusty Skies.” In 1942, Columbia Records signed Wills to do eight musical westerns. Walker was hired to write all of the songs, which included more than 30 in total.
Throughout the ’40s, Walker appeared in many motion pictures and scored a hit of her own in 1944 with “When My Blue Moon Turns Gold Again,” which reached No. 5 on the charts and was her only single released. Her main love, again, came from songwriting; not the glamour of show business.
By 1950, Walker’s popularity was enormous. Artists and producers fought for her writing. Historians and even Walker herself have attributed her success to matching the right singers with the right songs. According to her, “I always just went for the artist’s personality.”
Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Billy Walker and Roy Orbison all recorded songs by her that seemed to be theirs and theirs alone.
She wrote many of her hits from her home in Texas, which she returned to in 1954. She never married, and later lived with and cared for her mother.
Walker was elected to the Hall in 1997, but her mother had already passed away in 1991. Oree had always believed that her daughter would be inducted, but the songwriter had her doubts, as she says in her acceptance speech. Remember, songwriters weren’t as common in the hall of fame as pure artists, especially female ones. Her acceptance speech is among the greatest televised moments of country music history.
If you watch it, you’ll notice her mother was a huge inspiration for this night. Marty Stuart would later comment that this speech was essential viewing for understanding country music.
In 2006, Willie Nelson recorded an album of her songs, titled You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker (Walker was one of Nelson’s heroes). It sold strongly and was nominated for Best Country Album at the 2007 Grammy awards, proving, again, that the songs Walker wrote were timeless. Sadly, she died just a few days after the album was released at age 87 in Mexia, Texas.
It’s hard for any artist to know who they throughout their career, and yet Walker saw through them to help them craft their own music (even if it wasn’t written by them). Not only is Walker one of the first female songwriters to break barriers in the music industry, she’s among the very best, and the proof lies in her timeless material.
Walker’s hits throughout the ’50s included Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me” and “Take Me In Your Arms and Hold Me,” Hank Snow’s “The Gold Rush Is Over” and “The Next Voice You Hear,” George Morgan’s “I Love Everything About You,” Webb Pierce’s “I Don’t Care,” and Jim Reeves’s “Anna Marie.”
Her ’60s classics included Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream),” Jim Reeves’s “Distant Drums,” Jerry Wallace’s “In the Misty Moonlight,” Jack Greene’s “You Are My Treasure,” Sonny James’s “Heaven Says Hello,” Wilma Burgess’s “Fifteen Days,” and Stonewall Jackson’s “Leona,” all of which became big hits.
3 thoughts on “The Unbroken Circle: The Personality-Driven Genius of Cindy Walker”
She was a gem. I knew of her when I was a kid because my father was in country music and their paths crossed many times. To folks in Texas, she is bordering on saint hood.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I missed this article when you first published it, but I’m glad I read it now – thanks!
Thanks, Frank! Sorry for just now catching up with all of your comments, too! Thanks for them.