When I interviewed Harlan Howard some years ago, I asked him who his favorite songwriter was. Harlan didn’t hesitate for a moment. “Cindy Walker,” he said. “She’s the greatest country songwriter I’ve ever heard.”
One of the pioneers of the “three chords and the truth” school of writing, Walker penned classics such as “Not That I Care,” “Sugar Moon,” “Bubbles in My Beer,” “Thank You for Calling,” “Miss Molly,” “In the Misty Moonlight,” “Anna Maria,” “It’s All Your Fault” and “You Don’t Know Me” (perhaps the most devastating portrait of unrequited love ever). Her songs are simple and elegant, and sound like they were plucked whole from the ether. Waltzes, jaunty western swing numbers, clever pop tunes, tear-stained ballads—whatever she wrote had a rightness about it, matching conversational lyrics with memorable melodies. Like Irving Berlin, Walker had the rare ability to capture complex emotions in 32 bars, and do it in a way that allowed every listener to find their own story in the song.
And like Berlin, Walker maintained a very workmanlike approach to songwriting. “Some ideas come out of the blue, but not usually,” she has said. “I guess the more you write, the more you’re likely to come up with ideas. It’s just labor, that’s all there is to it. The title tells the story. If you can get a real good title, you’ve got something. I always write from the title. I’ve never written a song without the title. The words and music come together, it just sort of comes to you. The songs just sing themselves to me. They kind of write themselves. I just stand back and listen.”
Cindy Walker was born into a musical family on July 20, 1918, in Mart, Texas. Her grandfather was a hymn writer (“Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand”), and her mother was an accomplished pianist. Cindy made her professional debut at age 7, singing and dancing in a Christmas pageant. At 12, she wrote her first song, “Dusty Skies.” By 16, she was dancing full-time in a club owned by the great theater impresario Billy Rose. On the side, she wrote “Casa de Mañana,” which became a theme song for orchestra leader Paul Whiteman, and her first hit.
In 1941, Walker’s first trip to Hollywood played like a scene from an old movie. “My father was a cotton buyer, and we took a trip to Hollywood to sell some pima cotton,” she told the Austin Chronicle in 2004. “And I saw the Crosby Building. I said, ‘Stop, Papa, stop! I’ve got a song for Bing Crosby.’ Pop said, ‘You’re squirrelly, girl. Bing Crosby’s not in that building.’ But I went in and saw Larry Crosby there. I told him I was a songwriter. I couldn’t play the piano and didn’t play guitar very well, so I ran downstairs and got Mama and made her play piano. He said, ‘Well, what are you gonna sing?’ I said, “‘Lone Star Trail.’” He took me over to Paramount the next morning, and I sang it for Bing. His publisher liked it, too, so that’s the way that happened.”
Though Walker continued to flirt with a performing career (she scored a Top 10 hit in 1944 with “When Your Blue Moon Turns to Gold”) she soon settled into her life as a full-time tunesmith. The cuts came from performers across the musical spectrum: Gene Autry (“Blue Canadian Rockies”), the Ames Brothers (“China Doll”), Bob Wills (“Cherokee Maiden”), Mary Ford (“This Is It”) and Ernest Tubb (“Warm Red Wine”) among them.
In 1954, Walker moved back to Texas. Over the next decade, she divided her time between the small town of Mexia and Nashville, Tenn., writing hits such as “Take Me In Your Arms And Hold Me,” “The Gold Rush Is Over,” “The Next Voice You Hear,” “I Don’t Care,” “Leona,” “You Are My Treasure” and “Dream Baby.”
Of the last, a Top Five single for Roy Orbison in 1962, Walker says, “I thought it was monotonous. You know, ‘Dream baby, doo doo doo do doo.’ Then Fred Foster [Orbison’s producer] called me about two weeks later and said, ‘How’s the weather down there?’ I said, ‘Well, pretty cold,’ and he said, ‘Let me play something over the phone that’ll warm the cockles of your heart.’ And he played me ‘Dream Baby.’ Roy did such a great job I nearly fainted.”
In 1964, she reluctantly recorded her only solo album, Words & Music, then went right back to writing songs for others. By the mid-’70s, Walker had already won over 20 BMI Awards. Her songs continued to be covered, by the likes of Glen Campbell, Ricky Skaggs, Ray Charles, Riders in the Sky and Merle Haggard. By the late ’80s, ill health and the death of her accompanist mother finally slowed her down.
In 1997, Cindy Walker was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. “Actually, I belong to eight or nine halls of fame,” she said in 2004. “There’s the Nashville Hall of Fame, the California Hall of Fame, Arizona, Washington State, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame ….” In 2006 Willie Nelson released You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker featuring 13 of her well-known songs.
Walker continued to live in the small town of Mexia, writing the occasional tune until her death in March of 2006 at the age of 87. Of her songwriting philosophy she said, “The best tunes are songs with a face. You recognize them. You know them. It’s like a person. They have a face that’s outstanding. Other songs don’t have a face. You just hear them, that’s all. The really good ones are few and far between.”
—by Bill DeMain