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, Willie Nelson for example).
Thankfully, history has shined 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. Walker 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.” Walker even 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 Walker 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 with “When My Blue Moon Turns Gold Again” in 1944 when it reached No. 5 on the charts (and was her only single released). Again though, Walker’s main love came from songwriting, not the glamour of the 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 Oree.
Walker was elected to the Hall in 1997, but her mother had already passed away in 1991. Her mother 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 watched 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 the songs Walker wrote are timeless. Walker however 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 include 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 include 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.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
100 Greatest Women, #18: Cindy Walker by Kevin John Coyne of Country Universe. Retrieved here <http://www.countryuniverse.net/2008/06/12/100-greatest-women-18-cindy-walker/>
Cindy Walker, 87; Wrote Hundreds of Songs Recorded by an Array of Artists by the Los Angeles Times (Dennis McLellan). Retrieved here <http://articles.latimes.com/2006/mar/29/local/me-walker29>
- Cindy Walker Biography by the Country Music Hall of Fame (Robert K. Oermann). Retrieved here <https://countrymusichalloffame.org/Inductees/InducteeDetail/cindy-walker>
- Will The Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music In America edited by Paul Kingsbury and Alanna Nash (2006).