Clip: Willie Nelson and the Songs of Cindy Walker
Willie Nelson Salutes Another (Hidden) Legend
By WILL HERMES
Published: March 12, 2006
At this point, Willie Nelson is a national monument. One of country
music's most fertile songwriters, tireless performers and distinctive
vocal interpreters, he is also a longtime ambassador between red and
blue states of mind; he has been pals with presidents, allegedly
smoked marijuana on the White House roof (and just about everywhere
else), founded Farm Aid to assist family farms and recently launched
his own biodiesel fuel company.
And Mr. Nelson has made dozens of records — some would say too many,
as the quality has been variable. But this year he's on a roll. In
addition to campaigning for hurricane relief and the usual endless
touring, he has released — in light of the media attention surrounding
the hit film "Brokeback Mountain" — a touching version of Ned
Sublette's gay cowboy homage "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly (Fond of
Each Other)" as an exclusive single on iTunes. And this month, Mr.
Nelson, 72, will release a record of pop and country classics titled
"Songs of Cindy Walker."
So much for the lethargy of pot smokers.
In addition to being a tremendously likable, laid-back set of classics
with jaunty, western swing-flavored arrangements by the veteran
Nashville producer Fred Foster, "Songs of Cindy Walker" spotlights
another monument of American music, one who might have been forgotten
had she ever been properly known in the first place. Ms. Walker, who
lives and works in the small East Texas town of Mexia, is a prolific
songwriter whose works have been covered by Bing Crosby, Elvis
Presley, Ernest Tubb, Roy Orbison and many others. Her tunes —
including "You Don't Know Me," "Dream Baby," "In the Misty Moonlight,"
"I Don't Care" — made regular appearances on the top 10 charts
beginning in the 1940's and are still covered today.
With hundreds of recorded songs to her credit, she is known as the
dean of Texas songwriting and is generally considered the foremost
female composer in country music history; in fact, the late Harlan
Howard called her "the greatest living songwriter of country music" —
and he had some claim to that title himself.
"Her work as a writer, spanning so many decades, and still getting
things cut, is unparalleled," said Eddie Stubbs, country music
historian and announcer for the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts on WSM-AM in
Nashville. "A lot of the songs she wrote have become standards,
although people may not know Cindy Walker wrote them."
A good example of her direct, finely chiseled art is "You Don't Know
Me." A hit for Eddy Arnold in 1956, Ray Charles in 1962 and Mickey
Gilley in 1981, it was re-recorded by Mr. Charles with Norah Jones for
2004's best-selling "Genius Loves Company," and is the lead single for
Mr. Nelson's record. It telegraphs the silent longing of a man for a
You give your hand to me and then you say hello
And I can hardly speak my heart is beating so
And anyone could tell you think you know me well
But you don't know me.
Some of Ms. Walker's best-known songs — "Miss Molly," "Cherokee
Maiden," "Sugar Moon" — were written for Bob Wills, a fellow East
Texan and master of the country-jazz hybrid known as western swing. In
fact, she wrote more than 50 songs for Mr. Wills, the Texas Playboys
"Wills was a big hero of mine," Mr. Nelson said by telephone from his
tour bus before a show near Fresno, Calif. "And Cindy is from Mexia,
Tex., which is only a few miles from Abbott, where I was born and grew
up. I didn't know her personally in those days, but I was well
familiar with her writing. I told her years ago I wanted to do an
album of her songs; she'd probably given up on me."
She hadn't, but she was hardly holding her breath — she was too busy
writing. Ms. Walker began writing songs when she was around 12, and
until a recent stretch of ill health, she never stopped. Each morning,
she woke up before dawn, poured herself some black coffee, headed
upstairs to her little studio, sat down at her pink-trimmed Royal
typewriter (which graces the cover of Mr. Nelson's CD) and set to
"Songwriting is all I ever did, love," Ms. Walker said in an interview
last month from her home. "I still can't cook, to this day!"
Speaking with Ms. Walker, even over the phone, is like stepping into a
past era. In between sips of coffee and the occasional coughing bout,
she leisurely unspools stories from her life with the same ear for
detail one hears in her songs. As a savvy songwriter in an
age-conscious business, she doesn't like to reveal her age. But she
has been in the music game for a while. As a young woman visiting Los
Angeles in 1940 with her father, Aubrey (a cotton buyer), and mother,
Oree, she talked her way into what was the Crosby building on Sunset
Strip in an attempt to show her suitcase of songs to Bing. When she
got an on-the-spot audition with his brother, Larry Crosby, she ran to
get Oree, her lifelong piano accompanist.
"Mama said: 'Are you crazy, girl? Don't you know I'm not goin'
anywhere with my hair not fixed? It's up in rollers!' And I said, 'I
don't care what it's in — You c'mon with me!' " With Oree at the
piano, she sang a song called "Lone Star Trail," which Crosby recorded
later that year. It was her first sale.
Others quickly followed, and Ms. Walker was so successful that she
remained in Los Angeles with Oree when her father's business in town
was done. As a handsome blonde with singing and dancing talent (she
had performed for years in Texas), she soon had her own recording
contract and was a pioneer in the proto-music videos called
"soundies." She shows a husky, jazzy and rather elegant voice on her
sole hit as a singer, "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again" (not her
composition, surprisingly). But songwriting was her calling, and she
soon abandoned performing, returning to Texas in the mid-1950's to be
And there she stayed, except for regular trips to Nashville, New York
and Los Angeles to sell her songs. Like a honky-tonk Marianne Moore,
she lived most of her life with her mother, who died in 1991, and has
led a very private life, the details of which remain sketchy, which
seems to suit her fine. While most biographers note she has never
married, Ms. Walker claims she did marry once. "But it was a
short-lived marriage," she said. "A very short-lived marriage." She
closes discussion on the topic with a long, hearty chuckle.
In the end, songs seem to be her preferred mode of expression. She
quotes her own lyrics often during a conversation. After finding out
about a death in a reporter's family, she insists he hear Arnold's
recording of her poignant cowboy eulogy "Jim, I Wore a Tie Today,"
even offering Arnold's home phone number to request a copy.
Ms. Walker pronounces Mr. Nelson's latest CD "wonderful." While she
was not directly involved, the disc does feature a number of her
peers. The fiddler Johnny Gimble, credited as session leader, played
with Wills's band for many years, in addition to frequent stints with
Mr. Nelson. Fred Foster is a close friend of Ms. Walker's who produced
Roy Orbison's hit version of her "Dream Baby," as well as her sole LP,
the 1964 "Words and Music." His arrangements on "Songs of Cindy
Walker," which include backing vocals by the Jordanaires, are retro
but clean-lined, with a modern use of space.
The CD recalls "Stardust," Mr. Nelson's 1978 Tin Pan Alley set, also a
career high point. But while the singer's voice may be a tad less
steady here, the material lies closer to his roots, the mix of Texas
country, blues and jazz, of ballads and uptempo romps, a mirror of his
impish, hybrid-minded character. It may in fact be the quintessential
Willie Nelson album.
This disc aside — and not counting the hard-to-find "Words and Music"
and a recent tribute set by the former Wills vocalist Leon Rausch —
there are no proper documents of the breadth of Ms. Walker's
achievement. Fans might trawl eBay for a gray-market transcription of
a seven-hour Cindy Walker radio special, broadcast in 1997 on the
California freeform radio station KFJC. Or they might try assembling
an MP3 playlist from tracks available on digital music services like
iTunes or eMusic.
But they'll have to play catch-up with a writer whose catalog is said
to number over 500 songs and counting. And does Ms. Walker intend to
return to writing when her health permits? "I sure do hope so, love,"
she said. "I sure do hope so."