Monday 27 March 2006
Cindy Walker, songwriter: born Mart, Texas 20 July 1918; died Mexia, Texas 23 March 2006.
In September 1997 the Country Music Hall of Fame welcomed two of the genre's finest songwriters to its ranks. The younger, Harlan Howard, was widely regarded as country's greatest living tunesmith and yet, if asked, he maintained that the title belonged to his mentor and fellow inductee, Cindy Walker.
Whether or not one subscribes to his point of view, there is little doubting the breadth and quality of the Cindy Walker songbook. In a 60-year-plus career a series of genuinely timeless standards flowed from her pen, among them "Cherokee Maiden", "In the Misty Moonlight", "Dream Baby", "Jim, I Wore a Tie Today", "Distant Drums" and "You Don't Know Me". Direct, honest and unpretentious, her work epitomises Howard's famous definition of a great country song: "Three chords and the truth".
Whilst many songwriters rely on a casually overheard phrase or pun for inspiration, Cindy Walker's approach was more obviously craftsmanlike, taking a specific title, a particular artist and creating, in words and music, a perfect vehicle for both. Eddy Arnold, for example, pitched her the title "You Don't Know Me" at a chance meeting during the 1955 WSM deejay convention in Nashville. Although she regarded his suggestion as unpromising, the song eventually "wrote itself" and the result was a beautifully symmetrical and poignant portrait of a love not to be; one which has been covered many times over the years - most successfully, in 1962, by Ray Charles.
Music was in Cindy Walker's blood. She was born in Texas and the ghosts of the state's vast landscapes haunt much of her writing. Her grandfather F.L Eiland was a noted composer of hymns ("Hold to God's Unchanging Hands") and her mother and future constant companion Oree was a fine pianist. Fond of poetry, she wrote habitually and her "Casa de Mañana", written for the State Centennial, was performed by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra whilst she was still in her teens.
In 1940, whilst accompanying her father on an LA business trip, she made her way to Bing Crosby Enterprises and assertively pitched a new song, "Lone Star Trail", to Larry Crosby. Impressed and aware that his brother was looking for a "western" number, Larry introduced her to Bing, who liked what he heard and asked her to "demo" the record with Dave Kapp of Decca. He, too, was impressed and unexpectedly offered her a recording contract which resulted in one hit, Wiley Walker (no relation) and Gene Sullivan's "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again" (1941).
Backed on several of her sides for Decca by the drummer Spike Jones, she was, through her song "We're Gonna Stomp Them City Slickers Down", responsible for naming his future band the City Slickers.
Buoyed by Crosby's chart success with "Lone Star Trail", she next pursued the western swing bandleader Bob Wills. Having seen his tour bus arrive in town, she randomly telephoned local hotels until she made contact with his manager. Her relationship with Wills would be fruitful: he and the Texas Playboys would record over 50 of her songs - including "Cherokee Maiden" (1941) which Wills's fan Merle Haggard took to the top of the country charts in 1976, "Dusty Skies" (1941) with its vivid depiction of dustbowl hardship, "Miss Molly" (1942), "Sugar Moon" (1946) and "Bubbles in My Beer" (1948).
In the decade that followed, her songwriter's credit was rarely absent from the country charts. Notable Walker-penned hits included "Oklahoma Waltz" (Johnny Bond, 1948), "Warm Red Wine" (Ernest Tubb, 1948), "Take Me in Your Arms and Love Me" (Eddy Arnold, 1948), "The Gold Rush is Over" (Hank Snow, 1952), "I Don't Care" (Webb Pierce, 1955) and, in 1957, "Anna Marie" for Jim Reeves. The last of these began an artist-writer association that would include "This is It" (1965) and culminate in Reeves's biggest posthumous hit, "Distant Drums" (1966).
In 1961, Roy Orbison took her "Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)", a song in which she originally had little confidence, into the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic. That same year, her "Jim, I Wore a Tie Today", a poignant meditation on the death of a cowboy, made a fleeting appearance on the chart courtesy of Eddy Arnold.
The hits continued and her songs returned to the top spot twice in 1968 when Sonny James scored with "Heaven Says Hello" and Jack Greene had a near-career record with "You Are My Treasure". In 1981 Mickey Gilley's cover of "You Don't Know Me" found its way to No 1 and a year later Ricky Skaggs's reworking of "I Don't Care" followed suit, proving her last chart-topper.
Although her name had not recently been as prominent on studio songsheets, she continued to write until the end. Earlier this month her friend Willie Nelson paid his own personal tribute to her by releasing an album of some of her best songs: You Don't Know Me.
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