Cindy Walker, the queen of Western swing
"Dream Baby," "Bubbles in My Beer," "You Don't Know Me" if Cindy Walker hadn't written another song, these three would be enough to hang her Stetson on. She wrote hundreds more, however, and it's hard to think of a more influential country & western songwriter, or one who's more quintessentially Texan. In fact, Walker still calls Mexia home.
Of course, the first question on anyone's mind is if she's still writing songs. Walker answered that one before it could be asked, holding a tape recorder up to the phone and playing "Is It Love," a sweetly melodic little tune demoed by none other than Rich O'Brien and Leon Rausch. Walker noted that longtime producer Fred Foster has earmarked the song for Norah Jones already.
On the occasion of Texas Folklife Resources (www.texas folklife.org) celebrating Walker's accomplishments this Sunday at the Paramount Theatre, the interview-shy Walker discussed her career, a tale punctuated by an easy laugh and a Texas-plains drawl.
Austin Chronicle: You started your career during the Thirties at the Casa Mañana in Fort Worth. What was that like?
Cindy Walker: Well, I talked to [impresario] Billy Rose and told him I was the best dancer in Texas, and got Papa to drive me to Fort Worth for the audition. I was hired right away. I had my guitar with me, and that's when I wrote "Casa de Mañana." Paul Whiteman heard it and said, "That's the song I've been looking for to open my shows with." That's the first song I had ever played, though I wrote "Dusty Skies" when I was 12. I've always written songs.
AC: Was Bing Crosby still with Whiteman when you two met?
CW: No, let me tell you about that. My father was a cotton buyer, and we were in Tucson. We took a trip to Hollywood to sell some pima cotton, and I saw the Crosby Building. I said, "Stop, Papa, stop! I've got a song for Bing Crosby, and I want to see him!" And 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!
AC: How did you get to know Bob Wills?
CW: Well, I wrote "Cherokee Maiden" and "Bluebonnet Lane" for Bob Wills and was gonna send them to Cain's Ballroom in Oklahoma. I went out to mail the package, and here comes a bus down the street that says "Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys," so I didn't mail it! I ran home and called all the hotels and found him at the Hollywood Plaza. Wills wasn't there, but his manager O.W. Mayo was, and I played him those two songs and "Dusty Skies," and he brought Bob over there when he got into town. I sang 'em for him, and he did five of my songs.
AC: You wrote all the songs for Wills' movies?
CW: Thirty-nine songs. They didn't turn down one of them. They were in eight movies.
AC: It must have been a great thrill to see him do your songs live.
CW: Oh, it was. And when Tommy Duncan sang "Dusty Skies," he cried. But I didn't think of songs as being hits, I just wrote them. I still write 'em like that. Some people ask me why "You Don't Know Me" has Eddy Arnold's name on the songwriting credits.
It happened in Nashville when I went in to say goodbye to [Steve] Sholes of RCA Records and Eddy came in right about the time I was leaving. He said, "I've got a title that I want you to write a song around: 'You Don't Know Me.'" I said, "Well, that doesn't sound like much, but I'll think about it." I went home and wrote it.
There's a lot of the music business that I know a lot about, but I just never thought in those terms, y'know?
AC: Were you and Wills close?
CW: I think so, yeah. He'd always ask me for songs. Betty Wills was his wife; she was very nice to me. Bob was married about five times or so. He drank, y'know? He had a reputation. But then I was a lot younger than Bob Wills.
AC: How was it working in Nashville?
CW: Well, you see, I lived in Hollywood for 13 years. My mother stayed with me, and my father would tend to his business. My mother was a wonderful piano player, and she made all my demos. But then Papa died in '48, and my brother wrote me and said, "I want you to bring my mother home. I have three little girls and she'll never see her grandchildren unless you bring her home."
Well, I can write just as good in Texas as in California, so he got me this house in Mexia. But then, I'd go to Nashville for three, four months every year until my mother died.
AC: Did you get acquainted with songwriters like Harlan Howard, Tom T. Hall, and Don Schlitz?
CW: Oh yes, Harlan was a fine friend of mine. All of 'em were, I knew everybody. I'm in the Hall of Fame in Nashville. They're all sweet, dear people.
AC: You never considered moving there?
CW: No, I'd just bring my songs. I wanted to stay in Texas.
AC: How did Roy Orbison come to do your songs?
CW: Roy Orbison was recording for Fred Foster, and Fred called me one day and said, "Write me something for Roy Orbison." So I wrote "Shahdaroba," "Wishin' on a Star," and "Dream Baby." I put 'em in a box, and then my mother came by and said, "What'd you take out of the box?" "I took out 'Dream Baby' because I thought it was monotonous." She said, "Well, if you don't send 'Dream Baby,' then you've got nothing to send!"
AC: You thought the song was a little weak?
CW: Oh yeah, I thought it was monotonous, you know, "Dream baby, doo doo doo do doo" [laughs]. Well, then Fred Foster 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.
AC: Did you know Orbison very well?
CW: I met him several times, yes. He was very polite, but very stiff. He had a hard life, you know. His wife died in that motorcycle crash, and his sons died in a house fire. He was very dignified and reserved, kinda shy.
AC: Elvis had a big hit with one of your songs.
CW: He did "You Don't Know Me" for one of his pictures.
AC: What about "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again"?
CW: That's not my song, love. A lot of people seem to think that, but it was written by Wayne Walker, and since my last name is Walker ... but he's not kin to me. I sang that song for Decca, but I didn't write it. Everyone seems to think that.
AC: In the Fifties, when rock & roll came around, it put a dent in the careers of a lot of country stars. Did you retool your songwriting to adjust?
CW: No, I just wrote the way I felt just like I always did. Of course it did change a lot of things in the business, but I had it made pretty well by that time anyway.
AC: Tell me about your Words & Music LP from '64.
CW: I didn't want to make that, but my mother and Fred Foster kept after me. The way it turned out, though, I was glad I did it.
AC: You've gotten several awards now, haven't you? How many do you have?
CW: Yeah, but I don't show 'em [laughs]. I belong to eight or nine halls of fame. There's the Nashville Hall of Fame, the California Hall of Fame, Arizona, Washington State, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
AC: That's quite a career.
CW: And I've enjoyed it, dear. But you can't pay me to be honored, I won't let 'em do that. Not even to furnish my hotel.
Texas Folklife Resources' the Ultimate Cindy Walker Tribute, featuring Ray Benson, Hot Club of Cowtown's Elena Fremerman, Don Edwards, Johnny Gimble, Cornell Hurd, Rich & Valerie O'Brien, Leon Rausch, Roger Wallace & Teri Joyce, plus (hopefully) a very special guest all backed by Earl Poole Ball, Sarah Brown, Cindy Cashdollar, Lisa Pankratz, and Redd Volkaert kicks off at 8pm, Sunday, Feb. 22, at the Paramount Theatre. Call 469-SHOW for tickets.