For all intents and purposes, the story of professional female songwriters in country music begins with Cindy Walker. In an era where almost all artists and writers were men, she was a phenomenon, a prolific writer whose work was cut by the top recording artists of the forties and fifties, and whose songs were so strong that they’d be recorded over and over again in the decades that followed.
She grew up in Texas, where her mother was a highly skilled pianist. Though she loved performing, and was doing so publicly from the age of seven, her greatest passion was songwriting. She dreamed of going to Los Angeles, where the western movies of her hero Bing Crosby were made. In 1941, her father had to go to L.A. on a business trip, and he invited his wife and daughter along. Cindy threw all of her songs into a briefcase and set out for the West Coast with mom and dad.
She headed straight for the office of Bing Crosby. Fearless and certain of her talent, she talked herself into an audition for Bing’s brother. He was so impressed that he contacted the star immediately. Not only did Crosby cut her song “Lone Star Trail”, she ended up with a recording contract of her own.
Her movie star looks earned her roles in many motion pictures, and she recorded extensively throughout the forties, scoring a hit with “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again” in 1944. But the glamorous life of a movie and singing star held little appeal, and it was her writing that she turned her full energy to. The list of stars who recorded her material reads like a who’s who of country music in the forties, fifties and sixties. Bob Wills was one of her most enthusiastic backers, and would record more than fifty of his songs, including the classics “Cherokee Maiden” and “Bubbles in My Beer.”
Walker also scored with Eddy Arnold, penning his hits “Take Me in Your Arms” and “You Don’t Know Me,” the latter of which became a standard over time and has been recorded by dozens of artists, everyone from Mickey Gilley and Elvis Presley to Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson. “I Don’t Care” is another one of her songs that became a standard, first recorded by co-writer Webb Pierce, and then embraced by Mel Tillis, Ricky Skaggs and Dwight Yoakam.
She also scored in the pop field, with Roy Orbison turning “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)” into a smash. Some country acts cut the song, like Lacy J. Dalton, Glen Campbell and Waylon Jennings, but so did a slew of pop stars, everyone from Cher to Patti Page.
Amazingly, she wrote many of her hits from her home in Texas, which she returned to in the late forties. She never married, and later lived with and cared for her mother Oree, who was her piano player and companion until the end. It was her close relationship with her mother that inspired what would be the greatest Country Music Hall of Fame acceptance speech in history.
Cindy Walker was elected to the Hall in 1997, but Oree had passed away several years earlier. Her mother had always believed that Cindy would be inducted, but the songwriter had her doubts. After all, it wasn’t like the Hall was populated by many songwriters, let alone female ones. When she went up to accept the honor, she asked the crowd to allow her to read a poem that she had written:
In the 1980’s my mother bought me a dress for a BMI affair
And she said, ‘When they put you in the Hall of Fame, that’s the dress I want you to wear
I said, ‘Oh mama, the Hall of Fame. Why, that will never be’
And the years went by, but my mother’s words remained in my memory
And I know tonight she’d be happy, though she’s gone now to her rest
But I think of all that she did for me, and tonight I’m wearing this dress.
Walker burst into tears and the audience erupted into a thunderous standing ovation. Marty Stuart would later comment that if you wanted to know what country music is truly about, you just need to watch Cindy Walker’s Hall of Fame speech.
Walker passed away in 2006, the same year when her catalog received new attention thanks to Willie Nelson, who recorded an album of her songs entitled You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker. It sold strongly and was nominated for Best Country Album at the 2007 Grammy awards, proving again that the songs that Cindy Walker wrote are timeless. Every female songwriter to come along since is indebted to Walker, not just for being one of the first, but for being one of the best.
- “Cherokee Maiden” (Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, Mel Tillis)
- “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)” (Roy Orbison, Lacy J. Dalton, Cher, Waylon Jennings)
- “I Don’t Care” (Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Ricky Skaggs)
- “In the Misty Moonlight” (Jerry Wallace, Dean Martin, Bill Anderson)
- “Take Me in Your Arms” (Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves & Deborah Allen)
- “You Don’t Know Me” (Eddy Arnold, Mickey Gilley, Elvis Presley, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson)
- Country Music Hall of Fame, 1997
This is great to see Cindy on your list.
Needless to say, I agree with every word you penned on Cindy Walker. She was indeed an original and up there with Harlan Howard and Dallas Frazier as a GREAT songsmith. BUT … how could you omit the Ray Charles version of “You Don’t Know Me” as an essential Cindy Walker song ?
I’m delighted to have found your blog! I’m a college professor teaching a class on country music and Southern culture this summer, and I’ll be directing my students to check your blog for more information and educated opinions. Keep up the great work!
It’s awesome to see her placed so high, though a little bit surprising, I’ll admit. Going back through her catalogue is absolutely inspiring.
My other favorite thing said in regards to her Hall of Fame Speech: “I didn’t know who she was, but after her speech, it didn’t matter who YOU were.” That was either Vince Gill or Marty Stuart again, can’t recall which. I wish the clip of that speech could find its way onto YouTube.
Placing Cindy Walker in your top 20 only cements the thoughtfulness and validity of your list. Where would country music be without its songwriters? Where would country music be without Cindy Walker? Where would country, to say nothing of popular, music be without “You Don’t Know Me”?
That sounds like a really interesting class that I wish I was taking.
I wonder what the context of that quote was and who actually said it? I suspect that both Marty Stuart and Vince Gill knew exactly who Cindy Walker was, since they are country historians in their own rights.
What a great acceptance speech. I can imagine how the crowd felt as they heard it.
I suspect that you’re right and that that snippet of the interview was taken out of context for whichever T.V. show I saw it on (I’m pretty sure it was CMT’s “40 Greatest TV Moments.”) But regardless, I thought it was a great way of summing up the emotional impact of that speech for the audience there.
Probably referring to her song “You Don’t Know Me.” … as in, they didn’t know her (tongue-in-cheek).
Great to see a songwriter this high on the list and surely Cindy Walker deserves it. I do think Liz Anderson should have made the top 100 though as she wrote not only Merle Haggard’s greatest record “The Fugitive” but the breakthrough hits of Merle, Lynn Anderson, Del Reeves, and Conway Twitty as well as several top 40 hits of her own. I think nearly everybody in Nashville had a Liz Anderson track on one of their albums back in the 1960’s.