Current country music fans might not recognize Cindy Walker’s name, but even though she died at age 87 in 2006, she is still remembered — and revered — by many music pros. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, she could hold her own as a performer but her legacy will always be the songs she wrote, many of them the basis for hit records by some of the biggest stars around. It’s estimated that more than 500 of her songs were recorded, and 400 of them made the charts. She was often called “the greatest living songwriter of country music” by her peers.
Even while growing up in Depression-era Texas, Cindy Walker began to show signs of what her future would bring. In addition to a musical upbringing — her mother was a skilled pianist — she also spent a lot of time writing rhymes, possibly inspired by a grandfather who wrote hymns. In any case, it wasn’t long before she was a songwriter herself, and she began to draw some attention while still in her teens, even furnishing some of the music for Paul Whiteman‘s orchestra during his 1936 salute to the Texas Centennial.
Her breakout occurred a few years later, when she accompanied her parents on a trip to Los Angeles and talked her skeptical father into stopping at Bing Crosby‘s office building. One thing led to another and before long she was performing one of her songs for Crosby, who was a huge star at the time. He ended up with a Top Ten record on the song — “Lone Star Trail” — and even better, helped Cindy land her own recording contract. It was the beginning of a period lasting more than a decade, during which she made her home in Los Angeles and flourished as a songwriter and performer. She even found the occasional movie part, often accompanying stars like Gene Autry but sometimes shining on her own. (Video below.)
By the 1950s Cindy Walker was one of the busiest songwriters around. She’d had her own hit record a few years earlier with “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again,” but as the years passed she became a valuable resource for many performers. Her roster of big songs is too long to list here, but include more than fifty just for Bob Wills, including “Cherokee Maiden” and “You’re From Texas.” Also Autry’s “Blue Canadian Rockies” and several songs for Jim Reeves, including his chart-topper “Distant Drums.” Other best-sellers included “Take Me in Your Arms and Hold Me” and “You Don’t Know Me” for Eddy Arnold and a lot of others, including Ray Charles and Elvis Presley. In fact, she wrote a lot of pure pop hits, among them Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby” and Dean Martin’s “In The Misty Moonlight.”
But as high as her profile was professionally, she was very private in her personal life. She had moved back to Texas in the 1950s and was based there for the rest of her long life (with occasional stints in Nashville) spending much of it living with her widowed mother, who sometimes helped her compose. She once said that she’d had a brief marriage, but not much else is known about it. She remained active well into her later years, although her mother’s death in 1991 was a difficult time for her. When she died in Texas in 2006, Willie Nelson had just released his loving tribute album, You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker.