“I’m just a Texan at heart,” drawled the “Queen of Western Song Writers” to a live audience at Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Stadium in 1951. “And I’m sure glad to see you all.”
At the time, Texas native Cindy Walker was a Hollywood-based film actress, with wavy blond hair, attractive features, and a cowgirl sensibility—all the assets needed for Western film roles. She was also a recording artist and a composer of tunes waxed by everybody from Bing Crosby to Bob Wills. Two years after that Fort Worth appearance, she moved back to Texas and settled in Mexia, where she lived until her death at age 87 in 2006.
This Friday and Saturday, Mexia celebrates her life and legacy with the inaugural Cindy Walker Days, a two-day music festival headlined by “old hippie” hitmakers the Bellamy Brothers. The event also features Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, Billy Mata and the Texas Tradition, Rick Trevino, Brennen Leigh, Hot Club of Cowtown, Monte Warden and the Wagoneers, Ginny Mac, and more than 20 other great artists of country, Americana, and Texas swing.
Produced by the nonprofit Cindy Walker Foundation, the festival kicks off a day after Walker’s birthday in the Mexia Civic Center and at nearby Old Fort Parker, the reconstructed frontier fort where Cynthia Ann Parker and others were abducted by Comanches in 1836. The foundation was founded by Mexia native Lindsay Liepman in 2022 to preserve and promote Walker’s legacy. The organization raised enough money to purchase the songwriter’s former home and studio on South Brooks Street in Mexia and is working to restore it as a museum, songwriters’ residency, and “a physical remembrance of her amazing life.”
On Saturday at Old Fort Parker, Cindy Walker Days will present an “All-Star Tribute to Cindy Walker” with the current Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. When I spoke with bandleader Jason Roberts last week, final plans for the tribute and special guests were still being worked out, but as the fiddler pointed out, “Every show we play is pretty much a Cindy Walker tribute because each set is filled to the brim with her great songs. A lot of writers write good songs, but some write songs that are timeless. And the mark of a great song is that it can be done in all styles and genres. That was Cindy.”
With more than 500 recorded songs during her more than 60-year career, it seems wrong to name just a few. Punching the metaphysical jukebox almost randomly, here’s a short stack and some of the artists who recorded them: “You Don’t Know Me” (Eddy Arnold, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Norah Jones); “Dream Baby” (Roy Orbison); “In the Misty Moonlight” (Dean Martin); “Blue Canadian Rockies” (Gene Autry, The Byrds); “Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age” (Bob Wills); “Warm Red Wine” (Ernest Tubb). Wills’ Playboys eventually recorded more than 50 of Walker’s songs, the Texas Troubadour about two dozen. From Grandpa Jones to Bette Midler, artists in just about every genre recorded her songs. (You can see a semi-complete list of artists on the foundation’s website.) One of the best ways to discover her life’s work is Willie Nelson’s 2006 all-Cindy album You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, released just days before the songwriter died.
Born near Mart in 1917, music was in Cindy Walker’s DNA. Her grandfather F. E. Eiland was an important gospel performer, composer, and publisher based in Waco. Eiland’s daughter, Cindy’s mother, Oree, was an accomplished pianist who often accompanied Cindy and helped arrange her songs.
Around the age of 12, Walker wrote her first song, “Dusty Skies.” In 1936, a 19-year-old Walker appeared as a dancer in Billy Rose’s Fort Worth extravaganza celebrating the Texas Centennial. There she met “The King of Jazz,” Paul Whiteman, who liked her new song “Casa de Mañana” so much he opened his shows with it. That was exciting, but her career really took off in 1940 and ’41.
On a business trip to Los Angeles with her parents (her father was a cotton buyer), she hollered for her pop to stop the car when she spotted the Crosby Building on Sunset Boulevard. This was where the management office of America’s favorite crooner was located. Astounding her parents, she marched inside and announced, “Tell Mr. Crosby there’s somebody here from Texas to see him.” She played her song, “Lone Star Trail,” for Larry Crosby, Bing’s brother and publicist. The next day, she played it for “Der Bingle” himself. “I’ll record it,” he said.
“And here’s a record deal,” said Decca Records exec Dave Kapp when he heard the song’s demo that Bing had arranged for Cindy to record.
The Walker family relocated to Hollywood, and Cindy from Mart found herself quite at home walking in tall Tinsel Town cotton. In addition to a side job training horses for Bing (glamor shots of the young woman sitting in the saddle ran in papers from Del Rio to London, England), she soon appeared on the silver screen with Gene Autry in the musical Western Ride, Tenderfoot, Ride. Other film roles followed, as did the press.
When Clara Driscoll (aka “Savior of the Alamo”) was the guest of honor at the newly opened Hollywood headquarters of the John Nance Garner-for-president movement in 1940, one L.A. paper wrote, “Among the film celebrities greeting her will be a fellow Texan, Cindy Walker, actress, who is known as the ‘Cactus Cinderella.’”
In 1948, Denney Plumlee reported on the first annual “Horse Opera” gathering of Western film and music stars in his “A Texan in Hollywood” column for the Amarillo Daily News. “Cindy Walker, the famous entertainer and singer,” he wrote, “was there dressed in a Western gown of silver trimmed in black.” When Walker took the stage, Plumlee continued, she deadpanned to the audience that George “Gabby” Hayes had remarked, “This is the first time I’ve ever seen corn in a silver sack.” Before singing “You Hail from Texas,” she quipped, “This dress I’m wearing is really the last-minute of style. I got it in Paris….Paris, Texas.”
Walker’s other gigs in Hollywood included writing 39 songs for eight “soundie” films starring Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys and appearing in the “first Christian Western” film, entitled Mr. Texas and produced by Billy Graham.
When Walker’s father died, she and her mother moved back to Texas in 1953, choosing to be closer to her brother and nieces who lived in Mexia. Though she continued performing locally, for Mexia Chamber of Commerce, Lions Club, the Mexia Music Study Club, churches, and other community groups and events (sometimes held at Old Fort Parker and Westminster College in Tehuacana), for the rest of her career Walker concentrated on songwriting. Each year, she and Oree would go to Nashville for a few months and demo songs for artists and producers. And whenever an admiring journalist got her on the phone, they were treated to hearing her newest composition.
Some 75 unpublished songs and demos, along with awards and plaques that she kept under the bed, and audio of Walker telling her life story, were found by the Cindy Walker Foundation in her home. (When she died, Walker left the home to her beloved housekeeper, Willie Mae Adkinson, who died in 2019.) It’s hoped that royalties from the songs might help with the $300,000 estimated costs to restore the house.
One thing is for sure: at Cindy Walker Days, the respect and tributes will flow for Walker, a pioneer for female songwriters in the mid-20th century whose influence continues today. Festival performer Brennen Leigh wrote about this in No Depression, an Americana music publication. Titled “How Songwriter Cindy Walker Blazed a Path for Brennen Leigh,” the piece was actually about Leigh’s immersion in Bob Wills records while growing up in North Dakota.
“What kept me engaged most were the songs,” she explained. “I discovered that Cindy Walker, a woman, had written the bulk of my favorites. ‘Cherokee Maiden,’ ‘Miss Molly,’ and ‘Sugar Moon,’ to name a few. This was Texas [and America] in the 1940s; Lord knows the odds that she’d become a well-known songwriter had to have been stacked against her. But the quality of her work seeped past the glass ceiling like sunlight through holes in a barn wall….
“Hers were compositions I now see as the gold standard,” Leigh added. “They were perfect. Funny. Incredibly sad. Derivative of nothing. They didn’t waste words or reiterate….I was a bear who’d found a beehive.”
The inaugural Cindy Walker Days festival is July 21-22 in Mexia, with headlining acts the Bellamy Brothers and Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. The event also features a marketplace, drinks, and food. Tickets can be purchased here.