Willie Nelson

The Songs of Cindy Walker

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By Bill DeMain  

Willie’s pal, the late country songwriter Harlan Howard, once said, “Cindy Walker is the greatest country songwriter I’ve ever heard.” Willie Nelson must agree.

For this album, he’s recorded a baker’s dozen of Walker’s finest, and he’s done it old school, with producer Fred Foster at the controls and instrumental backing that sounds like a classic early ‘60s album (complete with Floyd Cramer-ish piano licks and Jordanaire-style background vocals). A little about Cindy Walker. Born in Texas in 1918, she made her way to Hollywood in the early ‘40s, scoring hits with Bing Crosby. In the mid-’50s, she turned to songwriting full-time, penning tunes for Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb and Roy Orbison, among others.

Walker’s approach was to write words and melody, without accompaniment. Unable to play an instrument, she enlisted her mother to provide piano backing. Every song here is a gem. “Bubbles In My Beer” and “Don’t Be Ashamed Of Your Age” are western swingers with the kind of economy and elegance of language that brings to mind Irving Berlin at his best. She’s equally adept on the ballads. Perhaps her best-known song, “You Don’t Know Me,” is still one of the most aching portraits of unrequited love ever written.

With all this wonderful songwriting on display, it’s easy to forget about the artist delivering the tunes. But Willie’s happy to walk a step behind the songs, letting them do most of the work. In some measure, Willie has become the successor to Sinatra, in the way that he places emphasis on the emotional story of a lyric, conveying humor and heartbreak in equal measures. For fans of classic country, this record is a must. For songwriters, it’s a how-to textbook.

Musician and journalist Bill DeMain writes frequently about music. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Entertainment Weekly, MOJO, and Musician.