(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Willie Nelson’s new CD celebrating the songs of Cindy Walker is more than another landmark recording for this remarkable country force of nature, although it is certainly that. But it’s also a salute to two other stalwart talents in country music.
You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker may be better than anything Willie has cut since Stardust, almost 30 years ago. Age has weathered his voice, but it’s also given it a graceful gravitas and a worn patina that suit these sepia-toned song chestnuts very well. A good song doesn’t know its age and exists in a timeless place where it can live forever. A Cindy Walker original such as “You Don’t Know Me” on this album has been a hit for Eddy Arnold (1956), Ray Charles (1962) and Mickey Gilley (1981) and will undoubtedly be a hit again for artists we don’t even know about yet. All 13 songs, such as “Bubbles in My Beer” and “Not That I Care” and “Dusty Skies” are highlights.
Walker, who gave one of the more moving and personal acceptance speeches I have ever heard when she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997, has long been a unique songwriter in a pantheon of unique songwriters. She lives in Mexia, in East Texas, where she has written hits for the past five decades, ranging from “Bubbles in My Beer” for Bob Wills to “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)” for Roy Orbison. She moved to Hollywood in the early 1940s and successfully pitched songs to pop crooner Bing Crosby and got a Decca Records contract but ultimately decided to return to East Texas to write songs and to live a life as the solitary songwriter. Her catalog now numbers more than 500 songs.
The other part of this equation that is just as fascinating is the producer of You Don’t Know Me — Fred Foster. He is perhaps the most underpraised of Nashville music pioneers. His Monument Records label and Combine Music publishing firm launched careers for artists ranging from Orbison to Kris Kristofferson to Dolly Parton. He signed Parton in 1964 when no one else was interested in her. At one time or another, he also signed Nelson, Ray Stevens, Tony Joe White, Larry Gatlin and the pre-Outlaws outlaw, singer-songwriter Chris Gantry. He encouraged songwriter Kristofferson to try his hand at recording his own songs, and Foster co-wrote “Me and Bobby McGee” with him. At one time in the 1960s, he also had a soul label, Soul Stage 7, with artists ranging from Ivory Joe Hunter to the O’Jays to Arthur Alexander to Joe Simon. The Rolling Stones covered Alexander’s “You Better Move On.” In his recording sessions, he also encouraged emerging session players such as Charlie McCoy and Jerry Kennedy, who went on to become major figures in Nashville. At Monument, Foster produced all of Orbison’s monster hits, often punctuating Orbison’s soaring vocals with symphonic orchestration and choral backup singers.
The production on this Willie Nelson recording recalls Foster’s clean production on all of the great Orbison sides: a very spare but crisp and warm sound that grabs you and holds on. This production is a potent reminder of the wealth of talent in Nashville. The Monument Records story remains one of the great unwritten books in Nashville. And the songs themselves are a strong lesson that there have been giants in country music songwriting. I wish Cindy Walker would write the story of her life. And Willie — he can write anything he wants to, and I’ll gladly read it.