If songs were written for neglected houses, this house would get a sad one: a leaking roof with missing shingles; rotting floorboards under aged carpet; floors littered with stained ceiling tiles; rooms filled with decades-old furniture, tapes, CDs, trash and faded memories; and air heavy with the smell of mold, mildew and shut-up spaces.
If anyone could write that song, though, it would be the late songwriter Cindy Walker. And it would be a personal. The neglected house is hers, a two-story, faded white house on a quiet street in Mexia, her home for 52 years before her death at the age of 88 in 2006.
It’s the place where Walker wrote some of her most famous songs, including “You Don’t Know Me,” recorded by Eddy Arnold and some 200 others, tapping out lyrics on her pink Remington manual typewriter in her second-floor work study.
And it’s a place fans hope to preserve for future generations as a tribute to Walker’s legacy and a point of pride for her adopted hometown. Efforts to save the house, believed to have been built in the 1940s, spun out of a documentary-in-progress, You Don’t Know Me: The Story of Cindy Walker, led by Central Texas broadcaster and Texas music advocate Lindsay Liepman.
Liepman, an evening news anchor with Central Texas television station KCEN, has documented Texas music in the past, including in a 2020 film on the Waco hip-hop scene, Blood, Sweat & Beats: The Waco Hip Hop Story; the podcast Invisible Icon: The Tom Wilson Story, which she co-produced; and her series on contemporary Texas performers, Texas Voices.
A member of the Mexia High School Class of 1999, Liepman spent her grade school and high school years in the community where Walker lived. She has a vague memory of Walker, remembered as chatty and generous with friends and acquaintances but guarded and more private in public.
Liepman’s interest in Walker got rekindled when telling her story to director Michael Kirk, a Texas Voices collaborator, more than a year ago. Kirk felt it was a story worth sharing with a larger audience and, with Liepman, got the ball rolling on a documentary. Filming on You Don’t Know Me, with the two sharing directing duties, started in September 2021.
As she talked with people who knew and worked with Walker, including her surviving nieces, Jerry Lawrence and Molly Dusenberry Walker, the fate of Walker’s house on South Brooks Street in east Mexia emerged.
“I realized it was crumbling to the ground,” Liepman says, “and no one was picking up the ball.” Her first visit to the house at 114 S. Brooks St. wasn’t encouraging. The once well-tended lawn and gardens around the house were overgrown. A large patch of missing shingles on the house’s gambrel roof showed an obvious need of repair. An eave that had shaded a pair of French doors opening on a garden had collapsed and lay on the ground. A panel of corrugated fiberglass patching stood in place of the French doors. The front door stood unlocked and open.
A look inside was equally dispiriting, with furniture and belongings left in the house at the time of Walker’s death smothered by years of accumulated trash and items from the home’s previous inhabitants.
In her will, Walker left the house where she and her mother, Oree, had lived for decades to their longtime housekeeper, Willie Mae Adkinson, who lived there until her death in 2019. The house then passed to her brother, W.D. Adkinson.
Liepman helped create the Cindy Walker Foundation in April, partially as a mechanism to raise money to buy and repair the house, and is serving as its president. The foundation raised $30,000 plus closing costs to buy the house in October.
With the house title in the foundation’s hand, volunteers assembled for a November clean-up date and removed more than a ton of clutter, Liepman says.
Musical Trove Discovered
While the house cleaning showed the extent of the work ahead to make the house usable, it also uncovered a small silver lining: some 75 unpublished, unrecorded Cindy Walker songs.
That silver lining could turn to gold for the foundation. Walker left the rights to her published songs to the Country Music Hall of Fame, which now draws the royalties earned by her songs. Rights to the new unpublished songs could mean revenue for the foundation, Liepman says.
Revenue will be sorely needed for the task at hand. Liepman estimates it could cost about $300,000 to “rehabilitate” the Walker home for public use and access. She also envisions a fundraising Cindy Walker Day, or days, held on the songwriter’s birthday of July 20, which would feature live music and other activities with proceeds dedicated to the project.
Liepman says foundations and museums with Walker connections have indicated an early interest, including the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth and the Bob Wills Heritage Foundation. Walker wrote dozens of songs for the Western swing icon Wills early in her career, such as “Cherokee Maiden,” “Miss Molly,” “You’re from Texas” and “Bubbles in My Beer,” and she was inducted in the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1998.
More support may be ahead. Preservation Texas included the Cindy Walker home on its Most Endangered Places list in 2022, putting it in the spotlight for people interested in saving the state’s history.
While the nonprofit doesn’t underwrite funding for restoration or preservation projects, it does draw attention from groups and individuals who do. In its 18 years, fewer than 10% of the 150 properties that have been highlighted on the list have been destroyed or otherwise lost.
The Cindy Walker Foundation has contacted Ames Heritage Consulting, headed by Waco author and Baylor Libraries spokesperson Eric Ames, to help develop a plan and strategies for the next steps.
Ames says part of the consulting study will look at what stories the foundation wants to share about Walker, given the artifacts on hand and the anticipated audiences, then how to shape a presentation to tell those stories.
Centex Roots, L.A. Glitz
Walker moved into the Mexia house with her mother in 1954, when Walker already was a notable songwriter and singer. The Mart-born daughter of cotton broker Aubrey Walker and his wife, Oree, Walker showed a love of performing and songwriting in her youth.
She parlayed a family visit to Los Angeles in 1940 into the start of her career, dropping in on Bing Crosby Enterprises in an unannounced visit and walking away with an agreement from Crosby’s brother, Larry, to buy and record her song “Lone Star Trail.” Within days, she had a recording contract with Decca Records.
The Walker family visit turned into an extended stay thanks to Walker’s success. A major step toward that came when she happened to pitch her songs to Bob Wills, just as the Western swing band leader had landed a multi-film deal and needed songs for those pictures. Walker penned 39 songs for the movies and ended up writing nearly 50 songs for Wills and his Texas Playboys.
Walker scored a Top 10 hit as a singer with 1944’s “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again” and was featured in several musical westerns, but she’d narrow her career focus to songwriting.
After the death of her father, Walker and her mother decided to move back to Mexia, prompted, Liepman says, by a plea from her brother, Aubrey, who wanted the family closer to home.
Given that Hollywood and Nashville were twin poles for country and pop songwriters, Walker’s resolve to work from Mexia was remarkable in a time before interstate highways, expanded air travel and the internet.
In her time in Mexia, she wrote hundreds of songs, recorded by a who’s who of pop and country music from the 1940s to the 1970s: Wills, Arnold, Bing Crosby, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, Gene Autry, Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell, the Byrds, Dean Martin and Ricky Skaggs.
Two artists returned the favor, recording albums of Cindy Walker songs: former Texas Playboys lead vocalist Leon Rausch, with his 1998 Close To You: A 20 Song Salute to the Music of Cindy Walker and Willie Nelson’s 2006 You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, released days before her death and one of the last albums she heard.
Walker scored the impressive accomplishment of a Top 10 hit in each decade from the 1940s to the 1980s. The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame named her as a charter member in 1970, and, 27 years later, the Country Music Hall of Fame named her a member.
A recent walk through the house opened a window on the hard work behind Walker’s success. She’s known for having started early every morning, waking at 5 a.m., drinking a cup of black coffee, then heading into the small second-floor room around the corner from her mother’s and her bedrooms.
Visitors, including Wills and Tubb, would have heard the clatter of Walker’s typing in her office. Her blue Olympia manual, a backup, was left in the house, while her mainstay pink, flowered typewriter is at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The songwriter often wrote for specific artists and pitched her songs to them. Occasionally, they’d plant the seed for a song. In the case of “You Don’t Know Me” and “Bubbles in My Beer,” the titles were suggested to Walker, who then wrote a song to fit.
Walker reportedly never left a song unfinished. Her mother always was the first to hear a song, providing a quick read of lyrics and suggestions on melodies. Walker recorded demo tapes of each song, first on small 7½-inch reel-to-reel tapes, then cassettes.
Many demos were found in the house, and Liepman said they may reflect more of Walker’s personal songwriting. One demo was from Ray Charles, who’d recorded his version of a Walker song and sent it to her for consideration.
The songwriter played guitar and piano, but neither remain in the house. The Texas Country Music Hall of Fame has one of her guitars, while the First Presbyterian Church of Mexia, in which she was active, has her two pianos.
Walker and her mother made regular pilgrimages to Nashville to pitch songs, hiring a cab to take them from Mexia to Buffalo, the closest depot for passenger trains, then staying for several weeks while she played her songs to prospective performers.
Walker’s considerable, star-studded Rolodex file containing her music industry contacts was still in the house, as were boxes, shelves and desk drawers holding business contracts, correspondence and ledgers of song rights — the sort of records that makes music scholars and researchers drool. Her stereo and reel-to-reel tape recorder were there.
And there are items that will make Mexia residents smile, like the “I Know Dicky Flatt” bumper sticker plastered on the back of a door. Flatt, a Mexia printer and longtime friend of Walker, won national attention in the 1990s when former Sen. Phil Gramm frequently invoked his name in the “Dicky Flatt test,” a touchstone in determining what government programs merited funding by taxpayers like Flatt.
Sometimes the surprises were in items left after Walker’s death, such as a funeral urn containing Adkinson’s ashes, found in a bathroom, Liepman says
After nine months of filming and interviews, Liepman’s documentary is heading into its final stages, lining up celebrity interviews with stars including Willie Nelson and Tanya Tucker, with a projected finish in the coming year. Then it’s on to the festival circuit, for screenings meant to raise the movie’s profile and expand its audience.
The foundation will continue fundraising and other work, with a GoFundMe site; digitization of the newly discovered Walker songs; a second cleanup day targeting the house’s adjoining garage; and efforts to get the house listed with the National Register of Historic Places, which could open new resources for rehabilitation and repair.
Then there’s development of what could be the house’s second life, one which might feature a songwriter residency, music lessons for Mexia youth, small community performances and events, and more.
“We want this to be a living, breathing part of the community,” Liepman says.
The next verses in the house’s song are yet to be written, and it’s a task Liepman said will probably keep her busy for years, even with community and statewide support.
“This is a lifelong thing for me,” she says.
This piece was originally published in the Waco Tribune-Herald