Long before Willie and Waylon, Kris and Guy, another pioneering songwriter drew Nashville to the Lone Star State: Cindy Walker, born near Mexia in 1918, was writing hits for Bob Wills while Willie and the boys were still in grade school. One of the first women to become a professional country music songwriter, Walker wrote for stars like Gene Autry, Eddy Arnold, and Jim Reeves. Her best-known composition, “You Don’t Know Me,” became a hit for Ray Charles on his seminal 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

But because her work was behind the scenes, Walker is less celebrated than other Texan musical luminaries, aside from the occasional homage, like the tribute album Willie released shortly before Walker’s passing, in 2006. That’s changing this year with the launch of the first annual Cindy Walker Days festival, in Mexia, which will bring two days of live music and Walker-related programming to the little Central Texas town (population 6,893) on July 21 and 22 (Walker would have turned 105 on July 20). 

The lineup includes the Bellamy Brothers, Sunny Sweeney, Rick Trevino, and the Texas Playboys, who will be leading an “All-Star Salute” to the legendary songwriter, as well as a slew of younger country and Americana artists like Kaitlin Butts, Brennen Leigh, and Melissa Carper. 

“We’ve had more artists who want to play it than we were able to book this year,” says Lindsay Liepman, executive director of the Cindy Walker Foundation. “There have been some artists who don’t know who she is, and that’s really important, too—because we’re spreading her name back into a community of songwriters and artists who are going to learn about who Cindy Walker was.”

Liepman, who anchors the evening news for Temple’s KCEN, is from Mexia and has embraced the task of preserving and amplifying Walker’s legacy. She’s working on a documentary about the songwriter that she hopes to finish in time for the 2024 festival circuit, and she has led the foundation in purchasing Walker’s home in Mexia, which is in dire need of restoration. Liepman hopes to turn it into a museum and a resource for locals and songwriters. 

Cindy Walker Days
Cindy Walker (at front) at a BMI gathering with Willie Nelson, Harlan Howard, Bill Anderson, Buck Owens, and other Nashville movers and shakers. Courtesy of the Cindy Walker Foundation
Cindy Walker Days
Cindy Walker’s house in Mexia, present day. Courtesy of the Cindy Walker Foundation

“I just said, ‘I have to be part of this; this is too important,’ ” says Irving native Liz Rose, a prolific songwriter who cowrote Taylor Swift hits like “You Belong With Me” and “All Too Well.” Rose is on the board of the Cindy Walker Foundation, and she will be playing at the festival in a showcase with Macy Dot Neal and Holly Tucker—two more female Texan songwriters. “Walker was a very quiet, behind-the-scenes person,” Rose adds. “I think she’s left it up to us—like, ‘Okay, y’all take my legacy, tell people what’s going on, and see if you can help young songwriters with it.’ ”

The festival is a celebration of Walker’s life and work, but it’s also a fundraiser to restore her rapidly deteriorating home and protect the slew of treasures—including previously unpublished songs—found within it. “We knew we were going to have to find a sustainable way to first restore the house and then be able to maintain it year after year,” says Liepman. “So we said, ‘Why don’t we host the biggest music festival Mexia has ever seen?’ ”

In addition to enjoying two full days of music, festival attendees can join tours (via shuttle bus—it is July, after all) led by Mexia natives who knew Walker. Stops include her church—to which she donated her piano—plus her grave site and her home (though it is not yet ready to be entered). There will be an exhibition of some of the items salvaged from the house at the Mexia Civic Center and a hymn performance featuring hymns Walker wrote, sung by former members of the youth choir she led. “Anybody can have corn dogs and funnel cakes,” Liepman says. “We really want people to embrace and learn about her.”