Billy Walker: The 'Smooth Voice Of Country Music

First published in Country Music People, July 1982  

One of the veterans of the country music industry—and a stalwart of the Grand Ole Opry—Billy Walker keeps a loyal following with those who like their country along more traditional lines. Alan Cackett presents an appraisal of the Walker career ... 

Though Billy Walker's career in country music goes back a little over 30 years, and he has enjoyed more than 40 hits on the American country charts, he remains virtually unknown in Britain. His record releases this side of the Atlantic remain almost non-existent, though he has started to come to the attention of the British fans through his duets with Barbara Fairchild, which led to the release of the album THE ANSWER GAME earlier this year.

The teaming up of these two came about when both artists had been discarded by major labels. Walker began his recording career on Columbia in 1951 and later moved to Monument, MGM and finally RCA, then in the mid-1970s found himself on a variety of small independent labels. Barbara also began her recording career at Columbia in 1969. Ten years later she was dropped. She teamed up with Billy Walker in the early months of 1980 and recorded several singles and an album together.
Through his Tall Texan Productions, Billy produced the recordings and they were released by Paid Records, an independent Nashville label. The unlikely pairing found themselves riding the charts with Let Me Be The One, Love's Slipping Through Our Fingers and Bye Bye Love.

Billy Walker's own career started when he was still in his teens, but it was to be many years of struggling before he was to start his impressive run of chart successes. It would seem that Billy was destined to struggle. He was born in the small Texas town of Rawls on January 14, 1929, and christened William Marvin Walker. The son of a dirt farmer, his early life was a tough one at times.

His mother died when he was only four years old, leaving his father to raise a household of kids by himself. It was the depression of the mid-1930s and the Walker family lost their farm when the bank confiscated the property to cover unpaid bills. There were eight children, and nowhere to go, so reluctantly three of the younger boys, including Billy, were placed in an orphan home at Waco, Texas.

Billy was only six years old, and he stayed in the home until he reached his 11th birthday. By this time his father had remarried, and he was able to bring the family together again. Billy rejoined the family—as one of 12 children—and they all moved to Clovis, New Mexico. He started to play the guitar, and when he was 15 years old he entered an amateur talent contest. He beat off all the opposition and landed a regular 15-minute spot on radio station KCIA in Clovis.

After completing high school he joined the band of Jimmy Lawson and toured all over Texas. He joined the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, and at the same time landed a job with Hank Thompson & The Brazos Valley Boys as front man. To make sure of an impact as a performer, Billy used the gimmick of wearing a mask and became known as The Travelling Texan Masked Singer of Country Songs. His association with Thompson led to Don Law signing Billy Walker to Columbia Records toward the end of 1951. By this time the smooth-voiced vocalist had dropped the mask gimmick, and in 1954 he scored his first hit on the country charts with Cindy Walker's Thank You For Calling.

He had to wait another six years for another big hit, but in between he was busy recording and touring. He had worked for a while on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport around the same time as Jim Reeves, Elvis Presley and Faron Young were on the programme. Then in the late 1950s he was based in Springfield, Missouri, where he was a regular on the Ozark Jubilee, which by this time was televised by ABC-TV.

His second big hit with I Wish You Love towards the end of 1960 led to him joining the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and he has been a member ever since. The following year he was one of the first artists to score with a Willie Nelson song, when he took Funny How Time Slips Away into the charts. A year later he scored his only number one hit with Charlie's Shoes, and that was the beginning of 15 years of continuous chart successes. 

A country ballad singer with a sound similar to Marty Robbins, he is most at home with Tex-Mex songs, and did wall with Cross The Brazos At Waco and Matamoros whilst with Columbia, and recorded the excellent album THE GUN, THE GOLD & THE GIRL, which included such songs as Pancho Villa, Buy Juanita Some Flowers and Amigo's Guitar. He is one of a handful of country singers who have successfully alternated Spanish-English lyrics in his songs. 

His other hits for Columbia included Willie The Weeper, Ronnie Self's Circumstances, If It Pleases You and Heart Be Careful. In the spring of 1966 he joined Monument Records, and for the next four years enjoyed considerably more chart success with A Million And One, Bear With Me A Little Longer, the self-penned Anything Your Heart Desires, Chris Gantry's Sundown Mary, and an early Kristofferson song, From The Bottle To The Bottom. 

A talented, though sadly under-rated songwriter himself, Bully has always been very careful in his choices of material, and has often recorded quality material by writers who have only just started to make their mark in country music. When he joined MGM Records in 1970, his first two releases, When A Man Loves A Woman and She Goes Walking Through My Mind, both went top three on the country charts, and both were co-written with Gary Stewart, a young man from Florida who had just moved to Nashville.

Through he only stayed with MGM for four years, he enjoyed some notable hits and also 'discovered' some more up-and-coming songwriters. In 1972 he hit the top three again with Rayburn Anthony's Sing Me A Love Song To Baby, two years later it was Eddie Rabbitt's Fine And Wine, which hit the charts, and also became the title tune for one of Billy's albums. He also scored with I Changed My Mind, a Conway Twitty song.

Billy met his wife, Sylvia Smith, affectionately known as Boots, in a Texas nightclub. He was 19 years old at the time, and she was working as a waitress. A troublesome nose-bleed brought them together when Boots administered first aid. A little while later the pair married, and with their four daughters, Judy, Deana, Lina and Julie, have for many years made their home at Walker’s Acres, a quiet farm at Hendersonville, just outside of Nashville, which also doubles for Billy's office.

1975 found Billy changing record labels again. This time he joined RCA, and immediately hit the top ten with Word Games. This was followed by Gary Paxton's If I'm Losing You, Don't Stop In My World (If You Don't Want To Stay), (Here I Am) Lonely Again, which became the title track of an excellent album, and the Joe Allen/Dave Kirby–penned Love You All To Pieces.

Billy's stay with RCA lasted just two years, and though he released some very fine singles and two good albums, only Word Games became a major hit. In July 1977 he released one single, If You Can, Why Can't I on the Casino label, which appeared on the charts for just one week. His next few singles were released on the equally unknown MRC label and included a duet with Brenda Kay Perry of Ringgold Georgia, and a Mexican tale of Carlena And Jose Gomez, which reached the middle 50s at the beginning of 1978.

A single on Scorpion Records of Dallas Harms' You're A Violin That Has Never Been Played followed in July, and meant that within a year of leaving RCA, Billy Walker had recorded for three minor labels. His lack of success on the country charts coincided with a change in his personal life. He had undergone an experience which had let him to becoming a 'born-again' Christian. He still works within country music with his own Tall Texas Productions, but he also devotes a certain amount of time to his new beliefs.

During the past five years he has recorded albums for MRC Records, Caprice, Paid and more recently Columbia House, which has jointly released Pete Drake's First Generation Record's Grand Ole Opry Series. Billy enjoyed several minor hits with Caprice, mainly self-penned songs like Lawyers, A Little Short On Love and You Turn My Love On. Then came the duets with Barbara Fairchild in the spring of 1980, which led to the first recognition for Billy Walker in Britain.

Like the majority of Walker's recordings, the album stuck to a solid, modern country sound, incorporating a bluegrass sound on the old Everly's hit Bye Bye Love, and plenty of steel guitar on songs like Love's Slipping Through Our Fingers and The Answer Game. That latter song was released as a single in Britain, and also became the title track of the album when issued by UK RCA earlier this year.

Since that album with Barbara Fairchild, there's been no news of a follow-up, though Walker has been busy in the studio. He has a gospel album, which so far hasn't gained a release, and then there's that album produced by Pete Drake. STAR OF THE GRAND OLE OPRY is a neat collection of new songs, many penned by Walker, mixed with re-recordings of his old hits like Charlie's Shoes and Cross The Brazos At Waco.

Billy shows that the passing of time hasn't damaged his voice. He has a richly textured singing style and brings a lot of himself to each song he does. Though he hasn't enjoyed any major hits for several years, he still has the potential to spring back in a big way. He is a talented, if slightly under-rated songwriter, and his production of his own recordings in recent years have always been neat and uncluttered, and always in a straight country setting—which seems to be the way most British country fans like their music. 

Billy Walker Album Discography
Anything Your Heart Desires – Harmony 7306
Big Hits – Harmony 11210
Greatest Hits – Columbia CS – 8735
Greatest Hits Vol. 2 - Columbia CS – 9798
The Gun, The Gold & The Girls – Columbia CS – 9131
I Taught Her Everything She Knows – Monument 18090
A Million And One – Monument 18047
Portrait – Monument  18116
Salutes The Music Hall Of Fame – Monument 8101
Billy Walker Way – Monument 18072
Darling Days – Monument 18143
When A Man Loves A Women – MGM 4682
I'm Going Keep On Loving You – MGM 4756 / Metro 2356 (British Release)
Billy Walker Show – MGM 4863
Fine As Wine – MGM 4969
The Hand Of Love – MGM 4908
All Time Greatest Hits – MGM 4887
Too Many Memories – MGM 4938
Lovin' & Losin' – RCA APL1-1160
Alone Again – RCA APL1-1489
Best Of The Best – Gusto GT 0040
It Takes Two (with Barbara Fairchild) – Paid 2001/The Answer Game – RCA INTS 5124
Star Of The Grand Ole Opry – First Generation FGLP-GOOS – 02
All of the above albums are U.S. releases, except where indicated