Earnest Earl Walker was born in Mason County, West Virginia on December 18th, 1915, a few miles from the river town of Point Pleasant. Having been reared in his home locals and also in the Pittsburgh area, he worked as a riverboat man in the late ’30s before being drafted into the military.
He was a unique hillbilly vocalist whose recording career spanned a period of two decades. He had the happy knack of recording great songs, although apart from « Detour » (Coast 2016), a massive hit in the forties, real stardom seemed to pass him by.
After the War he ventured out to the West coast in search of a new career in music and it as here that he became embroiled in the local hillbilly scene. He signed to the newly formed Coast label and on December 3, 1945 he released « Detour », a song that had been written by his steel guitarist Paul Westmoreland. In his own words, « I had secured a contract with Coast Records and I was looking for material for my first session. Coast had been approached by Paul Westmoreland who was working in a defence plant and wanted to record « Detour » himself, but the company wouldn’t go for it : they wanted it for my first release. So we got together and the Coast officials said that if Paul would let me do the singing, we would let him play on the record. So he said okay if he could play the steel guitar on it, and himself and his band, the Pecos River Boys, were credited on the label that would be allright »
The song (Coast 2016) became a hillbilly standard and was also recorded by Wesley Tuttle and Spade Cooley. In 1946, Walker joined the Grand Ole Opry and when Roy Acuff took time out from the show, he was given the un-enviable task of emcee. He made such a good job of it that Acuff was forced to return promptly to try and re-secure his position. Thus Walker lost his spot on the Opry and moved over to the Wheeling Jamboree and Midwestern Hayride shows, before returning to California at the end of the decade.
To be frank, most of his output on Coast is not of hillbilly bop nature : uninspired weepers or slowies, moreover disserviced by a flat sounding, unsparkling Old Homestead reissue. Best uptempos are, apart from « Detour », the often copied « Sioux City Sue » (B-side to Coast 2016): great jazzy western swing styled, with guitar and fiddle soli. I like « Weary Lonesome Me » too (Coast 229), a fine bluesy hillbilly backed by a good accordion (even a solo). « Tear Stains On Your Letter » (Coast 224) is also good honky-tonk.Noticeable too, the sincere weeper “I’ll Forget If You’ll Forgive” (Coast 246).
Whilst in California he cut a pair of records for the London label as part of their 16000 series. « Ghost Train » (London 16026) was co-written with Jim O’Neal (NOT the blues producer/ researcher of the ’70s, e.g. Rooster Blues label ! But the artist of later Coast and Rural Rhythm fame) ; Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper also recorded this song for Columbia.
In 1951, he signed to Intro Records and along with a recording band of Joe Maphis, Tex Atchison and Noël Boggs, released a dozen singles over the next two years, that included perhaps his finest songs, like the weeper « Loving Country Heart » or Webb Pierce‘s « High Geared Daddy » (an affirmative example of macho manifesto, 1950s style) and its flipside « Runnin’ Fast » (Intro 6025), which, however, suggests that this lifestyle had its limitations. Latter’s harmonica part was played by George Tracy (who entered then his very first recording session). Walker recalled that « The one thing about George was he loved a drink, but I told him I did not want to smell any alcohol or he was out. Poor old George, he was scared to death and the session was on for three hours and I’ll you guess who won the race to the nearest bar afterwards. » « Heart Throb » (Intro 6063) is a fine honky-tonk, with a prominent fiddle and lead-guitar. The late Tex Atchison played left handed fiddle but with a right handed fiddle. « It took years for even people in the business, said Walker, to work out how he got such a unique. » . Also on Intro some of Jimmy’s recordings have Pee Wee King’s Golden West Cowboys backing him. «Joe Frank was my manager and Pee Wee was the accordion player in the band. Well, he got to marry Joe’s daughter and took over the band which originally was billed as J. L. Frank & the Golden West Cowboys. » Last songs worth a mention : the fast hillbilly bops « I Plowed A Crooked Furrow » (# 6051), “If You Think You Got Troubles” (# 6066 – I haven’t checked if this is the Marvin Rainwater hit song, it sounds like a different song though) and « Out Of Money, Out Of Place, out Of Time » (# 6024), the latter having been reissued a long time ago in the « Western swing, boogie and honky tonk » serie (Old Timey Lps). This was my first introduction to Jimmy Walker’s music during the late ’70s.
« God Was So Good » comes from a 1953 Nashville session and next to « Detour » is probably the song most identified with Walker. Here he was to have the services of Don Helms (steel guitar) and Jerry Rivers (fiddle), of course formerly Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys members. Smilin’ Eddie Hill played rhythm guitar, and the one and only Chet Atkins played lead guitar. Unfortunately Jimmy could not remember the pianist who, he said, was a « real comedian in the studio ». « Look What Followed Me Home Tonight (Mama Can’t I Keep It)» (M-G-M 11653, the flipside of « God Was So Good ») started to take off, but you know what – Rock and roll was just starting to bite, and, man ! The scene changed real quick for a lot of us old hillbilly singers ».
Whilst in California, Walker took some bit parts in a handful of Western-B movies. In 1953, he decided to travel East again and briefly joined the Louisiana Hayride. It was whilst there that he cut the record for the M-G-M label, before taking up a successful ten year stint on the West Virginia Wheeling Jamboree. He entertained also at other stations such as WATH in Athens, Ohio. Jimmy was too a popular D.J. In the Pittsburgh area.
Finally he returned to California in the early 1960s and appeared in such films as « Paint Your Wagon » (with Lee Marvin), and the « Gunsmoke » or « Bonanza »TV series. He continued to be active during the ’70s, working local clubs like the « Fisherman’s Cove », even appearing on the Bob Hope show with the Platters in Tokyo, Japan, or entertaining the troops in Vietnam.
He recorded a final record in 1965 and put it out on his own Walker label (4 songs cut, only 2 issued at the time being, the others on Old Homestead 311 LP). Ironically his recording carrer ended with a revamp of his very first record, “Detour“, done in Nashville Country-rock ’60s style. But by then his musical career had slowed up and so he decided to move back to his hometown of Point Pleasant. In 1988 he was contemplating a move to Florida, before his fatal illness.
Jimmy died of cancer (apparently lever) in his home in Point Pleasant (W.Va) on June 27th, 1990, leaving behind him a career that saw him capable of crossing the small divide between Honky tonk, Rockabilly and slick California Country with ease, due to his strong vocal prowess. Interestingly, his M-G-M recording career was very abrupt and he always personally felt that his Nashville period was strongly hampered by Roy Acuff, who had taken a personal maulin over the Opry incident. Jimmy Walker was definitely in the top half of hillbilly singers of his day and yet sadly he never quite made that elusive front rank.
Reprint fom Tony Biggs’ « Cowboys, Honky tonks and Hepcats » book, then an obituary 1990 article by Phillip J. Tracker in « Hillbilly Researcher » (# 10). Many pictures were sent by the indefatigable Tony Biggs, and most of the music do come from both Old Homestead albums 310 and 311, which reissued during the mid ’80s nearly all Walker’s music. All Jimmy Walker’s own words do come from letters exchanged between him and Phillip Tricker.
There is at the present no recent reissue of Jimmy Walker’s recordings. So the podcasts below are the only chance for you to hear his music!
December 4th, 2014. A visitor recently gave me details of another Jimmy Walker 45 (1965, Nashville). Here are the details: “The legend of skull lake”/”Are you satisfied”(Topic 8007)