Billboard Magazine said “there were few figures more beloved in the industry than the veteran programmer and consultant.” According to tasteofcountry.com, Walker was “a man every bit as important to country radio as country music’s biggest stars.”
Walker died of a massive heart attack on May 21, and his memorial was five days later at Tishomingo County High School in Iuka.
“It wasn’t a funeral,” said J.J. Jobe, vice president of Rusty Walker Programming Consultants, Inc. “It was a celebration.”
Sammy Darwin was at the center of that celebration. Darwin was born 59 years ago. Walker came along several years later.
During the service, Teresa Darwin stood in front of friends and family and told the story of how her husband became a man with two names.
“He got a call to come to the St. Pete/Tampa area,” she said. “They told him to change his name to something more country.”
Darwin came up with several ideas but nothing worked. He was getting frustrated by the effort of re-naming himself. Relief came when he and his wife saw a billboard for a Tuscumbia, Ala., business.
“It said Walker Hardware and something about rusty nails,” Teresa Darwin recalled. “I said, ‘How about Rusty Walker?’ He thought about it and said, ‘I think that will work.’
“He liked to say, ‘A mile later, I would’ve been Quaker State.’ I told that story at the funeral, but I forgot the part about Quaker State. I forgot that part.”
Help from Buddy
Sammy Darwin’s road to Rusty Walker and the Country Radio Hall of Fame began when he was 7 years old in his hometown of Corinth.
“I don’t know why my mother took us on a tour of the radio station,” he said during a Daily Journal interview a few days before he died. “Buddy Bain was the DJ, and he let me flip the switch that started the turntable going. I’ll always remember Buddy.”
At 16, he was working at a burger joint, when a DJ at WWTX came by and mentioned there was an opening at the station.
“I read the front page of the newspaper for them at 3 o’clock,” he said. “At 7 o’clock that night, I was on the radio.”
Darwin later moved to Iuka, which he called “the cosmic center of the universe.” While spinning records for WVOM/WTIB, he couldn’t help noticing Teresa Bryant when she stopped by the station one day.
“Some friends told me the new DJ was asking about me,” she said.
Darwin wore his hair to his shoulders in those days, and he had a pair of red, white and blue bellbottoms. The total package didn’t impress his girlfriend’s mother.
“She didn’t think he would amount to much,” Teresa Darwin said. “He ended up doing pretty well.”
In tune with listeners
Jobs took him to radio stations in Tampa, Jacksonville, Fla., Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., and more. Rusty Walker earned a reputation for giving listeners what they wanted to hear.
After taking a Kansas City, Kan., station to No. 1 in its market in 14 months, Darwin decided it was time to return to Northeast Mississippi to work for himself.
“I’d moved around so much, I realized I was almost a consultant already,” he said. “That just made it official.”
Darwin was a great lover of music, and that was a potential liability because his tastes were so varied. At the time of his death, his music player had songs by the Crabby Appletons, Keith Sweat, the Jackson 5, Burl Ives and 4 Non Blondes.
“If you put two notes together in a pleasant way, I’ll figure out how to enjoy it,” he said.
Perhaps there are listeners who would enjoy Darwin’s playlist as much as he did, but he knew his eclectic mix couldn’t keep a radio station afloat.
“We’re going to find out what the consumer wants, then we’ll create a station that reflects that,” he said. “I’m a marketer first.”
Rusty Walker Programming Consultants, Inc., assembles listener data from its clients each week and uses that information to pick songs that appeal to different markets.
“People want what they want. It’s like creamed corn in a Kleenex box,” he said. “Creamed corn might be your favorite food ever, but if you reach your hand into a Kleenex box and find creamed corn in there, it’s going to gross you out.”
Darwin’s philosophy helped earn him Billboard’s Consultant of the Year Award seven times. It also made record company executives happy because he didn’t put himself between artists and fans.
Alan Jackson’s “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” was a case in point. Jackson has been around a while and industry professionals weren’t sure listeners still wanted what he had to offer. Darwin put the question to the people.
“We did some research and it was absolutely fabulous,” Darwin said. “Young folks liked the song as much as older guys did.”
Darwin’s office is located in the same Iuka building that once housed WVOM/WTIB, where he first saw Teresa. Along with a Ringo Starr action figure, a bust of Elvis Presley and a Samurai sword, there are tokens of appreciation from Jackson, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley and numerous other country stars who gave Darwin a measure of credit for their successes.
Jobe said the consulting business will continue, and it’ll follow its founder’s principles.
“Rusty was a teacher first. After working alongside him for years, you start finishing each other’s sentences,” Jobe said. “Being in tune with the listener is being in tune with your business.”
‘Home on Friday’
Darwin had clients all over the country. The telephone is a valuable tool, but face-to-face contact is the rule, even in a business with nearly 100 clients. In February, a speaker at his induction to the Country Music Radio Hall of Fame said Darwin was on the road about 250 days a year.
“He always tried to be home on Friday,” said Jackie Bryant, Darwin’s father-in-law, “so he could be home with his family and go to church. That was important to him.”
Teresa Darwin added, “He loved us all. He spoiled us. We didn’t miss anything. He always came home and just spoiled us all.”
The couple had four children. Their son, Jay, died in a hunting accident about 18 years ago at the age of 9. In March, their 17-year-old daughter, Kinsley, died of a viral infection.
Jobe said those twin tragedies drove Darwin closer to God.
“You know that verse, ‘Peace beyond understanding?’” Jobe said. “He came into my office. I didn’t expect him to be at work so soon. He said, ‘I’m so at peace for Kinsley and I know where she’s at. I feel almost guilty for being so much at peace.’”
This year, memorial funds in honor of Jay and Kinsley Darwin provided scholarships for 21 students. The new Sammy Darwin/Rusty Walker Memorial Fund at BancorpSouth in Iuka also will help students further their educations.
“He always gave to any organization,” Teresa Darwin said. “Anyone who needed help, he was giving money.”
He’s still giving. A woman in Jackson is off dialysis after 10 years. A man in Louisiana with three children has a new liver, and Darwin’s eyes are allowing someone else to see.
These are not easy times for the people who knew and loved Sammy Darwin, or Rusty Walker, for that matter.
But there’s something akin to his “peace beyond understanding” at work: He was a good, honest man, and his family and friends know where he’s at.
“I can just see Kinsley when she sees her dad in heaven,” Teresa Darwin said. “She’s stomping her feet and saying, ‘Daddy, I just got here.’
“I know him. He’d say, ‘I’m just checking in.’”