The country music legend who was a crossover star
Eddy Arnold, who died last week just shy of his 90th birthday, was by many measures the most successful country singer of all time. He sold more than 85 million records, and between 1945 and 1983 had 145 songs on the country charts, including 28 at No. 1. Arnold was also among the first country stars to cross over to mainstream tastes. Thirty-seven of his hits made it to the pop charts; the biggest, “Make the World Go Away,” cracked the top 10 in the fall of 1965, alongside songs by the Beatles, the Supremes, and the Rolling Stones. “I want my songs to be accepted by everyone,” he said.
A farmer’s son, he was born in Henderson, Tenn., said the London Times. “Early victims of the Great Depression, the Arnold family became sharecroppers.” Arnold was only 11 when his father died, and he turned to music to help his family eke out a living, singing at church picnics and other venues. After a cousin lent him a Sears Roebuck Silvertone guitar, he was soon playing along with records by Gene Autry and Bing Crosby. “By 17 he was singing in the honky-tonks of nearby Jackson and had made his first radio appearance.” Dubbed “the Tennessee Plowboy,” he debuted at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 1943. “A recording contract with RCA Victor followed,” along with management by Col. Tom Parker, who would soon also guide Elvis Presley’s career. Arnold’s first No. 1 song was “What Is Life Without Love,” in 1947; among his other early singles were “It’s a Sin,” “I’ll Hold You in My Heart,” and “Don’t Rob Another Man’s Castle.”
Arnold soon realized that rock ’n’ roll and popular standards by crooners such as Perry Como and Dean Martin were beginning to dominate the airwaves, said the Nashville City Paper. “I got to thinking, if I just took the same kind of songs I’d been singing and added violins to them, I’d have a new sound,” he said. So by the 1950s, Arnold “made the switch to the smoother, orchestrated numbers that would make him a worldwide celebrity.” Among his biggest crossover hits were “What’s He Doing in My World?” and “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye.” Initially, Arnold’s transformation infuriated country purists. “They cussed me, but the disc jockeys grabbed it. The artists began to say, ‘Aww, he’s left us.’ Then within a year, they were doing it!” To complete the transition, Arnold even chucked his checked shirts and rhinestones and switched to tuxedoes for his many TV and nightclub appearances.
Arnold had a “lustrous, purling singing voice,” said The New York Times. “Unlike many of his Nashville peers, he sang not through his nose but from his diaphragm.” Dinah Shore likened his sound to “warm butter and syrup being poured over wonderful buttermilk pancakes.” Though his output varied widely, Arnold “favored romantic ballads and novelties over songs about drinking and cheating. Intimacy was his calling card.” In many ways, his crossover status paved the way for Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, and Kenny Rogers. “I sing a little country, I sing a little pop, and I sing a little folk, and it all goes together,” he said.
Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1966, Arnold was named the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year in 1967. His many honors included the National Medal of Arts in 2000 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. He is survived by a son and a daughter; his wife of 66 years, Sally, died a few weeks before he did.