Country Music Hall of Fame Member Eddy Arnold Dies at Age 89

Pioneer of the "Nashville Sound" Took Country Music to a Wider Audience

Updated May 8, 2008 at 6:45 p.m. ET

Country Music Hall of Fame member Eddy Arnold died early Thursday morning (May 8) at NHC Place, an assisted living facility near Nashville at age 89. His wife of 66 years, Sally Gayhart Arnold, died in March while he was recovering in a Nashville hospital following hip replacement surgery.

One of the Nashville area’s wealthiest residents, he also leaves an estate estimated to be in excess of $40 million. Before Garth Brooks came along, Arnold was easily country music’s biggest record-seller. Sales of his discs from the mid-1940s to the present, in every recorded medium from 78s to CDs, have topped 80 million. Along the way, Arnold became a key figure in “urbanizing” country music — smoothing it out, opening it to influences from the wider world of pop music — a trend you could almost guess by knowing that his early musical favorites were Vernon Dalhart, Gene Autry, Gene Austin and Bing Crosby. The list of those he influenced is headed by Marty Robbins and Jim Reeves.

Richard Edward Arnold was born in the West Tennessee community of Henderson in Chester County (he titled his 1969 autobiography It’s a Long Way From Chester County) on May 15, 1918. He learned to play just enough guitar on a mail order Sears Roebuck model to accompany his pleasing and expressive singing voice at area social events. Every little bit of income helped his widowed mother, as the Arnolds lost their family farm to foreclosure and became sharecroppers after his father’s death in 1929. By the time Arnold turned 17, he was singing part time on radio and at venues in and around Jackson, Tenn., where he worked for an area funeral parlor.

Leaving his home country for larger entertainment markets, Arnold moved on to radio work in Memphis and St. Louis, where like many other rural entertainers of his day he mixed singing with rube comedy. His big break came in Louisville, Ky., in 1940, when he was hired by future Country Music Hall of Fame member Pee Wee King to play guitar and sing in King’s Golden West Cowboys, a band that had previously starred on the Grand Ole Opry and been featured in at least one Gene Autry film. It was also in Louisville that he met his future wife, a radio fan named Sally Gayhart. They married Nov. 28, 1941.

In the process bringing of Eddy Arnold back to his home state for good, the Golden West Cowboys soon returned to Nashville and the Opry. Arnold gained wide exposure when the band joined the Camel Caravan, a 1942 tour of military bases in the Western Hemisphere, and the next year (1943) struck out on his own, armed only with a promise of radio work from WSM’s Harry Stone. It was Stone who linked Arnold with Chicago publisher Fred Forster, and together the two men managed to interest RCA Victor Records in the young singer, an affiliation that would last for over 50 years with only a single minor hiatus.

Unfortunately, the musicians union’s first long recording strike was going on then, and it would be December 1944 before Arnold and his band of Tennessee Plowboys made their first recordings. (“I felt like the world was passing me by,” he later said.) That initial session in WSM’s studios included his first version of “Cattle Call” (his somewhat incongruous cowboy theme song), “I Walk Alone” from the pop field (a hint of more to come) and a couple of maudlin tearjerkers, all framed by Ivan Leroy “Little Roy” Wiggins’ crying steel guitar, the trademark sound of Arnold’s earliest and countriest recordings.

A former Tampa dogcatcher named Tom Parker assumed the guidance of Arnold’s career in 1945, and big things began to happen for both men. Even before his recording of “That’s How Much I Love You” became the first of his many major hits, Arnold was co-hosting a Saturday midday network radio show for Mutual, Opry House Matinee. Chart-topping hits began coming regularly in 1947 with “What Is Life Without Love,” “It’s a Sin” and “I’ll Hold You in My Heart” all reaching No. 1 in that breakout year. Arnold’s lucrative publishing arrangement with New York’s Hill & Range Songs made both parties a lot of money, much of it the huge 1948 crossover hit, “Bouquet of Roses.”

At this peak of his early stardom, Arnold left the Grand Ole Opry cast over (what else?) money, and he always bridled in later years when anyone suggested the Opry “made” him. “If the Opry made me,” he’d respond, “why didn’t it make the Fruit Jar Drinkers?” As one of his records of that era suggested, “Baby I’ve Got Other Fish to Fry,” and he did — moving over to starring roles in network radio with Mutual and CBS and two movies (Feudin’ Rhythm and Hoedown) for Columbia Pictures. The RCA hits just kept coming (“Just a Little Lovin’,” “Don’t Rob Another Man’s Castle,” “One Kiss Too Many,” “I’m Throwing Rice”), and in the early 1950s, Arnold added television to his network notoriety, hosting summer replacement shows for Perry Como (1952) and Dinah Shore (1953).

Arnold fired Parker as his manager late in 1953 over a dispute never made public (they actually remained friends), and Parker soon moved on to Hank Snow and (most famously) Elvis Presley. By then, Arnold’s record royalties, publishing and personal appearance income, plowed into such solid long-term investments as real estate and local utilities, had made him a wealthy man. He became one of the few country stars of his generation to make and keep a fortune, a rare achievement he modestly downplayed in such later assessments as “I guess they won’t have to do any benefits for me.”

Even before the coming of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s, Arnold’s repertory evinced a move toward pop music in his duet with Jaye P. Morgan, “Mutual Admiration Society,” and his 1955 remake of “Cattle Call” backed by Hugo Winterhalter’s full orchestra. When rock came, innovations of some sort became almost a necessity for hard country artists who wanted their careers to survive. Arnold, already rich enough to consider retiring in his early 40s as the decade ended, soon found a second career and a new audience in the pop field, trading in his old Tennessee Plowboy duds for dinner jackets at concerts in fashionable nightclubs or in symphony halls singing with prestigious community orchestras.

His recordings, henceforth all made in Nashville and for years produced by Chet Atkins (the earlier country hits, produced by Steve Sholes, were usually done in New York or Chicago), featured full orchestration and vocal choruses and helped pioneer the smoother “Nashville Sound,” a style fully exploited by Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline.

Arnold actually hit his full stride with this style after Reeves’ 1964 death, scoring such hits as “Make the World Go Away” and “Welcome to My World” (both No. 1 hits in 1965). Amidst this career renaissance, Arnold had the distinction of winning election to the Country Music Hall of Fame (1966) the year before he was elected the Country Music Association’s entertainer of the year, a feat never equaled and not likely to happen again. A frequent guest on NBC’s The Tonight Show, Arnold became the first country artist to host the program in Johnny Carson’s absence.

His career record sales reached 60 million by 1970, then 80 million by 1985, based on RCA’s own figures. He won Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award in 1985, and after an all-but-continuous association of more than five decades with RCA, moved over to Curb Records in the late 1990s. He performed his last concert at the Hotel Orleans in Las Vegas on May 16, 1999 (the day after his 81st birthday), though he continued to do some recording and maintained his Brentwood business office for some years thereafter. He returned to RCA in 2005 to record his 100th album, After All This Time.

Besides the aforementioned and rather sketchy 1969 autobiography, there are two published Arnold biographies, both from 1997 — Don Cusic’s Eddy Arnold: I’ll Hold You in My Heart (Rutledge Hill Press) and Michael Streissguth’s Eddy Arnold: Pioneer of the Nashville Sound (Schirmer Books-Prentice Hall).

Arnold is survived by a son, Richard Edward “Dickie” Arnold Jr. of Nashville, a daughter, Jo Ann Pollard of Brentwood, Tenn., two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A public viewing will take place Tuesday (May 13) from 5-9 p.m. and Wednesday (May 14) from 9 a.m.-noon in the rotunda of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Ryman Auditorium. Both are open to be public.

See CMT Insider‘s tribute to Eddy Arnold on Saturday (May 10).