(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
As remarkable as the late Eddy Arnold’s country music career was, his lasting legacy will be that he made the world safe for country pop music. His enormous success with a smooth brand of mellow songs won over pop and country audiences alike and took the rough edges off country’s rowdier side. Remember, when he began recording in the 1940s, it was still called “hillbilly” music. Arnold’s triumphant reordering of what could legitimately be considered country made it possible for such country crooners as Jim Reeves, Ray Price (in his second country career), Patsy Cline and later performers all the way up to and including Rascal Flatts.
Early on, Arnold identified more with a Perry Como than with an Ernest Tubb and was appearing in a tuxedo before full orchestras. He was one of the first country artists to play Las Vegas as well as one of the first with his own TV series. Arnold’s successful voyage into the pop realm was not destructive to country music. Rather, it broadened its appeal and may well have saved it as a genre when country was under siege from rock ‘n’ roll. In the wake of Elvis Presley and his youth revolution, country music came close to disappearing. The number of country stations dropped drastically. Country crossovers to the pop world, exemplified by the Nashville Sound, with producers Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley at the helm, kept country music alive commercially.
In a CMT interview, Arnold recalled one of the first times he recognized the split between pop and hillbilly music. He was touring with Uncle Dave Macon, one of the relatively unsophisticated true pioneers of country music. Uncle Dave was an irrepressible spirit who sported gold teeth and carried a flask with him at all times containing what he called “a little nip.” Arnold was touring with Macon.
“I was always a fan of Bing Crosby,” Arnold remembered. “And of course Bing at that time was the most popular thing in the world. I had him on the radio in my car. This was before we started our show. And Bing was singing a beautiful pop song — great song. ‘Long ago and far away’ — da-da-da — you know how he would sing. Uncle Dave was listening to him. Uncle Dave said, ‘No man will never get nowhere singing stuff like that.’” Arnold laughed at the memory. “I’ve never forgotten that.”
Something else that Arnold brought to country music was an emphasis on professional management. In the old days and even up to a few years ago, management was often an afterthought. If it was given any thought at all. Often, singers and groups might be managed by their bass player or lead singer, a brother-in-law, a neighbor or a barroom acquaintance. Of Jimmie Rodgers, Arnold told CMT, “He was big. What he should have had, he should have had some good management. He was big, and if he had some good management, which I had, it’s very important — very important. It’s important in any kind of business. You have to have good management, and in this entertainment business, you have to have good management.” Still, said Arnold, Rodgers’ obvious talent triumphed over lack of management in his ability to attract audiences. “He did something that the public liked,” said Arnold. “That’s why he was so big.”
Early on, Arnold signed with Colonel Tom Parker, an ex-carny who would later have phenomenal success with Elvis Presley. Parker was a full-time hustler, who always got the best deals for Arnold. His biographer Don Cusic told me, “One time Mr. Arnold asked Parker if he had any hobbies, and Parker said, ‘You are my hobby.’ When Parker managed someone — think Elvis — it was fulltime 24/7. And that’s the way he was with Eddy Arnold. Parker was crass but shrewd — and always managed to get Mr. A. the best deals. And Eddy Arnold appreciated that.” Arnold had a falling out with Parker in 1953 and did something Elvis was never able to do — fire Colonel Tom Parker.
Joe Csida managed Arnold from 1954 to 1963, and then Jerry Purcell, who was to be Arnold’s extremely able manager for the rest of his career, took over. Interestingly, all three managers were from outside of Nashville and from outside of country music. Arnold recognized that need for reaching beyond boundaries to expand his appeal.
Between his shrewd eye for management and his appreciation of songs that would work for him, Arnold became the most successful artist in country music history. And that was despite many down years. He never lost faith in his instincts, though.
In one of his last interviews, Arnold told CMT that he never abandoned his emphasis on the kind of songs that worked best. “Love songs,” he said. “Love songs. I’m crazy about love songs. And, you know, when you really stop and think about it, if you don’t have love, you don’t have anything.”
After Sally Gayhart Arnold, his wife of 66 years died in March of this year, Arnold’s Nashville friends said privately that they didn’t expect him to live long without her.