NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?

Eddy Arnold's Passing Prompts Questions About Artist Succession

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

“Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” is a great George Jones song from a few years ago, but I never really gave the subject a lot of serious thought. In fact, I have to confess that on more than one occasion at a late-night party I sang it as “Who’s Gonna Shine Their Shoes.” Very disrespectful, I know. But funny — at the time.

Anyhow, I had not given the matter much serious consideration until this week when I was sitting in a pew at the Ryman Auditorium before the Eddy Arnold funeral service began. Arnold’s “Cattle Call” came over the Ryman’s PA speakers, and it was good to hear that old chestnut — played nice and loud — again. “Cattle Call” was followed by a succession of Arnold’s hits and classics: “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” and “Last Word in Lonesome Is Me” and “Tennessee Stud.” Hit after hit. Good, solid songs that last for decades and still sound fresh and good. You forget that some artists are capable of assembling song catalogs like that.

And you have to wonder: who can build a musical career like that again? Can it keep happening again and again in country music, which remains the music genre that’s most dependent upon dependable artists and great songs? It’s a very debatable subject these days. Will a Cindy Walker and an Eddy Arnold ever again collaborate on such a great song as “You Don’t Know Me”?

George Strait’s been singing great music for years. So have Alan Jackson and Reba McEntire and Vince Gill and a few other contemporary country artists who continue to pay close attention to quality control in their careers and who keep bringing the good music. But, what about young singers who resemble the current glamorous image of the male hunk or the hottie female and who are handed assembly-line songs from the songwriting mills of Music Row and who are produced with recording tools that make them sound at least radio-friendly? And whose careers are determined by immediate radio success or lack thereof.

How long does that music last? Doesn’t matter, would be the answer from some corners, where the mantra is that profits now are all that matter. I realize that many people are impatient these days with the notion that country music is dependent on artist development, good or at least decent songwriting, great or at least good musicianship and loyalty to the audience. The music has survived as a viable form, despite some lean years, for well over a century. If it continues to fulfill its function, which has always been to address and illuminate the primary life concerns of its audience, there’s no reason to think it can’t continue to flourish for at least another hundred years.

It’s been my experience that country audiences want very much to hear songs that speak to their daily lives, their worries, their joys, their children, their parents, their jobs, their sports, their cars and trucks, their spiritual concerns. Their music should be part of their lives.

When I hear a complete and epochal song like Jamey Johnson’s “In Color,” then I don’t worry so much about who’s going to fill some shoes. There are some shoes indeed being filled right there. Or when I witness a very interesting little mini-concert, as I did the other day. New country singer Emily West was singing — just herself and an accompanist on acoustic guitar — to a room of grade school students. West did not pander to the children, did not speak down to them. She was serious, and she talked to them about what her songs are about. She did not try to sing some hokey kids’ songs to them. She sang some of her very real songs to them. And she captured and held one very rapt audience right there. Those children responded to her and to those songs about life and its ups and downs. It was songs about real life. That, my friend, is what country music is all about.

Lose that and you’ve got nothing left.