LOOKING BACK

Now 84, Eddy Arnold reflects on six decades of entertaining

Eddy Arnold changed the sound of country music -- with strings attached. In the 1960s, the smooth-voiced, easygoing singer dared to break tradition by recording songs with lush violins in the background. And with that, Eddy helped take country in a smoother, more sophisticated -- and more commercially successful -- direction.

Last year, Eddy collected some of his original recordings, such as "Faded Love" and "It's Such A Pretty World Today," and put them on a new CD, Looking Back. Most of these favorites were recorded in the '60s, but he feels that they fit right in with today's country.

"If you listen to these songs," he begins in a gentle tone, "they sound just as good today as they did when they first came out. In fact, I would defy you to tell me when they were made."

"The only difference is that I could sing a lot better back then," he adds with a shy smile. "But, after all, I was much younger."

Young Eddy made his chart debut with "Each Minute Seems A Million Years" in 1945 -- a time when most male country singers favored a hard-edged, honky-tonk sound. Even though he initially dressed like a backwoods plowboy, he crooned with a soft romantic voice that appealed to fans of all tastes. He later abandoned the hayseed look for neatly tailored suits and tuxedos, and in doing so came to be recognized as country's original "crossover" singer, with some of his early hits -- including his 1948 No. 1 "Bouquet Of Roses" -- landing on the pop charts.

Despite his success, purists squawked that Eddy's music wasn't "country," a notion that irks him to this day. "People were saying, 'He shouldn't be singing pop songs.' Well, the hell I shouldn't!" he booms, leaning forward in a chair at his record label's office. Eddy then lets go a laugh, realizing how worked up he's become.

"My philosophy," he continues in a calmer tone, "has always been that I don't care what you call it, 'pop' or 'country' or whatever. If it's got a good lyric, and it's something that the average person would like, that's all that matters. You take something like 'Wonderful World,' which is on this album. It's just a great song."

Eddy definitely had a knack for finding great songs. He's one of the few stars who can claim hits in five different decades -- the 1940s through the '80s. His 28 No. 1s place him seventh on the all-time list. What's more, no other country star has spent more total weeks at the top than Eddy, who has logged a staggering 145 weeks atop the charts with his numerous No. 1 hits.

Eddy retired from the music business in 1999. When he's not at home with wife, Sally, or visiting their two grandchildren, Eddy hits his Nashville office to tend to his businesses, which include real estate and music publishing.

"My health is pretty good," says Eddy, who underwent open heart surgery in 1990. "I walk two miles a day five days a week, and I like to go boating." He pauses, cupping his hand to his right ear, and chuckles, "I just don't hear as well as I used to."

His memory, though, is sharper than a tack. Eddy breaks into a warm smile as he recalls some of the shining moments from his nearly 60-year career.

One in particular was his performance with the Dallas Symphony in 1967, making him the first country star to appear with a classical orchestra. "When they asked me, I thought they must be crazy," Eddy says. "I mean, what was I gonna do with a symphony orchestra? But we sold out the shows, and that led to lots of other symphony appearances."

Eddy also won the first CMA Entertainer of the Year award in 1967, a year after being elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. But Eddy's fondest memories are of the people he met throughout his career -- especially his former record producer Chet Atkins, who died last year.

"Chet was a great friend," Eddy recalls, his voice shaking slightly. "I met him in 1949. My producer at the time asked me if I would use Chet on a session, so we put him on, and he ended up becoming my producer in the '60s. Chet had such a good ear for music, and his productions still stand up today. I miss him dearly."

Eddy also misses recording, but admits he doesn't get behind the microphone like he used to. "I haven't sung a lick since 1999," he says. "But I had such a catalog of songs that I thought I could make a pretty good CD. I'm very happy with it, and I hope people will enjoy these songs.

"If they find any fault," he adds with a playful grin, "just blame it on the guy who is singing."

-- Bob Paxman

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