Eddy Arnold in the early 1950s. He grew up the son of a West Tennessee sharecropper, helping on the farm and performing at Pinson High School events. It’s claimed he often arrived for those gigs by mule with a guitar strapped to his back.
Shannon Pollard hasn’t changed a thing in his grandfather’s office since the death of Eddy Arnold five years ago. Stacks of CDs and Arnold’s lifetime achievement Grammy share the space with blueprints and real estate maps. But along with the physical artifacts come many good memories.
“He would sit here and play his own records,” Pollard says. “I’d sit on the couch, and he’d sit in his chair and a lot of times he might fall asleep actually, which was kind of funny. And then he’d wake up and be like, ‘Oh, that sounded really good!’”
Although Pollard and his grandfather shared a love for music, they didn’t always see eye to eye. As when Pollard was 19, and played some recordings of his first band for his “Daddy Ed.”
“He did listen to the whole thing,” Pollard says, “and listened attentively, and then he looked at me and he said, ‘Y’all need to cut your hair and learn how to play something that somebody wants to listen to.’ That wasn’t what we wanted to hear, but he was right!”
Eddy Arnold in RCA Studio B during the mid-1960s. Many of his hits were recorded in the legendary space, and several songs on the tribute album were, as well.
From Tennessee Plowboy to Countrypolitan Superstar
Beginning his career in the 1940s, Eddy Arnold was the king of the hillbilly crooners, and one of the first country artists to regularly crossover to the pop charts. In a career that stretched across seven decades, he racked up over 140 chart hits. His smooth velvety vocals helped build the Nashville Sound, while his successful real estate dealings built the Music City. By the 1960s, he had marked a trail that many mainstream country artists seeking crossover success still follow today, even if they’ve never heard an Eddy Arnold record.
Many country legends have become heroes in the Americana field where country often mixes with a punk rock attitude – an outlook that has pulled artists like the Louvin Brothers and Wanda Jackson from the dustbins of seeming obscurity. For many of these artists, a hellraising reputation, whether on records or in real life, is what first attracts attention, but in Eddy Arnold’s case, being a successful business and family man is hardly the stuff of outlaw legends.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that his music was a little bit overlooked in the last few years,” Pollard says, “just because of not having that bad boy cache that the Hank Williams or the Johnny Cashes of country music had. But I felt like there was some really great material that was being overlooked.”
Punks with a Mission – Shannon Pollard and Cheetah Chrome at the Opry. Chrome chose to perform ‘What Is Life Without Love,’ which was a number one hit for Arnold in 1946. Credit: Pete Mroz
With a plan in mind, Pollard approached another of his musical heroes, Cheetah Chrome, former guitarist for the seminal 1970s punk rock band The Dead Boys. “One of the first things that became clear to me was how much how much his grandfather meant to him,” Chrome says. “We talked about doing a tribute record and I was like this is a project I could enjoy because we’re talking about some good music here, and it’s a labor of love.”
Although Chrome knew who Arnold was, he wasn’t that familiar with his music. He began a crash course of listening and soon re-discovered his own familial connection to the songs of Eddy Arnold. “The first thing that hit me was like wow, I remember this stuff,” Chrome says. “My mom used to play this stuff. My mom used to sing along to this. I used to hear this on the radio when I was a kid.”
“His voice was just so good,” Chrome says. “The records were just so well recorded, and the players were so good. When you’re a kid you don’t appreciate that.”
Mary Gauthier’s recording of ‘You Don’t Know Me’ is only the latest in a string of covers of the Eddy Arnold hit. Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Diana Krall all took a turn with it; Ray Charles had a number one hit with the song. Credit: Anna O’Connor
Whether the austere hillbilly swing of his early recordings or the lush pop sound of his 1960s hits, the unifying thread of all of Eddy Arnold’s music was a great artist putting his personal stamp on great songs. Using that idea as inspiration, You Don’t Know Me: Rediscovering Eddy Arnold features Americana and indie rock artists putting their personal stamp on classic songs.
Some, like folk singer Mary Gauthier, followed that theme by delivering an intensely personal take, as Gauthier does on her cover of the title track. While others, like nouveau hillbilly musician Chris Scruggs, drew inspiration from Arnold’s originals and mixed in some rock’n’roll as Scruggs does on his driving, but still swinging version of “Just a Little Lovin’ (Will Go a Long Way.” Others took their songs in dramatically different directions from the originals as with southern rockers The Bluefields’ cover of “That’s How Much I Love You” or Bobby Bare, Jr’s take on “Make the World Go Away.”
“Every song grew legs in the studio,” Chrome says in regards to the varied approaches to Arnold’s music on the album. A diversity that Pollard hopes will drive people’s curiosity about the original versions.
“Hopefully, what a successful tribute record,” Pollard says, “or rediscovery, or whatever you want to call it does is you listen to this contemporary version and you go, ‘Oh, I really do want to go back and pick up the original record.’”
As for what his grandfather’s might have thought of the album, Pollard is sure he would have had own opinions and wouldn’t have been shy about expressing them. “There have been a few moments where I thought he would’ve absolutely killed me for some of this,” Pollard says. “But it’s all very respectful and the arrangements are fresh and cool, so given that, yeah, artistically he may have taken me to task, but he would have gotten the whole mission. If it took this direction to get there, then so be it.”
Proof that one can make great records that people want to hear, even without a haircut.