If Eddy Arnold really is the most successful country music hit maker of all time, why haven't we heard more about him in recent years?
I've heard that question a lot in the days since the Tennessee native, who helped broaden the appeal of country music to pop audiences in the 1940s and '50s, died this month, a week short of his 90th birthday.
The answer is that Arnold's once trailblazing vocal style -- closer to the easygoing pop crooning approach of Bing Crosby than such rural-minded country veterans as Roy Acuff -- has been largely overshadowed in recent years by the rival honky-tonk tradition that was popularized after World War II by Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.
Still, Arnold tops the list of most successful country artists, as measured by chart performance in Joel Whitburn's "Top Country Songs (1944-2005)." The next five singers on the list, however, are all associated to varying degrees with the rawer honky-tonk style: George Jones, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty and George Strait. The main descendant of Arnold's crooner approach was Jim Reeves, who comes in at No. 17.
For anyone wanting to compare the crooner and honky-tonk approaches, there's an excellent three-disc Jones retrospective released today by Time Life, and the career highlights of Arnold and Reeves are contained on separate 16-song entries in RCA's "Country Legends" series.
All three are appealing singers, but the differences among them are vast. If you listen to songs by Arnold and Reeves a few times, you pretty much know everything about them. With Jones, you can listen endlessly to some of his classic recordings and still find new, thrilling nuances. He is one of the greatest American singers ever, regardless of genre.
"Eddy Arnold -- RCA Country Legends"
The music: If you listened today to Arnold's 1947 hits, "It's a Sin" and "I'll Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms)," they certainly sound like country records -- from the opening steel guitar licks. Back in the 1940s, however, both recordings had the feel of something new. Arnold's understated vocals were far easier on pop ears than those of most of the singers heard on country radio.
His early success in the country and pop fields got Nashville record makers to start thinking about a pop-minded "Nashville Sound" that emphasized symphonic strings and smooth backing vocals.
Arnold's career took a hit in the mid-1950s when rock 'n' roll lured away a lot of young country fans, but it rebounded a decade later when he recorded a pair of lush ballads, "What's He Doing in My World" and "Make the World Go Away," that cracked both the pop and country charts. Arnold ended up with 92 Top 10 country hits, mostly before 1955.
"Jim Reeves -- RCA Country Legends"
The music: This Texan, whose showbiz nickname was "Gentleman Jim," had a greater allegiance to country music than Arnold, but his crooning style placed him in the same refined tradition. After a few hits on the tiny Abbott label, RCA signed him in the mid-'50s, possibly hoping for a pop-country successor to Arnold. Reeves' recording of "Four Walls," a ballad in 1957, and "He'll Have to Go," another ballad two years later, both climbed high on the pop and country charts. Reeves continued having moderate success in country music until he was killed in a 1964 plane crash at age 40. Reeves was more popular than ever after his death. Between the crash in July and the spring of 1967, six Reeves singles went to No. 1 in the country field. Total Top 10 country hits: 51.
"The Hits ... Then 'Til Now"
The music: You won't have any trouble today telling this Texan's first hit, "Why Baby Why" in 1955, was a country record. If the fiddles weren't enough, Jones' voice was in a slightly nasal, hillbilly style that left no doubt. In fact, Jones' voice even seemed so much more "old-time" country than other young country singers at the time that he seemed best suited for novelties, such as "White Lightning."
Jones' brilliance as an absorbing country singer emerged over time, thanks to such hits as "Walk Through This World With Me" and "She Thinks I Still Care." Jones' finest moment might have been his show-stopping 1980 version of Bobby Bradock-Curly Putman's "He Stopped Loving Her Today," possibly the greatest heartbreak song not written by Hank Williams.
Besides his solo recordings, the 60-song set includes Jones' duets with, among others, Tammy Wynette, Ray Charles and Haggard. A splendid package. Total Top 10 country hits: 78.
Backtracking is a biweekly feature devoted to CD reissues and other historical pop items.