Born on May 15, 1918, Richard Edward ‘Eddy’ Arnold was one of country music’s most popular performers, with a career that spanned six decades, 147 hits on the Billboard Country Music charts and sales in excess of 85 million records. A pioneer of Nashville sound (the country-pop crossover popularised by Arnold and stable-mate Jim Reeves), he was ranked 22nd on Country Music Television's list of The 40 Greatest Men of Country Music in 2003.
Nicknamed the Tennessee Plowboy (because he grew up on a farm and started his performing career while still working there), he was signed by Colonel Tom Parker more than a decade before the Colonel would get his claws into Elvis Presley, and cut his first disc – a schmaltzy piece of hillbilly music called Mommy Please Stay Home with Me - in 1944. That flopped, but the follow up (Each Minute Seems a Million Years) was a top five hit on the country charts and began an unprecedented run of 57 Top 10 hits. Although his appeal waned with the advent of Rock ‘n’ Roll, in the middle of the 60s he had an unexpected resurgence, with two massive hits, What's He Doing in My World? and Make the World Go Away. “I’ve never thought of myself as a country-and-western singer,” he told a reporter from The Charlotte Observer in 1968. “I’m really a pop music artist. I want my songs to be accepted by everyone.” By 1969 however the pop hits dried up, although he continued to score hits on the country charts until 1983.
In 1971 he released what was easily the most misguided song of his career, a woeful piece of right wing propaganda entitled A Part of America Died. Arnold, known for his smooth vocal style, felt that this particular portentous piece of crap needed something different and decided to recite the song’s scaremongering lyrics whilst a choir hammered home the message by mumbling a hymn in the background.
According to Michael Streissguth (in his book Eddy Arnold: Pioneer of the Nashville Sound), with A Part of America Died ‘Eddy took a turn toward topical material, addressing Middle America’s growing concern with crime, an issue brought to the fore by President Richard M. Nixon’s rhetoric. A Part of America Died (was) penned by Harry Koch – a policeman – and lashed out at the overemphasis on criminals’ rights…Eddy condemns a policeman’s murder while a disembodied chorus singing the Old Rugged Cross hovers behind him. “I think it’s timely,” Eddy said.’
A stalwart Nixon supporter, Arnold was so convinced his record would sell to the moral majority that he regularly called RCA sales reps around the country to check on its progress. The lyrics to this awful dirge were even mentioned in the United States Congress when Mario Biaggi, the representative for New York’s 24th District and a former policeman himself, rose to his feet and quoted parts of the song to the rest of the House of Representatives.
Despite that, and in spite of a Billboard review which claimed that ‘this potent message could easily prove an important pop item’ the single struggled to gain a footing in the country charts – peaking at a miserable 41 - and failed to provide him with a much-wanted crossover hit. “I’ve always picked good song,” he told Michael Streissguth. “I always picked a good lyric, and that gave me a wider audience than just the country buyers. I did that on purpose. I never was political about songwriters.” Boy, did he pick a wrong ‘un this time. Disappointed by the lack of mainstream success, he followed it up with a cover of the Jim Reeves classic Welcome to my World, which limped into the country charts at 34.
Arnold died, in a care facility near Nashville, on May 8, 2008, just two weeks before his 90th birthday. Just three weeks later RCA issued To Life, a cut from Eddy’s final album (recorded and released in 1996). The song debuted at 49 on the Country charts, setting the record for the longest span between a first chart single and a last: 62 years and 11 months, and extending Eddy's career chart history to seven decades.