Eddy Arnold's approach to country and his rich, expressive baritone voice always seemed closer to pop singers like Bing Crosby
and Perry Como
than it did to more rustic country stars like Hank Snow
and Ernest Tubb
, and he worked with pop songwriters out of New York as much or more than he used Nashville ones. His approach reaped dividends, certainly, and he charted countless hits in an a truly astounding seven-decade career, and if he was never fully embraced by the public as a pop singer, he brought a kind of urbane dignity and grace to country music in the bargain, prefiguring the so-called Nashville countrypolitan sound as early as 1955. This expansive seven-disc, 166-track box charts Arnold's RCA Victor years from 1951 to 1955, and it reveals a fascinating transformation from Arnold's early tenure as a hillbilly singer to his later stance as the man who melted country and pop together into what was essentially a whole new musical form. The early stuff here, like the opening track "Tennessee Hillbilly Ghost," is surprisingly sturdy and energetic, and shows that Arnold could have easily made a successful career out of the rustic material that most country singers turned to, but he was really after something else, and possessing a near faultless ear for a good song, he went in an entirely different direction, and by the time he recorded songs like "I Walked Alone Last Night," with its beautiful string ensemble backing, he was just a sweater or two away from being Perry Como. Still, Arnold never completely turned his back on Nashville, keeping his home base there, and he continued to record songs like Floyd Tillman
's "I Love You So Much It Hurts" and Merle Travis
' lovely "Bayou Lullaby," giving them a kind of easy and sincere smoothness. He also foresaw the urban folk revival in 1955 when he released a wonderful album of traditional material, and his beautifully orchestrated and elegantly dressed up re-imagining of folk classics like "The Wayfaring Stranger," which is included here, are among his finest tracks. Also worth noting are Arnold's versions of the slow waltz "I Wish I Knew," "(Now and Then, There's) A Fool Such as I," the organ-laced "You Always Hurt the One You Love" and Tommy Dilbeck's "This Is the Thanks I Get (For Loving You)," which is represented here in five versions that show the evolution of Arnold's approach to the song. As usual, Bear Family Records captures it all, and this is simply a gorgeously produced and annotated set that no Eddy Arnold fan will want to skip.