(Pictured: Eddy Arnold with Johnny Cash, circa 1970.)
Certain opinions I hold are self-evidently right and should be recognized as such by all thinking persons. One of them is the following: inclusion in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry is an honor of greater cultural import than winning a Grammy or being inducted into any genre-specific hall of fame. The registry reflects the myriad roles not just music but all recorded sound plays in American life and culture. This year’s induction list spans a spectrum from Paul Whiteman’s “Whispering,” considered the first million seller, to Cheap Trick at Budokan, to the remarkable recording made on November 22, 1963, of the Kennedy assassination being announced to the audience during a live radio performance by the Boston Symphony.
All of that is a windy introduction to what I really want to write about today.
Eddy Arnold was a Bing Crosby-inspired radio singer from Tennessee. He began recording shortly after World War II and hit #1 on the country singles chart 20 times between 1946 and 1955. (In 1947 and 1948, “I’ll Hold You in My Heart” was #1 for 21 non-consecutive weeks; “Bouquet of Roses” did 19 weeks at the top.) You know some of his songs, if not his recordings of them: “You Don’t Know Me” (which he co-wrote), “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” and maybe “Tennessee Stud” or “Trouble in Mind.” But Eddy Arnold didn’t become a pop star until the middle of the 1960s, and the record that did it was added to the National Recording Registry in March of this year.
Arnold was not the first to record “Make the World Go Away.” Ray Price and Timi Yuro had hit with country and pop versions in 1963. But Arnold’s version was a dual-format smash practically from the beginning. It hit the Billboard country chart at the end of September 1965. In October, KNUZ in Houston became one of the first Top 40 stations to add it. By the end of October, WJET in Erie, Pennsylvania, had it in the Top 10, on a chart topped by the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off My Cloud,” right between the Byrds’ “Turn Turn Turn” and “Boys” by the Beatles. At the end of November, WCPO in Cincinnati ranked it #1, in a Top 10 that also included “Turn Turn Turn,” “Rescue Me” by Fontella Bass, and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” by James Brown. It would hit #1 in Hartford, Connecticut, Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Waupaca, Wisconsin, before the end of the year. It made #6 on the Hot 100 and #1 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart. It spent three weeks atop Billboard‘s country chart in December 1965.
When you listen to “Make the World Go Away” today, it doesn’t seem very country. Maybe Floyd Cramer’s tinkling piano, but that’s about it. It is as tasteful a pop song as you can imagine, the epitome of the so-called Nashville Sound of the 60s—whispering backup singers, strings instead of steel guitars, sophisticated smoothness replacing honky tonk grit. Arnold would repeat the formula over the next year on “I Want to Go With You,” (which sounds almost exactly like “Make the World Go Away,” both written by the great Hank Cochran) “The Tip of My Fingers,” “The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me,” and “Somebody Like Me,” all of which did significant easy-listening business in addition to crushing the country chart.
(“Somebody Like Me” is another example of something I’ve written about here several times before—a song I knew before I knew that I knew it. In the fall of 1966, first-grade me heard it a few times on our hometown radio station on the way to school, and while it didn’t register at the time, it took up residence in my head so that when I heard it again decades later, I remembered where—and who—I had been.)
Eddy Arnold found hit singles harder to come by after 1968, but he remained a strong presence on TV, in live performances, and on the country album charts. He continued to record steadily into the early 80s, but released only two albums in the last 25 years of his life, in 1991 and 2005. He died in 2008, one week short of his 90th birthday. Only George Jones charted more singles on Billboard‘s country chart.
Music history is distorted by the way we tell it, by necessity. Books, compilation albums, and radio formats don’t have the scope to cover it all, as it actually happened. Awards shows and halls of fame are especially ill-suited to telling the full story of everything that mattered. The National Recording Registry gets the closest. What else has room for Allan Sherman, Mister Rogers, Dr. Dre, and Eddy Arnold?