- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When Eddy Arnold ambles through the offices of RCA Records, staffers sit up and take notice.

When he is addressed as "Mr. Arnold" on a recent visit, however, the 83-year-old singer deflects the deference to his place in country music history by suggesting a game of craps.

"I've had a long, long career, and I'm an old man," says Mr. Arnold, whose hits include classic recordings such as "I'll Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms)" and "Cattle Call."

He began his career at Victor (later called RCA) before most workers in the building were born. He was managed by Col. Tom Parker before Mr. Parker went on to guide Elvis Presley's career.

Mr. Arnold sang with the Pee Wee King band in the early 1940s, scoring his first solo hit in 1945, "Each Minute Feels Like a Million Years."

His nickname was the "Tennessee Plowboy" until the mid-1950s because of his farming background. His style, though, was relaxed enough that when the "Nashville sound" era of lush strings and background vocalists came along, he was one of the first to adapt.

For his latest album, "Looking Back," he has selected "songs to fall in love to, with romantic strings." (He has been married to Sally Arnold for more than 60 years.)

The collection of vintage love songs will be released today, in time for Valentine's Day.

On his morning visit at the RCA Records offices, Mr. Arnold charms reporters with stories and demonstrates the acumen that has kept him on top of the charts for more than three decades.

"You're breaking my heart, Joe," he says, half-serious and half-joking, to RCA Nashville chief Joe Galante as he campaigns to reinstate a song that was dropped from "Looking Back" for space reasons. Mr. Galante promises to take a second look.

The songs on the new CD date back to the 1960s, when Mr. Arnold revitalized his career by adding strings. It was a controversial move for a country artist.

"Everybody thinks they know more about your business than you do," he says. "What happened to me was, I'd been going along having hit after hit after hit after hit. Then, as time goes by, you get cold.

"I got to thinking, if I just took the same kind of songs I'd been singing and added violins to them, I'd have a new sound. They cussed me, but the disc jockeys grabbed it. The artists began to say, 'Aww, he's left us.' Then, within a year, they were doing it."

Now, as the cycle repeats itself, hits by artists such as Mr. Arnold and Patsy Cline are considered classics, while traditionalists grumble about the crossover hits of Faith Hill and Shania Twain.

Mr. Arnold grew up in rural west Tennessee, a fan of Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry. He also admired smooth pop vocalists such as Bing Crosby and Perry Como.

"Bing was such a talent, such a talent," Mr. Arnold says. "He would sing anything. A lot of people now don't realize how many country songs he did. He'd take a country song, and he'd do a pop version of it, but he'd do it straight. He didn't make fun of it."

Mr. Arnold says he never copied Mr. Rodgers because his smooth voice was too different. The others were influences, but he bristles at the notion that he copied anyone, even Mr. Crosby.

"I really had an idea about how I wanted to sing from the very beginning," he says. "I really did, and I've been doing it all my life."

Mr. Arnold proved a savvy businessman, buying up real estate around Nashville that he still owns.

"I didn't drink as much as a lot of people did then," he offers as an explanation. "I won't call names.

"Also, I was a product of the Depression. I did hard labor. I used to cut logs, cut crossties. That's hard work. Once I got started in this music business, I had an idea that if I'm going to earn that money, I want to wind up with some of it. But really, I minded my business because I wasn't busy drinking like a lot of people did then."

Mr. Arnold was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1966 and named Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association the next year.

The hits continued until 1982, an impressive 37-year run that produced 29 No. 1 singles. He has sold more than 80 million records.

The selections on "Looking Back" include hits and album cuts that fit the theme. Among them are Mr. Arnold's versions of Glen Campbell's "Gentle on My Mind," Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey" and Roger Miller's "Little Green Apples."

The key is romance and love.

"I was reaching for that at this stage of my life," he says.

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