Before Florida Georgia Line (those were the days), before Garth and Shania, before Alabama or Olivia Newton John, there was pop country. There was pop country almost as soon as their was country. And while there’s a contingent of complainers from every crossover era, my belief is that pop country only got queasy making when the pop part of the equation got lame and juvenile. Before the ersatz Foreigner and Backstreet Boys, country borrowed from the grown-up, sophisticated music of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. That’s why Eddy Arnold’s journey from down-home rustic balladeer from West Tennessee to smooth-crooning, Crosby-loving global pop star is something to be admired and enjoyed. Eddy Arnold could not only sing beautifully, he was a communicator. He wrapped listeners in a kind of intimate embrace they didn’t know existed and made the hearts of men and women alike skip a beat.
Arnold, the Tennessee Plowboy, was well rewarded for his brilliance; he may be the most successful country artist of all time, with 147 charting singles (across an astounding seven decades!) and 85 million records sold. And any artist of that stature is going to be honored with a tribute album or two. Arnold’s got that covered, as well as an entire record label inspired by his mellow magnificence. This week at Roots, we’re partnering with that feisty new Music City enterprise – Plowboy Records – for a show anchored around You Don’t Know Me: Rediscovering Eddy Arnold, a fantastically rangy and diverse project released last May.
But then Plowboy is run by a strikingly diverse trio of guys – Arnold’s grandson Shannon Pollard, Belmont professor and music historian (and Eddy Arnold biographer) Don Cusic and a veteran Nashville based punk/indie rocker named Cheetah Chrome, which I previously thought was a classic British motorcycle. “The label – first and foremost – was started to be a legacy label for the music of Eddy Arnold,” Cheetah told me by phone this week. “On the other hand we plan on singing some bands that will surprise people.”
And indeed the tribute itself is full of surprises. It includes not only artists familiar to the country camp like Chuck Mead, Jason Isbell and J.D. Wilkes of the Dirt Daubers but rockers including Frank Black, Alejandro Escovedo and Drivin’ N’ Cryin’. We’ve got quite a few of the album’s stars on our stage this week, plus some superb Americana artists who’ve become part of the Plowboy Family.
The tribute artists will perform short sets with a house band. Bobby Bare Jr. will bring his wry, raspy voice and his deep knowledge of classic country music. Since playing the Newport Folk Festival this summer as part of a Nashville contingent, he’s been in Europe and Alaska. On the assumption that the singers will be hewing to their album performance, he’ll do “Make The World Go Away.” Then there’s the aforementioned Chuck Mead, fresh off his very Nashville “Upstairs At United” vinyl release, recorded live to tape at our legendary record pressing plant. He contributed Arnold’s “Anytime” to the album. To further enrich the Nashville royalty quotient, Jason Ringenberg will be on hand; he cut “Texarkana Baby” on the project. We’ll hear from Cheetah Chrome himself, as well as multi-genre master Pete Mroz.
A couple of premiere artists aren’t on the tribute but are new to the Plowboy Records roster. Buzz Cason is a great songwriter with success across a wide range of styles, having been covered by Brenda Lee, Arthur Alexander, Mel Tillis and U2 among others. His best-known song “Everlasting Love” has been recorded by a dozen great artists at least. He’s preparing his first album in five years for release on Plowboy, and he’ll play a full set to open the show. And celebrating his already-out label debut is East Nashville’s incredible Paul Burch. For those truly in the know about Americana, Burch is one of the real masters. With overtones of British Invasion folk revival and Jimmie Rodgers country classicism, Burch is authentic and as comfortable as your favorite pair of jeans.
In my opinion, Eddy Arnold’s 1955 hit “You Don’t Know Me” is as perfect a pop song as ever has been written; Arnold himself conspired with Texas legend Cindy Walker to bring it to life. The great Mary Gauthier sings it with angsty swing on the tribute. I sure hope somebody lights up the stage with it. So steer your plow down to the Loveless on Wed for a night featuring Music City Americana greats and shared memories of one of the kindest, coolest crossover artists of all time.