The Tennessee Ploughboy Is Dead
Yeah, I was relaxin' (as in "With Lee"), coolin' out after a heavy meal of pork chops smothered in mushroom gravy and a full platter of heavily transfatty onion rings, when I got an email from my one hometown friend with whom I'm still in contact, a high-school buddy who knew of my unusual and wacky-to-him respect for Eddy Arnold, a Nashville recording star who really took off after WWII to go on to become a Top Ten star with his late-in-career "Make the World Go Away" in the seventies. My pal's email simply said, "Hey, doc, Eddy Arnold just died--hell, I thought he died in the eighties--just thought I'd let you know--doin' fine and so's Heather-in-the-Dell [his wife not his dog]--and, sorry, but, yes, I'm still working the Presbyterian Church." Son of a bitch. I hadn't thought of Eddy Arnold in a hell of a long time; maybe I, too, thought he was dead; naw, that's not true, I'd'a noticed Eddy's dying--I keep up with obituaries pretty good--I'm fascinated by who lives long lives and who gets shafted early--the Grim One being one of those random sampling dudes--I'm sure Death is male--which sparks the idea: what would Death be like if we assumed she was a woman?
Back in 1948, I was a little tyke, my mother was still making me take her hand when we crossed a street, that's how little a tyke I was. The location was Dallas, Texas, at that time a clean but rather brutally rightwing city whose wealth was off the two of Texas's biggest products, oil and cotton.
I grew up in a home that had radios all over the house, one in every room except the bathroom and the dining room. There was the big console radio/phonograph combination in the living room; the little red transistor radio my mother kept on the kitchen window sill just above the kitchen sink; I had my radio in my room, a big beautiful Zenith radio my step-grandfather had given me that X-mas; my parents had a radio in their room; there was a radio up in the attic apartment; plus my dad had just bought a new 1948 Nash Custom sedan that had a radio in it.
I also grew up in a home that had four record players: up in the attic apartment was my mother and father's first phonograph, an Edison wind-up "phonograph machine"; my dad's portable Victrola; and my brother's little Bakelite portable Emerson electric (plug in) record player; and in the living room was my folks's pride and joy, the record player in the big radio/phono console, so up-to-date, it had a record changer--which meant you could stack up to 5 78 rpms on the tall spindle--then you hit the activator and the first record would drop down and the playing arm would automatically take the needle over and drop it down on the blank grooves that guided it into the sound grooves. When that record finished, the next record would drop down, mama, and you could sit and read the paper while 5 3-minute 78s took 15 minutes to play through--and you could then quickly flip the stack over and listen to the back sides (the flip sides)--30 minutes of easy-going doing-as-you-please relaxation while being entertained by Fats Waller both singing and tickling the ivories, though my dad had one record on which Fats played the pipe organ in Columbia's New York City recording studios that had been set up in an old church in downtown NYC.
So, I grew up in this house full of radios and record players that was also full of phonograph records, 78 rpms going back to the days my parents were teenagers and then young marrieds and including my brother's huge collection of pop records he'd collected as a swing-era teenager and kept in the attic apartment in four wooden fruit crates.
My dad's favorite records were his several Fats Waller Vocalian (a division of Columbia) recordings. He played them nearly every Sunday afternoon after church while he read his "funny papers"--especially Major Hoople who my dad thought was the funniest and wittiest son of a bitch on earth--I think my dad believed Major Hoople and the Nutt Brothers were real people! My mother had her W.C. Handy records and her Vincent Lopez records, but I never recall my mother ever playing her records. Later I bought her an album of "Songs of Faith" and she played that a couple of times and that was that. My mother wasn't phonographically inclined. She could read music and play the piano, which she did when she was by herself, which wasn't very often--and then after she sold her womanhood to Jesus X. Christ, she took to playing strictly church hymns--she was the back-up pianist at our church where my dad was also the associate songleader. The radio was my mother's passion--her kitchen radio ran constantly when she was in the kitchen doing her housewife thing. Even after we got a teevee, my mother still preferred the radio for her secular and religious entertainment.
Three doors down east of us on that East Dallas hilltop lived my parents's best neighborhood friends, a young couple, Hortense and Stan, I'll even reveal their real names, they have long since left this coil, I'm sure, and Stan had been a WWII hero in Europe, in the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, especially at Anzio--then later Audie gained his Medal of Honor fighting in France--and Stan and his best pal, Audie Murphy, from over in Corsicana, Texas, the most decorated soldier in the history of the US at war, had slogged through Sicily (Audie got malaria in Sicily and almost died) and then up the bloody-muddy fields toward Rome, Stan and Audie had charged a hill together in an effort to take out a particularly harassing German tank crew advancing with a 100 or so ground troops, Audie going straight up the hill daringly with Stan meaning to flank him and cover him from a right flank position--though Stan was gutted by a machinegun from the tank just after he had jumped out of their dug-in position and headed out on the flank. The enfilade fire caught Stan on his left side, midsection, then swung his body on around to cut right through the middle of his stomach--almost splitting him in half. Audie, in the meantime, kept on goin', the adrenalin flooding into his spinal column to give him gung-ho daring strength and old growling Audie shot on up the hill, took over the tank, manned the tank's machine gun and captured tons of Germans that day. It was considered one of Audie's many greatest heroic feats of any of USA war and eventually his actions in France got Audie the Congressional Medal of Honor and eventually a big Hollywood film contract--he made 44 films in Hollywood--he also wrote songs, too--To Hell and Back was Audie's first movie roll in which he played himself in what really was a Grade B movie, though a very popular movie, as was the book Audie wrote of the same title--he was a better actor than Ronald Reagan!
Audie Murphy with his WWII medals. My dad could have certainly framed those mounted medals--keep reading:
Audie Murphy later gave my dad, a mirrormaker/picture framer, the biggest job order he'd ever had in his life--an order for 10 huge handmade mirrors (my dad was one of the best mirrormakers in that part of Texas at the time) all framed in gold-plated frames that were special made in Belgium; plus Audie gave the old man a framing contract to frame all of Audie's many citations and photos of him with a bunch of presidents, getting the CMH, and Hollywood producers--over 100 photos and citations to frame and my dad took a whole summer where he worked only on this job. First thing my dad did when Audie paid him--well, the first thing he did was carry the check all over the house wiping it across his forehead and tootin' his horn about it--the check was for thousands of dollars--but the next thing he did was go down to the Cadillac showroom and buy a Cadillac Sedan de Ville, forest green, the most beautiful car I'd ever seen in my life up to that time. Can you imagine a little smart-ass not-so-rich-at-all kid suddenly ridin' around this big town in a big Cadillac! It got me attention at church, too--one little princess I'd been tryin' to score with for over a year suddenly got all Sparky with me--"That's your dad's car?" Her father was a big contractor and he only drove a Buick. My dad wrecked that Cadillac one day (he had several bad car wrecks in his life--his last car wreck the one that ended his life)--not totally but bad enough he never liked it after that and went down one day and traded it in on and came drivin' up home in a yellow--did you hear me?--a canary yellow Caddie Coup de Ville convertible--black leather interior. My mother refused to ride in that car--she said it was pure vanity to ride in that car--so she went out and bought herself a Nash--a really swanky-cool car, I thought--it was designed by an Italian, Pinin Farina, and had a silver hood ornament that was a signed Vargas girl (Alberto Vargas a 1930s, 40s, 50s illustrator who drew girly art--calendar art--and whose girls were called "Vargas girls" and who had a comeback when Hugh Hefner started publishing Vargis girls in Playboy in the fifties and sixties)--plus its right front seat folded back flat over the back seat and made a bed!
Two Farina Nashes like my mother's car.
A "Vargas Girl"
Stan and Hortense, getting back to Eddy Arnold, were Nazarenes, an offshoot branch of the Christian Church that was more closely related to the Holy Rollers (the Assembly of God) in that they had instrumental music in their church services, beat tambourines, and shouted and shit, and Stanley and his son, my best friend, Little Sunny, played guitars in the Nazarene church band--Stan the acoustic guitar and Sunny the steel guitar. Stan was a lover of Country & Western music and he idolized the Grand Ole Opry, which at that time wasn't set in an amusement park but was held down on Music Row at the Ryman Auditorium--and Stan and his family, Hortense, Sunny, and a young baby daughter (Stan later--it happened right after my graduation from college and we all drove over to Stan and Hortense's new house--backed his car over and killed this daughter--it fucked him up pretty bad, like he kept her room exactly the way it was when she died--even refuse to make her bed up--I'd heard about that sort of behavior, but with Stan I saw it first hand), every summer took their vacation to Nashville where they spent tons of money going to the Ryman every night and then heading down to Music Row to Ernest Tubb's Record Shop where they both heard and then bought the records of the latest C&W Nashville stars. At that moment in time--in Dallas, all over Texas, all over the South and Southwest and West, the hottest singer in that world was Eddy Arnold, the Tennessee Ploughboy--or Plowboy, depending on your hillbilly ancestry, and, yes, old Eddy was a hillbilly, a good looking hillbilly boy with a smooth take-it-easy voice--Perry Como copped Eddy's singing style--Eddy was that country smooth--and in 1948, Eddy had a hit a minute. The summer of '48, Stan and his family came back from Nashville and my parents and I were called up to Stan and Hortense's for dinner and Stan had set up his movie projector and screen in his playroom--and Hortense made a huge tub of popcorn--I must add here that I was a very lusty young boy at this time, a tyke still, but a testosterone-packed tyke, and Hortense was the kind of woman that by instinct attracted males of all ages--my dad was like a Cheshire cat around her--teasing her--and she was quite a tease, a beauty of a Dallas babe, long and lanky and pearly white, and Hortense was known all over the neighborhood for her shorts and halter tops in the summer when she'd be working in her front yard or hanging up clothes in the backyard--so we all packed into Stan's playroom and we watched the 8mm movies he'd made--no sound, just silent color movies of Music Row, the Ryman, Ernest Tubb with his salacious arm around a shorts-wearing Hortense, Ernest Tubb laughing and waving at the camera, and then a quick goofy shot of Little Jimmy Dickens acting the fool--I think there was a shot of him with his arm around Hortense, too--and after the movie, Stan said, "And now, the records I bought this time." And he put some records on his phono and it was Eddy Arnold--singing "Texarkana Baby," "Any Time," "Molly, Darling," "Just a Little Lovin'," and then Eddy's famous "Cattle Call"--"He's brown as a berry/From ridin' the prairie/Out where the dogies roam"--and I was born on the prairie and raised around cowboys and dogies--and this cowboy played his guitar as he rode along singing his cattle call: "Yoo-yoo-yoo-lup-el-do/Yoo-yoo-yoo-liple-yoo-luple/Yoo-yoo-yoo-luple-loo/Singing his cattle call."
And one afternoon, my mother and I were walking up toward the deep end of Deep Elm Street and we started passing the record shops along that famous old Dallas street--I mean Blind Lemon Jefferson and Whistling Alex Moore (he was still alive) and Hudie Ledbetter (he was still alive, too) and Robert Johnson had recorded on Deep Elm--and suddenly I spotted an Eddy Arnold poster in a store window and I begged my mother to please let me buy a record--they weren't cheap--they cost a dollar each--pretty expensive for the wife of a mirrormaker working for a Dallas department store--years before he hit the Audie Murphy jackpot--but finally she conceded to my threatening an attention-getting tantrum and bought me two 78 rpm records that day--my first-ever records--and one of them was Eddy Arnold's "Any Time"--"Any time, you're feelin' lonely/Any time, you're feelin' blue/Any time, you feel downhearted/That's the time I'll come back home to you." Wow, that's from memory, folks, I didn't Google it. It seems weird to me how these days of megainformation available through Googling you don't really need to have a deep memory anymore. You don't even have to remember titles or anything, just type "Eddy Arnold" into Google and shit you got the dude's whole everything right there in front of you, hundreds of pages of Eddy Arnold info sites.
Eddy Arnold in his prime.
So I woke up a few minutes and remembered old Eddy Arnold when I checked on the 'Net and saw that, yep, the Tennessee Ploughboy had bought the farm--at 89, after a couple'a years of being sick as a dog. Pretty damn great life this old hillbilly boy had. Somewhere in my apartment is a songbook Eddy used to sell at his early gigs--it's signed by Eddy and his wife on the biographical portion of the songbook. Eddy out lived a lot of my music heroes, most of whom beat Eddy to the grave by decades in some instances.
So, so long, Eddy. Your ploughing in some distant fields now, but, hell, Eddy, we still hear you pickin', smilin', and singin'--"Yoo-yoo-yoo-yuple-yoo, singing your cattle call."
for The Daily Growler