The performances on the new full-length You Don't Know Me: Rediscovering Eddy Arnold rework songs Eddy Arnold made popular during the country singer's storied career, but the record pays tribute to a pop master. Released on a Nashville label run by Arnold's grandson, the collection brings together punk rockers and retro-country pioneers who make a case for Arnold's easeful singing style and sharp ears for a song. Arnold was one of country's original crossover performers, and You Don't Know Me suggests the so-called Tennessee Plowboy understood the often vexed relationship between commerciality and artistry.
For Shannon Pollard — Arnold's grandson, and co-founder of Plowboy Records, which is releasing You Don't Know Me — the record grew out of his relationship with Arnold, who died in 2008. "We actually were very close," says Pollard, who was born in 1974 in Nashville. "I always wanted to hear about his early days. As an ex-club musician myself, I know what it's like to load in and play for people who aren't listening to you. I couldn't connect about his being on The Tonight Show or anything like that, so it was more fun for me to listen to him talk about when he was starvin' to death."
As Pollard says, Arnold enjoyed immense fame as a country singer. Born in 1918 near Henderson, Tenn., Arnold worked on his family's farm before beginning his career on Jackson and Memphis radio stations. Signed to the RCA Victor record label in 1944, Arnold began his dominance of the country charts, scoring hit singles and hosting a succession of television programs.
With production by music historian and writer Don Cusic and proto-punk singer Cheetah Chrome, You Don't Know Me expands upon Arnold's legacy. "Shannon thought I would be a good person to get involved in starting a label," Chrome says. "He wanted to have not your normal Nashville project. When he mentioned it to me, I was immediately intrigued — I've been wanting to pervert country music from within for years."
You Don't Know Me isn't too perverted — Frank Black retains the moralistic tone of Jenny Lou Carson's "Don't Rob Another Man's Castle," a 1949 hit for Arnold. Meanwhile, New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain gives 1955's "That Do Make It Nice" an insouciant reading, as befits a piece of pop-country songwriting.
For Cusic, who formed Plowboy with Chrome and Pollard, the project is a way to recognize Arnold's massive contributions to country music. "He was a star in the late '40s and early '50s, and then rock 'n' roll comes along and puts country music under the bush for a while," Cusic says. "Then Chet Atkins and [Owen] Bradley had the idea of smoothing out things with the Nashville Sound so that it would appeal to the middle class, and Arnold was perfect for that."
Although it concentrates on Arnold's early recordings — Jason Ringenberg does a version of 1948's "Texarkana Baby," while Lambchop essays the 1961 single, "(Jim) I Wore a Tie Today" — You Don't Know Me features Bobby Bare Jr.'s recasting of "Make the World Go Away," perhaps Arnold's most indelible crossover song.
You Don't Know Me tells the story of Arnold as a middle-of-the-road singer, but the record also makes a case for Arnold's late-'40s and early-'50s work. ("All of us liked his early stuff better, not that his other songs were bad," says Cusic.) Singer Melinda Doolittle gives "Bouquet of Roses" — originally released as the A-side of "Texarkana Baby" — a rendition in a modified New Orleans-R&B style.
The record is full of surprises — The Bluefields recast "That's How Much I Love You" as a quasi-power-pop song, while Mary Gauthier delivers an incisive vocal on "You Don't Know Me." Like all great pop artists, Arnold was flexible, and his music remains open to interpretation, not to mention commercial.
"Country is a music loyal to a market, not loyal to a sound," Cusic says. "Eddy Arnold always said, 'I wanted to sell records.' The intent to try and reach an audience, which is what Eddy Arnold did, is what we're trying to do — same thing."