What's He Doing in My World?
When my dad started singing “Make the World Go Away,” we kids scattered. That was the signal that he was about to put on his Eddy Arnold records. Dad twisted the volume dial on our massive wooden stereo cabinet, upping the lazy-toned vocals, twanging guitar, strings, and backup chorus. I learned to scorn Eddy Arnold from my older siblings, who knew country wasn’t cool. To stay in the living room, though, I sometimes put up with Eddy’s nasal tenor intoning “What’s He Doing in My World” out of the wicker-covered speakers.
My father’s other musical passions made some sense to me. Of course he loved Sousa marches—his father was a high school band director, and Dad played in marching bands growing up. That love of brass probably also led to Herb Alpert records like “The Lonely Bull” ringing out as we kids prepared for Sunday school. I could trace Dad’s Henry Mancini obsession to the movies. He never failed to watch A Shot in the Dark, Hatari, or any of the Pink Panther films when they were on TV. But country singer Eddy Arnold was a mystery.
My father was trained as a chemist and became an expert in materials science, heading a lab that crafted satellite antennas and NASA mission equipment. He moved from Tacoma to Santa Clara, hotbed of the aerospace industry. He worked with people from around the world. What was he doing listening to Eddy Arnold and watching Roy Clark on Hee Haw? He wore a suit to work every day, not bib overalls.
When I was a teenager, one Sunday morning while my mother and I were clearing the pancake plates from our beat-up linoleum table, I complained to her about Eddy Arnold. Mom answered that Dad’s brother Uncle Rollie used to listen to country. When she and Dad were first married, she was working in a florist shop and Dad was going to college. Because Dad had an evening job at a restaurant, Uncle Rollie and his wife would pick Mom up after work. They’d drive Mom home, playing country music on the radio of their old Mercury. I could picture them, Mom wearing a red coat and lipstick, Aunt JoAnne beaming her wide smile, Uncle Rollie laughing behind the wheel as the radio twanged. I don’t remember my uncle Rollie (real name Roald) very well. He died when I was five or six, when my father was under 40. I have the impression of a big man with a big laugh.
Once Mom told that story, I imagined Dad and Uncle Rollie rattling through the piney Tacoma back roads, away from the pulp mill smells and towards the cool white mountain, steel guitars warbling in the background. Maybe Eddy Arnold’s voice brought back those days with his brother for him.
Until writing this essay, I hadn’t listened to Eddy Arnold for many years. From YouTube clips, I can tell he’s not a perfect singer. He scoops up to the high notes and sometimes doesn’t make it, or switches to an awkward falsetto. But the early recordings have a charming simplicity. Guitar, rhythm, and vocals. They sound like the relaxed music you might want to listen to riding home in an old car after work. Or music you might turn your radio to while you and your brother fix your old car. Family music. The recordings have a sincerity that goes to the heart. Like a lot of country music, these songs understand that life is full of loss.
My dad died last year at 81. Listening to Eddy Arnold brings back my dad’s delight in those easy-to-sing country songs. Tonight, I’m listening to Eddy Arnold and singing along to “The Last Word in Lonesome is Me.” I remember all the words.
About the Author: Ann Hillesland's work has been published or is forthcoming in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Sou’wester, Corium, and SmokeLong Quarterly. It has been selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions, won the grand prize for prose in a Spark contest, and has been presented onstage by Stories On Stage. Ann is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte. Visit Ann's website here: