Before the deluge of country music "hat acts" came on the scene, there was a brand of country crooner who brought a touch of class and sophistication to the genre. They sang what was called "countrypolitan" music — a blend of downhome caterwauling and uptown crooning. Like Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra on the pop charts, these country cousins sang love songs with sweet conviction and style. Jim Reeves was among them. So was Patsy Cline. But the emperor will always be "The Tennessee Plowboy," Eddy Arnold. Arnold charted 146 songs in his career and had 23 No. 1 hits. Billboard rated him the best ever,

Now, at age 89, he has passed on.

Lionel Ritchie and Barry White once debated which one of them had set the stage for the most romantic interludes. But any fair-minded exchange must also include Arnold. Everything he touched turned to romance. In classics like "Bouquet of Roses," "Make the World Go Away," "What's He Doing in My World?" and even the sagebrushy "Cattle Call," Arnold brought a subtlety to country music it hadn't known before and has lost since.

Country music has come a long way since guitarists like Chet Atkins were country gentlemen playing "Country Gentleman" guitars. Then, the songs were aimed at married adults and were filled with the longings, problems and melancholy of mid-life. Today, with the market geared toward teens, country singers offer more hormonal fare. The "lived experience" behind the lyrics seldom runs deep. They are COUNTRY singers more than country SINGERS.

In short, Eddy Arnold would never make it now. He could never sing Kenny Chesney's hobo hit, "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem." But by the same token young bucks today lack the vocal chops of Arnold, a man who used vocal shadings to lay feelings of hope, worry and despair together in one musical phrase.

Country vocalists today are talented. They can sing about heartbreak with the best.

The difference is, when Eddy Arnold sang, he could break your heart.