Roy Acuff was a pioneer in the development of country music-as a singer, fiddler, songwriter, and music publisher, and as the spiritual figurehead of the Grand Ole Opry. One of the best-loved figures in the genre, he was the first living person to be elected as a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Born September 15, 1903, in Maynardville, Tennessee, Roy Claxton Acuff spent the better part of his youth playing baseball and boxing, though he also found the time to learn the harmonica and Jew’s harp. His athletic skills landed him a trial with the New York Yankees, but he was prevented from joining when he fell gravely ill from sunstroke in After this setback, Acuff suffered from deep depression and remained bedridden for much of the following year.
During this time, he taught himself to play his father’s fiddle and listened to recordings of such early country artists as Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers. It was a turning-point in his life, of which he later wrote: “Everything was dark, until I found the fiddle . If it hadn’t come along I don’t know what I would have become.”
The smoky mountain boy
In 1932, Acuff joined Dr. Hauer’s Medicine Show, playing the fiddle and generally acting the fool to sell Mocoton Tonic, “the cure for everything.” Into his musical act, he incorporated a yo-yo and an aptitude for balancing objects on his nose. In 1934, Acuff formed a band, the Tennessee Crackerjacks (later renamed the Crazy Tennesseeans), which worked on radio stations in Knoxville, Tennessee.
In 1936, a gospel tune from his repertoire, “The Great Speckled Bird,” attracted a contract offer from the Chicagobased ARC records. A Grand Ole Opry performance in 1938 so endeared Acuff to the show’s listeners that WSM offered him radio spots and concert appearances with the Delmore Brothers. It was around this time that Acuff changed his band’s name to the Smoky Mountain Boys, after the “Great Smokies,” that part of the Appalachian Mountains bordering Tennessee and North Carolina.
During the late 1930s and 1940s, Acuff recorded the songs that established him as a major figure in country music. His version of the CARTER FAMILY song “The Wabash Cannonball” was one of the most popular hits of 1938, winning :him a gold record. The songs that followed-“Wreck on the Highway,” “The Precious Jewel,” “The Prodigal Son,” and “I’ll Forgive You, But I Can’t Forget”-were country and national hits, making Acuff the dominant artist of country music’s wartime surge in popularity. He also scored a hit with his patriotic song “Cowards Over Pearl Harbor”: legend has it that he became so identified with the American spirit during World War II that Japanese soldiers charging in to battle would yell “To hell with Roosevelt; to hell with Babe Ruth; to hell with Roy Acuff.”
In 1942, veteran songwriter Fred Rose joined forces with Acuff to form the Acuff-Rose Publication Company, the first music publishing house to capitalise on the growing country phenomenon. Acuff and Rose would eventually sign Hank WILLIAMS, ensuring their company’s status with the finest and most lucrative catalogue in the genre.
Acuff was a public figure for the remainder of his life, dabbling in politics, playing the Opry, scoring occasional hits, and acting as country music’s elder statesman. His participation in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken? presented Acuff as a living legend to another generation of fans. In his final years, he lived only a few yards from the Opry’s front door, greeting and reminiscing with fans. He died on November 23, 1992, and was mourned as the “King of Country Music.”