Roy Acuff Biography

Roy Claxton Acuff, 15 September 1903, Maynardsville, Tennessee, USA, d. 23 November 1992, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. The third of five children born to Neill and Ida Acuff, Roy learned to play the harmonica and Jew’s harp as a child and was involved with music from an early age. His father played the fiddle, his mother the piano and guitar and Roy sang with his siblings. School did not appeal to him in the early years and although he showed some interest in poetry and verse and excelled at sports, he was frequently in trouble. In 1919, the family moved to Knoxville suburb, Fountain City, and he attended Central High School. After leaving school he developed a reputation as a fighter which caused his parents concern and sometimes landed him in court. Acuff auditioned unsuccessfully for a stage show in Chicago and did a few jobs locally in Knoxville. In 1929, the family moved to the Knoxville suburb of Arlington and he played semi-professional baseball. He seemed set to join the New York Yankees but during the summer of 1929 he suffered severe sunstroke and collapsed. He also had a nervous breakdown that resulted in him being bedridden for most of 1930. During these long months, he learned to play his father’s fiddle and listened to the records of early country artists.

In 1931, Acuff began to appear on the streets, where he first learned to play the yo-yo that he later featured in his stage show. Realizing that a baseball career was impossible, he turned to country music, later stating: ‘Everything was dark, until I found the fiddle. If it had not come along I don’t know what I would have become.’ In 1932, he toured with Dr Hauer’s Medicine Show, where he played fiddle and took part in skits that were designed to encourage the watchers to buy Mocoton Tonic, ‘the cure for everything’. Encouraged by his success, he began to play with other musicians in the Knoxville area. He also appeared with his brother Claude (always called ‘Spot’) and Red Jones as the Three Rolling Stones. In 1934, he appeared on radio with Jess Easterday, Clell Summey and Bob Wright as the Tennessee Crackerjacks on WROL Knoxville before moving to WNOX, where six days a week they presentedMid-Day Merry-Go-Round. In 1935, they became Roy Acuff And The Crazy Tennesseans and the same year he began to sing a song called ‘The Great Speckled Bird’, which he had first heard sung by Charles Swain and his group, the Black Shirts. (The title came from the Bible and although several people later claimed ownership of the song, the original six verses were written by Reverend Guy Smith and set to a traditional English melody very similar to ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’.) He made his first recordings in Chicago for ARC Records in October 1936, under the direction of William Calloway, who, it seems, had been looking for someone to record that song. They recorded 20 sides in all and Acuff later commented, ‘He wanted ‘The Bird’, he didn’t want me.’ Two songs, ‘When Lulu’s Gone’ and ‘Doin’ It The Old Fashioned Way’, were self-penned numbers of a somewhat risqué nature and were released as being by the Bang Boys, when Acuff refused to let the company use his name on them. Further recordings were made in 1937, after which Acuff stopped recording because he felt that Calloway and ARC were not treating him well.

Acuff made a somewhat inauspicious debut on the Grand Ole Opry in October 1937, playing two fiddle tunes and attempting a crooning version of ‘The Great Speckled Bird’. A return visit in February 1938, although hardly sensational, created such interest among listeners that WSM offered him radio spots and concert appearances with the Delmore Brothers. He again sang ‘The Bird’, and Clell Summey made history by playing a dobro on theGrand Ole Opry for the first time. Harry Stone, the WSM manager, suggested that the name Crazy Tennesseans was not complimentary to the state, and that since they came from the Smoky Mountains they should use that name. Accordingly, when they appeared a week later it was as Roy Acuff And The Smoky Mountain Boys. In 1938, ARC became part of Columbia Records and Acuff was persuaded by Art Satherley to sign a recording contract with that company. A single release of the Carter Family song ‘Wabash Cannonball’ became one of the most popular records of the year and won him a gold disc. In 1939 he toured the USA while various changes occurred in his band. He recorded in Dallas in April 1940 and the following month travelled to Hollywood, where he appeared with his band in the Republic Pictures movieGrand Ole Opry. During the making of the movie he was suffering from appendicitis and had to be strapped up during filming. On completion he underwent surgery in Nashville and only missed one Grand Ole Opry show. His band’s popularity grew, with many members establishing their own reputation, especially Pete Kirby who, as Bashful Brother Oswald, provided excellent dobro playing and harmony vocals.

It was estimated that Acuff earned more than $200, 000 in 1942. He became great friends with Fred Rose, who at the time had a daily piano programme on WSM, and on 13 October 1942, the two men founded the Acuff-Rose Publication Company to provide protection for songwriters and performers. Acuff-Rose was the first country music publishing house in the USA and played a major part in the development of Nashville becoming Music City USA. In later years, when asked whether he and Fred Rose had ever imagined that their creation would turn out to be such a tremendous success, Acuff replied: ‘Not at all. I only thought possibly it might do good. But I never had any idea it would turn out like this, grow this big. At the time Fred and I were like two blind pigs scratching for an acorn.’ Rose, who wrote the Sophie Tucker hit ‘Red-Hot Mama’, initially did not like country music but changed his mind after standing in the wings of the Grand Ole Opry one night and watching Acuff sing ‘Don’t Make Me Go To Bed And I’ll Be Good’.

After twice declining the invitation, in 1944 and 1946, Acuff was finally persuaded to run for state governor in 1948. He stood as a Republican and although he failed to be elected, he polled more votes than any previous Republican candidate in Tennessee. He later said, ‘I could have won, if I had run as a Democrat, been a puppet and made campaign promises.’ He took defeat with no regrets, saying, ‘As a Governor I would have been just another politician. As a singer I can be Roy Acuff.’ He made further movie appearances in Hi, Neighbor (1942), O, My Darling Clementine (1943) (not to be confused with the later Henry Fonda vehicle Oh My Darling Clementine), Cowboy Canteen (1944), Sing, Neighbor, Sing (1944), Night Train To Memphis (1946), Smoky Mountain Melody (1948) and Home In San Antone (1948), but subsequently resisted further attempts to lure him back into movies. He reckoned: ‘Give me radio every time, if you get scared you can hang on the mike. In the movies there’s nothing to hold you up.’ In 1949, he was featured in the Grand Ole Opry’s first overseas tour when he visited Europe with other major stars, including Hank Williams. He had great success with recordings of such songs as ‘Wreck On The Highway’ and ‘Fireball Mail’, and enjoyed US country and pop chart success in 1944 with ‘The Prodigal Son’ and ‘I’ll Forgive You, But I Can’t Forget’. Other Top 10 country hits in the 40s included ‘Jole Blon’ and ‘Waltz Of The Wind’. During World War II, he had success with his recording of ‘Cowards Over Pearl Harbor’ and his fame was such that Japanese troops are reported to have yelled ‘To hell with Roosevelt! To hell with Babe Ruth! To hell with Roy Acuff!’ before making suicidal charges on the Pacific island of Okinawa. In 1947, he founded the Dunbar Cave Resort, a country music park near Clarksville, Tennessee, which quickly proved to be an astute investment and with his wife’s business ability and the Acuff-Rose interest, he soon acquired a considerable fortune.

Acuff maintained a very active schedule during the 50s and 60s, with concert appearances in the USA, Grand Ole Opry shows and 18 overseas tours. He played at Burtonwood, England, during a 1951 European tour, and in 1953 toured Japan and Korea. A private tour of Australia in 1959 drew a review from a Sydney critic who stated: ‘First there was Mr. Acuff - a clear cut case of strangulation of the tonsils.’ He parted from Columbia in 1952 and recorded for MGM Records, Decca Records and Capitol Records and although his records sold, he had few chart successes. He and Fred Rose formed Hickory Records and Acuff had a Top 10 country chart hit in 1958 with ‘Once More’. In 1962, the Country Music Association, grateful for his services to the music over the years, elected him the first living member of the Country Music Hall Of Fame. The plaque described him as the ‘King Of Country Music’. In July 1965, he was seriously injured in a car crash, but he soon recovered and was back at the Grand Ole Opry. He cancelled his personal concerts for the year but in 1966 and 1967, he played in Vietnam and other Far East venues. Acuff cut back severely on his touring in the early 70s but still maintained a prominent role at the Grand Ole Opry. He was one of the many stars to record with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1972, when they recorded their triple album Will The Circle Be Unbroken, and continued to record in his own right, including the re-recording of some of his earlier numbers for different labels. In 1971, accompanied by Charlie Collins on guitar, he recorded 20 tunes playing the fiddle for an instrumental album that remains unreleased. He became involved with the Opryland complex and figured prominently in the opening night ceremonies for the new show in 1974. He not only sang the ‘Wabash Cannonball’, but also endeavoured to teach President Nixon how to play with a yo-yo. The same year, at the age of 70, he claimed the record of being the oldest person to reach the US country charts.

The simplicity of Acuff’s songs with their tuneful melodies had been the secret of his success over the years. His recordings were never aimed at the charts; in the main they were either of a religious nature, about mother and/or home or train songs. He had recorded duets with several artists including Kitty Wells (‘Goodbye, Mr. Brown’), June Stearns (‘Before I Met You’), Bill Anderson (‘I Wonder If God Likes Country Music’) and Boxcar Willie (‘Fireball Mail’). His last country chart hit was ‘Old Time Sunshine Song’, a modest number 97 in 1974. In 1992, Acuff’s health began to deteriorate, but whenever possible he maintained appearances on the Grand Ole Opry. At 6am on 23 November 1992, he died of congestive heart failure. He had left instructions that he did not wish his funeral to become a showbusiness event; in accordance with his wishes only the family and a few close friends were present when he was buried at 10am that same day.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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