Acuff, Roy (Clayton)
Acuff, Roy (Clayton)
Acuff, Roy (Clayton), American country singer and fiddler; b. Maynardville, Tenn., Sept. 15, 1903; d. Nashville, Nov. 23, 1992. Acuff codified the old-time approach to country music from his position as host of the Grand Ole Opry, but he also effected a transition from the dominance of string bands to that of vocalists and introduced such innovations as the use of the dobro. His vocal style was broadly influential and can be heard in the music of Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and others. He was among the most successful country music recording artists of the late 1930s and 1940s; his hits include “The Great Speckled Bird” and “Wabash Cannonball.”
Acuff was the son of Neill and Ida Florence Carr Acuff. His father, who played the fiddle, had various occupations when he was a child, later becoming a minister, a lawyer, and a judge. The family moved to the Knoxville suburb of Fountain City in November 1919. After graduating from high school, Acuff worked at menial jobs while hoping to become a professional baseball player, but he suffered attacks of sunstroke in 1929 that left him bedridden and triggered a nervous breakdown. During his recovery he taught himself to play the fiddle and sing, and in the summer of 1932 he performed in a medicine show, then played in bands around Knoxville.
By 1934 Acuff and his band, at first called the Tennessee Crackerjacks and then the Crazy Tennesse-ans, were performing on local radio stations. Their most popular song, a Gospel tune called “The Great Speckled Bird” (music from a traditional English melody, lyrics by the Reverend Guy Smith, based on Jeremiah 12:9, with verses added by Acuff), earned them a contract with the American Record Company (later acquired by Columbia Records). Their initial recording session, in Chicago in October 1936, produced 20 tracks, among them “Wabash Cannonball” (music and lyrics by William Kindt), a 1905 composition given its most popular previous recording by The Carter Family. The song was sung by harmonica player Sam “Dynamite” Hatcher, with Acuff imitating a train whistle. There was a second session in March 1937, but none of the recordings were issued at first.
Acuff made a first, unheralded appearance on the Nashville-based Grand Ole Opry radio program in October 1937. Returning in February 1938, he earned a regular spot on the show, plus a weekday morning show on WSM and a series of personal appearances. Released on the Columbia-distributed Vocalion label, “The Great Speckled Bird” and “Wabash Cannonball” became hits by the end of the year, the latter selling a million copies. At the behest of radio officials, the name of Acuff’s band was changed to the Smoky Mountain Boys. All but one of the band members quit at the start of 1939 in a dispute over musical direction: they wanted a more modern approach, whereas Acuff favored a more traditional one. He replaced them.
The Grand Ole Opry rose in popularity, and when it was picked up for national broadcast in October 1939, Acuff was its host. By the spring of 1940 he and the show had gained sufficient recognition to be the subject of a low-budget feature film, Grand Ole Opry, released by Republic Pictures in June. (Acuff appeared in seven more B movies before the decade was over.)
At the end of 1942, Acuff entered into a partnership with songwriter Fred Rose to form the Acuff-Rose Publishing Company, the first music publisher based in Nashville and devoted to country music. Acuff contributed his name, his songs, and the seed money to found the company, which was run by Rose, and later by Rose’s son Wesley. It became enormously successful, fostering the rise of country music and of Nashville as the center of the country music industry.
Acuff scored three Top Ten country hits in 1944: “The Prodigal Son” (music and lyrics by Fred Rose), “I’ll Forgive You but I Can’t Forget” (music and lyrics by J. L. Frank and Pee Wee King), and “Write Me Sweetheart” (music and lyrics by Acuff). In April 1946 he left the Grand Ole Opry because of the show’s low pay, and because having to be in Nashville every Saturday night made touring difficult. He returned a year later with a pay raise and greater flexibility in scheduling. His next Top Ten country hit came in 1947 with “(Our Own) Jole Blon,” one of the biggest country hits of the year. But his 1948 hit “The Waltz of the Wind” (music and lyrics by Fred Rose) was his last to reach the Top Ten of the country charts for a decade.
Acuff was touted as a Term, gubernatorial candidate in 1944 and 1946, but he declined each time. In 1948 he finally allowed his name to appear on the Republican primary ballot. He did not campaign, but he won the nomination easily. Still, the state’s long tradition of Democratic party dominance made his election impossible. Nevertheless, he received more votes than any statewide Republican candidate before him.
Acuff’s next hit came as a writer; his song “As Long as I Live” became a Top Ten country hit for Kitty Wells and Red Foley in 1955. After short stints on several labels, Acuff signed to Hickory Records, a subsidiary of Acuff-Rose, in 1957 and reached the country Top Ten with “Once More” in 1958. This was his last major hit, although he placed records in the country charts in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. In November 1962 he became the first living person elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
A political and musical conservative, Acuff helped to close the gap between country and rock by participating in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s three-record set Will the Circle Be Unbroken in 1972; the album went gold, and Acuff and the band earned a Grammy nomination for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
After the opening of Opry land in 1972, Acuff cut down on touring and concentrated on performing at the Grand Ole Opry. He continued to appear until shortly before his death from congestive heart failure at the age of 89 in 1992.
Songs of the Stnokey Mountains (1955); Favorite Hymns (1958); Great Speckled Bird (1958); Country Music Hall of Fame (1963); R. A. Sings American Folk Songs (1963); The Voice of Country Music (1965); R. A. Sings Hank Williams (1966); Famous Opry Favorites (1967); Treasury of Country Hits (1969); The Best of R. A. (1970); Greatest Hits (1970); Steamboat Whistle Blues (1985); Columbia Historic Edition (1985); The Essential R. A.: 1936-1949 (1992); The King of Country Music (1994); The RC Cola Shows, Vol. 1 & 2 (1999); The RC Cola Shows, Vol 3&4 (2000).
With W. Neely, R. A.’s Nashville: The Life and Good Times of Country Music (N.Y., 1983).
A. Dunkleberger, King of Country Music: The Life of R. A. (Nashville, 1971); E. Schiappi, R. A., The Smoky Mountain Boy (Gretna, La., 1978).