Singer, songwriter, violinist, and music publisher
“It’s hard not to get a kick out of Roy Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys,” announced Diane Zimmerman in the New York Sunday News. Labeled “The King of Country Music” by fans and peers alike, “Acuff hits the stage like greased Tennessee lightning,” according to Zimmerman, “and he punctuates his renditions … with turns on the fiddle, the uk[ulele], and even the Yo-Yo. He even manages to leaven the heavy sentimentality of country music with a yeast of wry good humor that shows through off-stage as well as on.” A fixture with his band, the Smoky Mountain Boys, at Nashville’s famous Grand Ole Opry since 1938, and the first living performer elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1962, Acuff is renowned for his renditions of “The Great Speckled Bird” and “The Wabash Cannonball.”
Despite the fact that Acuff’s father, Baptist preacher Neill Acuff, was an amateur fiddle player, Roy did not show much early interest in music except for singing in his father’s church. Instead, he was the star actor and star athlete of his Knoxville, Tennessee, high school, performing in all of the school plays and winning a chance to play baseball for the New York Yankees when he graduated. While still in the organization’s semipro leagues, however, Acuff was afflicted by a series of serious sunstrokes and had to give up his career in baseball. As Acuff stayed indoors recovering from his illness, he listened to his father’s recordings of country-music artists Fiddlin’ John Carson and Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers and learned to play the fiddle.
Acuff first put his new skills to use in an unusual way. In 1932 he joined Doc Hower’s travelling medicine show, a troupe that put on skits and performed music in order to sell patent medicine—specifically, a product called Moc-A-Tan. Acuff toured with Doc Hower from the spring until the fall; when the touring season was over he formed a band called the Tennessee Crackerjacks. Soon he and the band were featured on local radio shows, and, after a name change to the Crazy Tennesseeans, they were offered a record contract from the now-defunct American Record Company. Acuff and the Tennesseeans’ first recording session was in October 1936; one of the songs they put to wax, “The Wabash Cannonball,” was probably the group’s largest money-maker.
Another, “The Great Speckled Bird,” a rather metaphysical gospel song based on a quotation from the Bible’s Book of Jeremiah and written by a lyricist cryptically identified as the Reverend Gant, won Acuff and his band a great deal of attention in the country-music field. It also helped the Tennesseeans to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. When the group made their first appearance on the prestigious
Full name, Roy Claxton Acuff; born September 15, 1903, in Maynardsville, Tenn.; son of Neill Acuff (a Baptist preacher, judge, and tenant farmer); married Mildred Louise Douglas (a recording executive), 1936; children: Roy Neal. Politics: Republican.
Country singer, songwriter, 1932—. Formed band the Tennessee Crackerjacks, 1933; became the Crazy Tennesseeans, and later the Smoky Mountain Boys, 1939; recording artist, 1936—; featured singer of the Grand Ole Opry, 1938—. Cofounder of Acuff-Rose Publishing (music publishing), 1942; cofounder of Hickory Records, c. 1957. Republican gubernatorial candidate in Tennessee, 1948.
Awards: First living person elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, 1962.
Addresses: Office— P.O. Box 4623, Nashville, Tenn. 37216.
program in 1938, the Opry’s radio audience was so impressed by Acuff’s strong emotive interpretation of the song that they sent thousands of letters in praise of his performance. Within a year, Acuff had replaced Opry pioneer Uncle Dave Macon as the show’s most prominent star, a position he retained for decades.
In 1939 the Crazy Tennesseans changed their name to the Smoky Mountain Boys because many, including Acuff, had begun to feel that the old name was derogatory to their home state. Though various group members came and went through the years, the name stuck, and Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys had a long string of country hits during the 1940s and 1950s, including “Wreck on the Highway,” “Night Train to Memphis,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Don’t Make Me Go to Bed and I’ll Be Good,” “Beneath That Precious Mound of Clay,” “I Saw the Light,” and “Mule Skinner Blues.” The 1940s also saw Acuff branch into music publishing. With Fred Rose, he founded Acuff-Rose, which became one of the world’s largest country-music publishers. In 1948, at the urging of many, Acuff ran for governor of Tennessee on the Republican ticket. Campaigning by performing concerts with the Smoky Mountain Boys, he won the Republican primary, but he lost the election to Democratic incumbent and longtime friend Gordon Browning. Over the years Acuff and his band have done many concert tours; they have been especially conscientious about entertaining American servicemen overseas. Acuff performed for the troops during the Soviet Union’s blockade of Berlin in 1949, and during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He and the Smoky Mountain Boys have also played with great success to European audiences.
After recording for labels such as Columbia, Vocalion, and Okeh, Acuff co-founded Hickory Records with Rose and has released songs for that company since 1957. Many attribute the label’s success to the management of Mildred Acuff, Roy’s wife, who became the driving force behind Hickory. In 1962 Acuff became the first living person elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame; the plaque put up in his honor cited his contributions in exposing new audiences to country music and in helping many fledgling performers in the field. Though he has continued to perform at the Opry and in concert, and has continued to release records through several decades, Acuff cut back his schedule after a 1965 car accident left him with broken collarbone, ribs, and pelvis.
Acuff’s music stems solely from the mountain and gospel roots of country; once labeled “hillbilly” music, it is virtually untouched by the western influence that spread through the field in the 1940s and 1950s. Acuff revealed his own feelings about his art to a reporter for Look magazine: “The music is down to earth, for the home—not to get all hepped up and smoke a lot of marijuana and go wild about. The music is full of Christianity and sympathy and understanding. It helps make people better.”
Singles; on American
“Wabash Cannonball,” 1936.
“The Great Speckled Bird,” 1936.
Singles; on Vocalion; 1940s and early 1950s
“Steamboat Whistle Blues,” “New Greenback Dollar,” “Steel Guitar Chimes,” “The Beautiful Picture,” and “The Great Shining Light.”
Singles; on Okeh; 1940s and early 1950s
“Wreck on the Highway,” 1942.
“Night Train to Memphis,” 1943.
Also released “Vagabond’s Dream,” “Haven of Dreams,” “Beautiful Brown Eyes,” “Living on the Mountain,” “Baby Mine,” “Ida Red,” “Smoky Mountain Rag,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “When I Lay My Burden Down,” “Streamline Cannonball,” “Weary River,” “Just to Ease My Worried Mind,” “The Broken Heart,” “The Precious Jewel,” “Lyin’ Women Blues,” “Are You Thinking of Me, Darling?” “Don’t Make Me Go to Bed and I’ll Be Good,” and “It’s Too Late to Worry Anymore.”
Singles; on Columbia; 1940s and early 1950s
“Beneath That Precious Mound of Clay,” “It Won’t Be Long,” “Branded Wherever I Go,” “Do You Wonder Why,” “The Devil’s Train,” “The Songbirds Are Singing in Heaven,” “I Saw the Light,” “Unloved and Unclaimed,” “Mule Skinner Blues,” “Not a Word From Home,” “Waiting for My Call to Glory,” “I Called and Nobody Answered,” “Golden Treasure,” “Heartaches and Flowers,” “Tennessee Waltz,” “Sweeter Than Flowers,” “Polk County Breakdown,” “I’ll Always Care,” and “Black Mountain Rag.”
“Fireball Mail,” 1942.
“Low and Lonely,” 1943.
“Pins and Needles,” 1943.
Also released “Old Age Pension Check,” “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby,” “The Great Judgment Morning,” “Mule Skinner Blues,” and “All the World Is Lonely Now.”
Roy Acuff, Harmony, 1958.
That Glory Bound Train, Harmony, 1961.
Hymn Time, MGM, 1962.
Best of Roy Acuff, Capitol, 1963.
American Folk Songs, Hickory, 1964.
Gospel Songs, Hickory, 1964.
Great Roy Acuff, Capitol, 1964.
King of Country Music, Hickory, 1964.
Once More, Hickory, 1964.
Songs of the Grand Ole Opry, Hickory, 1964.
The World Is His Stage, Hickory, 1964.
Smoky Mountain Boys, MGM, 1965.
The Voice of Country Music, Capitol, 1965.
Great Train Songs, Hickory, 1967.
Hall of Fame, Hickory, 1967.
Roy Acuff Sings Famous Opry Favorites, Hickory, 1967.
Roy Acuff Sings Hank Williams, Hickory, 1967.
Treasury of Hits, Hickory, 1969.
Roy Acuff Time, Hickory, 1970.
Roy Acuff’s Greatest Hits, Volume 1, Elektra, 1978.
Roy Acuff’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2, Elektra, 1979.
Acuff, Roy, and William Neely, Roy Acuff’s Nashville: The Life and Good Times of Country Music, Putnam, 1983.
Look, July 13, 1971.
New York Sunday News, December 5, 1971.
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