Acuff, Roy Claxton

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Acuff, Roy Claxton

(b. 15 September 1903 in Maynardville, Tennessee; d. 23 November 1992 in Nashville, Tennessee), country musician, singer, and music business executive, nicknamed the “King of Country Music.”

Acuff was born in rural Tennessee, the third of five children of Neill Acuff, a small-town lawyer, part-time Baptist preacher, and amateur fiddler, and Ida Carr, a homemaker who played piano and guitar. Acuff played harmonica and Jew’s harp as a child and sang with his brothers, sisters, and parents in church and at home. In 1919 the family relocated to Fountain City, near Knoxville, Tennessee. Acuff attended Central High School there, playing baseball and appearing in amateur dramatic productions. He appears to have graduated in 1924, though he was still playing baseball with the school’s team the following year. Acuff continued to play ball on a semiprofessional level through the 1920s; he was also involved in a few minor run-ins with the law. In 1929 he was invited to join the New York Yankees, but he suffered a severe case of sunstroke while playing baseball that summer. Acuff spent most of 1930 bedridden, and his baseball career was over.

While recuperating, Acuff began playing the fiddle, picking up the rudiments from his father and listening to recordings of such fiddlers as Gid Tanner and Fiddlin’ John Carson. He decided to pursue a musical career. During 1931 he played on the streets of Knoxville, fiddling and performing yo-yo tricks for spare change. In the spring of 1932 he joined Doc Hower’s Medicine Show, a local traveling troupe, as a musician and a comedian/actor. Hower sold a patent medicine with the colorful name Moc-a-Tan (sometimes spelled Mocoton), promising relief from most major ailments. After the tour ended that fall, Acuff played around Knoxville with his brother Claude (known as “Spot”) and Red Jones in a group called the Three Rolling Stones. In 1934 he formed his first band, originally known as the Tennessee Crackerjacks. The band worked locally over the next few years, performing on radio in Knoxville and for local events. In mid-1936 a scout for the American Recording Company (ARC) label, a recording company that specialized in blues and country music, approached the band. That October, the band, now calling themselves the Crazy Tennesseans, recorded its first songs in Chicago. A second session followed in 1937.

Acuff’s relaxed singing style and the modern sound of his band made the group immediately popular. In 1938 the group was invited to join the prestigious Grand Ole Opry radio program in Nashville, Tennessee. The Opry was recognized as the most important place a country musician could perform. Acuff was tapped as a master of ceremonies as well as a performer and made the Opry his home until his death. That same year the group’s recording of “Wabash Cannonball” became a major country hit. In 1939, perhaps sensitive to the “down-home” image of the group’s name, Acuff decided to rename his backup band the Smoky Mountain Boys; some say that the Opry manager Harry Stone insisted on the name change, fearing to offend his rural listeners with the name the Crazy Tennesseans. Also that year the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) began broadcasting a portion of the Opry show nationally, featuring Acuff. A year later he went to Hollywood with other Opry cast members to star in a film, The Grand Ole Opry (1940), based on the popular radio show. The low-budget mixture of comedy and romance was not much of an artistic or box-office success. Nonetheless, Acuff appeared in seven similar, B-grade motion pictures during the 1940s.

Acuff was a shrewd businessman who recognized that country music was a popular, moneymaking form of entertainment. Rather than sell his songs to other music publishers—some of whom reportedly offered him $1,000 to $1,200 per song, a large sum for that time—Acuff decided to form his own music-publishing company. In 1942 he put up the money to start Acuff-Rose Publishing, along with the pianist and songwriter Fred Rose. Acuff’s wife— Mildred Louise Douglas, whom he had married in 1936— became an active figure in Acuff-Rose and in the record company, Hickory Records, which Acuff-Rose started in 1952. Their only son, Roy Neill Acuff, also became involved with Acuff-Rose after a brief career as a country singer during the 1960s. The true genius behind the company was Rose’s son, Wesley, who in 1948 signed the singer/songwriter Hank Williams, who became one of the most popular country performers of all time.

During World War II Acuff enjoyed his greatest success as a performer. His recordings were so well known that, according to the legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Japanese pilots would yell, “To hell with Roosevelt! To hell with Babe Ruth! To hell with Roy Acuff!” as they flew kamikaze missions over Okinawa. Acuff recorded several patriotic songs during this period, including the hit “Cowards over Pearl Harbor” (1942), which undoubtedly contributed to the Japanese animosity toward him. He also Scored several top-ten country hits, including 1944’s “The Prodigal Son” and the two-sided hit “I’ll Forgive You But I Can’t Forget”/“Write Me Sweetheart.” Acuff also flirted with politics in the mid-1940s. A popular figure in Tennessee, he ran for governor in 1948. He won the Republican nomination, but he failed to win the general election. Nonetheless, he pulled more votes than any other Republican had ever won in the largely Democratic state. Acuff remained active in Republican politics throughout his life.

After the war Acuff continued to record and perform with various backup musicians, all called the Smoky Mountain Boys. Unlike other country groups, Acuff’s band did not feature banjo or mandolin and barely featured the fiddle; instead, its sound was characterized by the slide guitar work of a series of Dobro players. The Dobro, a wooden-bodied guitar that has a round, metal resonator plate inserted into the faceplate, was in some ways the predecessor of the modern pedal steel guitar. Dobroist Pete Kirby (known as “Bashful Brother Oswald”) was the most famous musician associated with Acuff and helped establish the instrument as a key to the modern country sound.

In 1949 Acuff saw his last major hit for nearly a decade, the bathetic ballad “Wreck on the Highway.” Throughout the 1950s Acuff remained a popular attraction on the Opry and on tour, often including country comedy and skits as part of his act. As an emcee at the Opry he would often perform yo-yo tricks between acts as a way of amusing the audience. Acuff scored his last major country hits in 1958 and 1959, including his last top-ten country hit, “Once More” (1958), though he would remain on the country charts throughout the 1970s.

In 1962 Acuff became the first living person to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Three years later an automobile accident left him severely injured, and he decided to retire from active touring and focus on his work at the Opry. His wife stepped forward to handle his business affairs while he recuperated. In 1974, the Grand Ole Opry show left downtown Nashville and moved to an elaborate theme park, called Opryland U.S.A. Shortly before the Opry made its move, Acuff’s wife died. Giving up his home, Acuff moved into a cabin on the Opryland grounds, where he lived for the rest of his life. Further cementing his relationship with Opryland, the Acuff-Rose music-publishing business was sold to Opryland’s owners in 1985 for $22 million.

Toward the end of his life, Acuff received several honors, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 (conferred by the National Association of Recorded Arts and Sciences) and the National Medal of Art and Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement awards in 1991. He continued to emcee and work at the Opry throughout the early 1990s, though his appearances became less frequent toward the end of his life. Acuff appeared at a show honoring the career of the country comedian Minnie Pearl—with whom he had often performed—just a month before he died of congestive heart failure. Following his wishes for little pomp or ceremony, Acuff was buried on the day of his death at a small, private service at Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville.

As both a performer and a music publisher, Acuff was a driving force in modernizing country music. His simple vocal style, tasteful and low-key accompaniments, and heart-throbbing repertoire of material were hallmarks of the postwar country sound. Tall and gangly, Acuff disliked the “hillbilly” image, despite the fact that his act often featured the kind of backwoods comedy that was long associated with hillbillies. He did much to modernize country music’s image and also helped make Nashville the center of the country music business. Thanks to his recognition of the value of his own songs, he was able to build a music-publishing empire that still dominates the country scene.

In the early 1980s Acuff donated his collection of memorabilia and musical instruments to Opryland in Nashville, where it remains on display. The collection is described in Douglas B. Green and George Gruhn, Roy Acuff’s Musical Collection at Opryland (1982). Acuff coauthored his autobiography, Roy Acuff’s Nashville: The Life and Good Times of Country Music, with William Neely (1983); it is somewhat weak on insights into his life and career. Elizabeth Schlappi compiled a complete discography of Roy Acuff and his groups, Roy Acuff and His Smoky Mountain Boys, in 1966 and published a serviceable biography under the same name in 1978, which was issued in a second edition in 1993, following Acuff’s death. A. C. Dunkleberger wrote a short biography, King of Country Music: The Life Story of Roy Acuff (1971). An obituary is in the Los Angeles Times (24 Nov. 1992).

Richard Carlin