Roy Acuff

b. 15 September 1903, Maynardville, Tennessee, USA, d. 23 November 1992, Nashville, Tennessee

IF JIMMIE RODGERS is the father of country music, Acuff, through his fifty-year association with the Grand Ole Opry, is the father of the country-music star system, of country-music publishing, and, to a great extent, of the entire Nashville industry.

“I’m a seller, not a singer,” he once said, and although he was referring to his way with a song, he could just as well have meant his skill with an image. A bizarre mark of his success occurred during the Japanese troops’ attack on Okinawa in the Second World War. To demoralize and insult the defending Americans, the Japanese cried “To hell with Roosevelt, to hell with Babe Ruth, to hell with Roy Acuff!”

The son of a Baptist minister, and a star athlete at college (he was cheated of a career in baseball through illness), Acuff decided to go into music in his late twenties. After working in medicine-shows – often performing in blackface – where he developed a relaxed showmanship, he established himself on WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee, on the Midday Merry-Go-Round – also an early step for Bill Carlisle and Kitty Wells. In 1936 he made his first recordings for ARC with his string band the Crazy Tennesseans. From this session came his two most enduring numbers, the primitive and powerful ‘Wabash Cannonball’ (actually sung on this original recording by Sam “Dynamite” Hatcher) and the potent sacred song ‘The Great Speckled Bird’. In marked contrast to the stark, wailing style Acuff would later employ, these recordings saw the group also performing softer versions of popular songs (such as Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson’s ‘Yes Sir, That’s My Baby’).

Acuff joined the Opry in 1938 and within two years, sponsored by R. J. Reynolds’ ‘Prince Albert’ Tobacco, was the show’s star. During the forties he appeared in at least six movies, consolidating the fame he earned with wartime hit records on Okeh like ‘Wreck on the Highway’, ‘Fireball Mail’ (both 1942), ‘Precious Jewel’ and ‘Pins and Needles’ (both 1943). He was also gradually assembling one of the most talented and long-serving bands in country music, the Smokey Mountain Boys. They included fiddler Howdy Forrester and banjo- and dobro-player Bashful Brother Oswald.

In the ’40s Acuff made several attempts to enter politics, running for the governorship of Tennessee on the Republican ticket in 1944 and 1948. A more successful career move was the financing in 1942 of a music publishing company in partnership with Fred Rose. Acuff-Rose became the most securely established publishing house in Nashville, with vast holdings of Rose’s and others’ compositions, including those of Marty Robbins, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and the entire catalogue of Hank Williams.

In many ways, Acuff’s mournful mountain style was at variance with the growing sophistication of most country music, which was seeking to throw off its “hillbilly” image. Significantly, though his tearful singing – he often cried during performances – won him a huge audience on the Opry broadcasts, his sales declined in the late forties and fifties. He moved without significant effect to MGM, Decca and Capitol, though he fared slightly better on Hickory, a label he co-owned with Rose. In 1962 he was the first living musician to be elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and in 1972 was honoured with a role in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s project Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, a testament to the power and raw beauty of his forties records that his later clowning can never diminish.

Continually active in promoting Nashville as a centre of entertainment as well as music, he was involved in the Opryland project and presided over the 1974 opening of the new Opry house, at which he gave an on-stage lesson in playing the yo-yo to President Nixon. He continued to perform on the Opry every week, but spent most of his time at home in the heart of Opryland, close to his museum of country-music memorabilia.

© Phil Hardy, Dave LaingThe Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, 2001

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