Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 15 Sep. '03, Maynardsville TN; d 23 Nov. '92, Nashville) Singer, fiddler, bandleader and grand old man of American music, gaining worldwide fame with a traditional style through decades of change in country music. Father was fiddler, lawyer, Baptist minister; Roy grew up on tenant farm in Smoky Mountains; high school in Knoxville; attended NY Yankees baseball summer camp but sunstroke ended sports career. Joined medicine show; on radio '33; record contract with ARC (later Columbia) through Art Satherley '36. Some early records on the pop side, but soon settled on trad. mountain style; two biggest hits came in '38: 'Great Speckled Bird' was sung in Southern churches, based on Jeremiah 12:9 using a trad. tune ('I'm Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes', recorded by the Carter Family); 'Wabash Cannon Ball' (also sung by Carters) is a train song in the 'Big Rock Candy Mountain' tradition (the train will take the hobo to the promised land) and sold a million copies, one of the most famous country records ever made. Acuff went to the Grand Ole Opry '38, became its most famous star and helped establish the singer rather than the string band as the main attraction, though his band remained traditional: called Tennessee Crackerjacks, then Crazy Tennesseans, finally Smoky Mountain Boys, they wore casual clothes or country overalls, no cowboy outfits. Acuff played fiddle (but not often, lacking confidence); the band incl. bass fiddle, five-string banjo, rhythm guitar, mandolin, accordion and harmonica, but the distinctive sound was that of the dobro or Hawaiian guitar, fitting the wailing, high-lonesome mountain music sound, played by James Clell Summey (1914--76; later with Pee Wee King one of the first to play steel guitar on the Opry, still later became comic Cousin Jody). After '38 Beecher 'Pete' Kirby played dobro for Acuff, also playing banjo, singing high harmony (became comic Bashful Brother Oswald). From mid-'40s Howard 'Howdy' Forrester, Jimmy Riddle played harmonica and accordion. After only two years on Opry Acuff hosted the show's first network hookup, starred in film Grand Ole Opry '40; other films incl. Hi Neighbor '42, My Darling Clementine '43, Cowboy Canteen and Sing, Neighbor, Sing '44, Night Train To Memphis '46.

Acuff co-wrote many songs, e.g. 'The Precious Jewel', another big hit; formed Acuff-Rose Publications in Nashville with Fred Rose '42, eventually becoming wealthy. Scores of hits incl. 'Wreck on the Highway', 'Fireball Mail' '42, 'Night Train To Memphis', 'Pins And Needles', 'Low And Lonely' '43. His sincerity was never in doubt, the most important asset of any country artist; he sometimes wept at his own performance. Wartime return to trad. values confirmed his popularity; a widely circulated story (said to have originated with correspondent Ernie Pyle) was that Japanese troops in South Pacific shouted battle cry 'To hell with Roosevelt! To hell with Babe Ruth! To hell with Roy Acuff!' (His wartime hit was 'Cowards Over Pearl Harbor'.) Postwar poll of Armed Forces Network saw Acuff beat Frank Sinatra as most popular vocalist. Opened Dunbar Cave Resort near Clarksville TN '48, became folk-music park; same year ran for governor as a Republican and made a good showing in a Democratic state. Refused to change style as sales fell off; left Columbia, hopped to Decca, MGM, Capitol; started Hickory label with Rose '57 (first to issue records by Donovan in USA '65). Entertained troops in Berlin during blockade '49, later Korea, Dominican Republic, Vietnam; touring slowed down after serious car crash '65. Entertained returned POWs at White House '72; gave yoyo lessons to Nixon at opening of new Opryhouse in Nashville '74. First living artist elected to Country Music Hall of Fame '62; last country chart hit was a remake of 'Freight Train Blues' '65, nearly 30 years after his first recordings. With Kirby on Will The Circle Be Unbroken, a three-LP set with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band '73.