Personalities | Roy Acuff | Early Years of Hillbilly | Country

If Jimmie Rodgers is the father of country music, Uncle Dave Macon its first radio star and the Carters its first family group, Roy Acuff (1903–92) has a claim to be called the father of the country-music business. Not only was he a key figure in the Grand Ole Opry – indeed, for many, its figurehead – but he was also a prime mover in making Nashville the home of country-music publishing.

‘To Hell With Roy Acuff!’

As a boy in east Tennessee he wanted to play pro baseball, but illness ruled that out. His second choice was music. His father was a fiddler, and he had inherited some of this talent. Acuff made a regional name on WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee, on the station’s famous Midday Merry-Go-Round, and in 1936 began making records. His first session produced two of his biggest hits, ‘Wabash Cannonball’ (actually sung, that first time, by one of his band-members) and the sacred song ‘Great Speckled Bird’, which shares the tune of that country standby ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’. He would be condemned to sing both of them for the rest of his career.

A couple of years later he joined the Grand Ole Opry and by the early 1940s he was its most potent artist, drawing fans from hundreds of miles away. On records he was as famous as Gene Autry and Bob Wills, thanks to wartime hits like ‘Wreck On The Highway’ and ‘Fire Ball Mail’. Indeed, an oft-told story has it that Japanese soldiers, when attacking American outposts in the South Pacific, would scream ‘To hell with Roosevelt! To hell with Babe Ruth! To hell with Roy Acuff!’.

His voice quivered with emotion and it hardly mattered that he wasn’t much of a player, because he had such a fine band, stocked with men like fiddler Howdy Forrester (1922–87) and Dobro player Pete Kirby (1911–2002), professionally known as Bashful Brother Oswald, both of whom would stay with him for decades. In the tradition of earlier aggregations like J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers, The Smoky Mountain Boys were less a band than a revue act. In between the songs, Howdy would be featured on a fiddle breakdown, Oswald on a Hawaiian tune or Jimmy Riddle on a harmonica solo, while Roy himself took time out from singing to show what he could do with a yo-yo. In later line-ups, harmonica player Onie Wheeler would demonstrate the curious art of ‘eephing’ – a kind of rhythmic grunting.

Grand Old Man Of The Opry

After the Second World War, though he remained a charismatic figure on the Opry, and had enough clout in Tennessee to run for Governor (unsuccessfully), Acuff’s heart-on-sleeve sincerity was increasingly out of touch with prevailing tastes in country music, which leaned towards honky-tonkers like Ernest Tubb or country crooners like Eddy Arnold. But he had other catfish to fry: his partnership with the songwriter Fred Rose in Acuff-Rose Publications was highly successful (they would...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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