My earliest childhood memories of country music consist of watching such programs as “Pop Goes the Country,” “Nashville on the Road,” and “Hee Haw.” However, my favorite occurrence was when public television would take their cameras to Nashville and air the Grand Ole Opry live in its entirety. Back then, this only happened once a year between 1978 and 1981.
For the live Grand Ole Opry airing, some of the biggest stars would be on the show but regardless of the lineup, the spotlight always seemed to find Roy Acuff. The Grand Ole Opry has been in existence for over 90 years, and no artist's name has been more associated with the legendary show than Acuff. Whether it was as a performer, songwriter, publisher or spokesman, he is one of the most towering figures in the history of country music.
Born Roy Claxton Acuff, he grew up near the Smokey Mountains in Maynardsville, Tennessee. As a youngster, he loved both mountain music and baseball. As matter of fact, Acuff was invited to a tryout with the New York Yankees. However, a series of sunstrokes quickly put a damper on any hopes of a career in the big leagues.
With Acuff's attention now focused on being a performer, he traveled around the country as part of a medicine show. Later, Acuff and his band, the Crazy Tennesseans, landed a job at WROL in Knoxville. After hearing another group perform an old gospel tune, "The Great Speckled Bird," he started singing the song on his own show. He became an instant sensation all over east Tennessee and was offered a recording contract from ARC Records.
Acuff and his group went to Chicago and recorded 20 tunes, including "The Great Speckled Bird" and "The Wabash Cannonball." He made a guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in Feb. of 1938. Right away, hundreds of cards and letters flooded WSM's office in Nashville. Two weeks later, Grand Ole Opry management added Acuff as a member. He immediately became the most popular star on the show.
One week after joining the Grand Ole Opry, Acuff changed his band's name to the Smokey Mountain Boys. Within a year, he re-formed his group. The most notable change was the addition of Bashful Brother Oswald to play dobro and sing high harmony. Acuff now had one of the most widely-known sounds of any artist in any genre of music.
From 1940-1945, he scored with such hits as "The Precious Jewel," "The Wreck on the Highway," "Night Train to Memphis" and "Fire Ball Mail." In the middle of those recordings, he joined forces with songwriter Fred Rose to form Acuff-Rose, the first modern publishing company in Nashville to specialize in country music.
Often referred to as 'The King of Country Music,' Acuff became the first living person to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Additionally, he was one of several veteran artists whose stature received a career boost due to his contribution to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1971 album, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
In March of 1974, the Grand Ole Opry moved from the Ryman Auditorium to the new Grand Ole Opry House. During the opening ceremonies, Acuff greeted President Richard Nixon on stage. At this same time, Opryland theme park officially opened. The complex was located near Acuff's home on the Cumberland River.
Acuff died due to congestive heart failure in 1992. He was 89. Still to this day, he is remembered as a gentle giant in the country music industry. He was an overall entertainer, who combined singing and musicianship with antics like demonstrating his yo-yo skills and balancing a fiddle bow on his nose. Today, country music is a multi-million dollar business but, at one time, the genuine nature of home spun talent was respected. And Acuff was at the head of his class.
Charles Haymes is a country music journalist and historian. He has been covering the genre for more than 25 years. He served as co-host for the first two Arkansas Country Music Awards and is slated to return to that role for the third annual show in 2020.