Born September 15, 1903 in Maynardville, Tennessee, the King of Country Music was best known for his weekly performances on the Grand Ole Opry with his band the Smoky Mountain Boys, and for the classic country songs "The Great Speckled Bird," "Wabash Cannonball," and "Back in the Country."
Roy Claxton Acuff was born September 15, 1903, in Maynardville, Tennessee. The Acuffs are an old and proud family that traces its roots back to French soldiers who accompanied William the Conqueror of Normandy on his 1066 invasion of England and then participated in the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries. Roy Acuff's parental grandfather, Corum Acuff, was a Union soldier during the Civil War who later had a distinguished career in the Tennessee General Assembly. Roy's father, Neil Acuff, was a lawyer and postmaster who was ordained as a minister and became the pastor of the local Maynardville Baptist Church; Roy's mother, Ida Carr, was a homemaker.
Acuff's father was a skilled fiddle player, and as a child Roy Acuff played the mouth harp and the harmonica and sang in the church choir. Although he was not an especially talented or passionate musician as a boy, Acuff nevertheless insisted that music–his father's fiddle playing in particular–made a lasting impression on him. "Those tones in the wee hours of the morning just before daylight, before we went out to feed, it was something," he recalled. "It built something in me that I have never forgotten."
For grammar school, Acuff attended Maynardville's local two-room schoolhouse, where he was a self-described "terror" of a student, often suffering beatings, sometimes quite vicious, at the hands of his teachers. After taking several years off from school to work on the family's farm and at a local rock quarry, a 16-year-old Acuff and his family moved from Maynardville to Fountain City, a Knoxville suburb, where he attended Fountain City Central High, eventually graduating in 1924, around the time he turned 21 years old. At the behest of one of his teachers, a Miss Gresham, Acuff sang regularly at chapel and acted in nearly all of the school plays. "She has meant more and more to me as the years have passed," Acuff said of his teacher. "She forced me to do things. She knew I could do them, but I was shy."
Still, young Acuff's greatest passion was sports. He earned 13 varsity letters as a star football, basketball and baseball player for the Central High Bobcats. During the years after he graduated, Acuff worked several part-time jobs—as a levelman for a surveying team, as a railroad callboy and as shoe-shiner—while playing semi-professional baseball and attempting to work his way up to the majors. Although he showed star potential as pitcher and attracted the notice of some Major League scouts, in the summer of 1929 Acuff suffered a severe sunstroke in the middle of a game; after fainting again on several other occasions, he was forced to give up his dreams of a baseball career. Acuff recalled, "I reckon the good Man up above said, 'Roy, you're not gonna play baseball—you're gonna do something else,' so He knocked me down with a sunstroke."
Confined to the indoors for most of the next two years by his health problems, Acuff dedicated himself to learning to play the fiddle and improving his singing voice, inspired by the music of John Carson, Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers. When he finally regained full health in 1932, Acuff joined Doc Hauer's Medicine Show as part of a traveling musical act to sell "Moc-a-Tan Elixir."
Acuff married his longtime wife, Mildred Douglas Acuff, in 1936. They remained married for 45 years until her death in 1981.
Upon his return to Knoxville later that year, Acuff started a country music band called the Tennessee Crackerjacks; within a few years, they had gained an impressive local following and become fixtures on local radio programs. Changing their name to the Crazy Tennesseans, in 1936 Acuff and his band recorded several songs for the American Record Company, including their first big hit, "The Great Speckled Bird." But Acuff's big break came in 1938 when he and the Crazy Tennesseans were invited to perform on Grand Ole Opry, a weekly Nashville stage show that was broadcast live over the radio on Saturday nights&emdash;by far the country's most popular and prestigious country music program. The performance was so well received that Acuff was immediately asked to become a regular performer and soon became the show's most popular act. Renaming themselves once again as the Smokey Mountain Boys, Acuff's band recorded many of their most enduring country music hits during the late 1930s early 1940s, including "Wasbash Cannonball," "Wreck on the Highway," "Pins and Needles" and "Night Train to Memphis." In 1940, Acuff played the starring role in the film Grand Ole Opry, which featured many of the show's performers.
During World War II, Acuff spent several years traveling the globe to perform for American troops overseas. Upon his return to Tennessee, Acuff, who came from a political family and had always maintained an interest in politics, decided to run for governor. He received the Republican nomination in 1948 and waged a campaign in which he promised to govern based on the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments. Although he lost by a two-to-one margin in the general election, the result was actually rather impressive for a Republican candidate in the then-heavily Democratic state. While continuing to perform nearly every weekend on Grand Ole' Opry, Acuff also recorded at a prolific rate throughout the late 1940s and 1950s. His biggest hits from this period included "Lonely Mound of Clay," "It Won't Be Long," "I Called and Nobody Answered," "Tennessee Waltz," "I'll Always Care" and "Black Mountain Rag."
In 1962, Roy Acuff became the first living member inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. When the Vietnam War escalated several years later, Acuff once again dedicated the better part of several years to performing in USO shows for American troops overseas. Although his recording output slowed significantly during the 1960s and 1970s, Acuff nevertheless scored several hit singles, such as "Freight Train Blues," "Just a Friend" and "Back in the Country."
Despite his advanced age and deteriorating sight and vision, Acuff continued to perform every weekend at Grand Ole Opry right up until his dying days. "I'll never quit," Acuff once said. "I love the roar of the crowd." He passed away in Nashville on November 23, 1992 at the age of 89.
Aptly known as "The King of Country," Roy Acuff was one of the greatest and most influential country musicians of all time. Acuff's plaque at the Country Music Hall of Fame sums up his legacy: "The Smoky Mountain Boy ... fiddled and sang his way into the hearts of millions the world over, often times bringing country music to areas where it had never been before. 'The King of Country Music' ... has carried his troupe of performers overseas to entertain his country's armed forced at Christmas time for more than 20 years. Many successful artists credit their success to a helping hand and encouraging word from Roy Acuff." However, Acuff himself cared more about his legacy as a human being than his legacy as a musician. "I'd like to be remembered as a man who went to heaven and not another place," he said in an interview near the end of his life. "I hope to join my wife some day."
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