When I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s, Roy Acuff (1903-1992) was still considered an eminence in the field of country music — I mean, a living one, he was still performing at the Grand Ole Opry and doing guest shots on Hee Haw. My dad was from the Smoky Mountain region; relatives had seen him perform live. He was spoken of reverentially as one the founders of country music, somewhere after Jimmie Rodgers and before Ernest Tubb, Eddie Arnold, and Hank Williams.
Like a lot of those that came first, Acuff got his start performing in medicine shows in the early ’30, often singing and fiddling in the now rightly discredited blackface in the minstrel tradition.** He had originally been a minor league baseball player but during the 1929 season he’d caught a bad case of sunstroke, which made hill, both physically and psychologically, for years. During his period of recuperation, he hones his fiddle skills, originally taught to him by his dad, a Baptist preacher. (His mother was also musical; she played the piano).
In the mid ’30s, Acuff left the medicine shows and formed his band The Tennessee Crackerjacks, which then became The Crazy Tennesseeans, which then became The Smoky Mountain Boys (surely the model for the name of Flatt and Scrugg’s band The Foggy Mountain Boys, a decade later). Acuff had a really strong voice, due to the lack of amplification with the medicine show, and this made him really successful on radio. Live engagements and performances at local stations rapidly catapulted the band to stardom at the Grand Ole Opry — the top of their profession. One of their first hits was a version of the traditional “Wabash Cannonball”, a song I learned from my dad when I was a small child. The devotional “Great Speckled Bird” was another of their early hits.
In 1942, he formed counrty music’s most important song publishing company, Acuff-Rose, with Fred Rose, author of the tune “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”. Acuff had a hit with it in 1946, although you’re surely more likely to know Willie Nelson’s version, recorded three decades later. Hank Williams was one of the Acuff-Rose songwriters. In 1947, Acuff had a hit with Williams’ “I Saw the Light”. In 1949 he had a hit with “Tennessee Waltz”, a year before Patti Page’s better known version.
Throughout the 1940’s Acuff and his band appeared in Republic pictures, at roughly the rate of one a year. His films include Grand Ole Opry (1940) with the Weaver Brothers and Elviry; Hi Neighbor (1942) with Jean Parker; O My Darling Clementine (1943) with Frank Albertson; the all-star Cowboy Canteen (1944); Sing Neighbor Sing (1944); Night Train to Memphis (1946); Smoky Mountain Melody (1948) with Big Boy Williams; and Home in San Antone (1949). In the ’50s he began to do television, not just country-focused programs, but mainstream variety as well: you could see him on The Kate Smith Evening Hour, The Jimmy Dean Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Johnny Cash Show, Kraft Music Hall, Mike Douglas, Dinah, and as we mentioned, Hee Haw. Acuff was having hits on the country charts as late as the 1980s.
In 1979, the Roy Acuff Theatre opened at Opryland, sadly it was destroyed in a 2010 flood. In 1980 he had a cameo in the Loretta Lynn bio-pic Coal Miner’s Daughter.
To learn more about the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.