He was a country music singer-songwriter dubbed “The King of Country Music” who was born in Maynardville, Tennessee, into a family where his father was a Baptist preacher and fiddler and his mother was a pianist. He was introduced to music from family gatherings at a very young age and first learnt to play the Jew’s harp and harmonica.
He moved to Fountain City, Tennessee, with his family in 1919 and performed in all the productions and sang in the chapel choir while at high school there. That wasn’t his first love though as he excelled at athletics to the point that Carson-Newman offered him a scholarship which he turned down. He did, however, continue to box every now and again as well as play baseball in between odd jobs.
The Knoxville Smokies asked him to try out for their baseball team in 1929 but after he had collapsed several times following sunstroke, his ability to pursue this career further was halted and caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown the following year. Unable to stand the sun for a while he started to concentrate on playing the fiddle in the evening to improve his performance abilities.
After his recovery he joined Dr. Hauer’s Medicine Show as an entertainer in 1932 and during his time there he learned to sing a lot louder than normal as he had to make himself heard over the crowd noise. He found this helped him after he had left the show in 1934 and formed the trio Tennessee Crackerjacks, which became a staple on the WROL and WNOX radio stations in Knoxville. He had added a bassist by the following year, changed their name to the Crazy Tennesseans and managed to gain a contract with ARC partly due to his popular rendition of “The Great Speckled Hen”.
They briefly recorded under the name The Bang Boys but left ARC over a dispute with their contract in 1937. The next year, using their original name of the Crazy Tennesseans they decided to go to Nashville. They auditioned twice for the Grand Ole Opry and after being successful they started a new contract using the new name The Smokey Mountain Boys. After a few months they became one of the top acts and from 1939 Roy was the host of the Prince Albert part of the Opry shows, but after a dispute with the management he left that side of it in 1946.
Hollywood beckoned and he and the group performed in the 1940 Grand Ole Opry. Roy later went on to have roles in 1943’s O, My Darling Clementine, 1946’s Night Train to Memphis and 1949’s Harmony Inn among others.
He formed Acuff-Rose Music with the songwriter Fred Rose in 1942 in order to publish his music but the company soon expanded when they began publishing music written by other country music artists. Soon they were one of the most sought after publishing companies and added Hank Williams to their books in 1946.
In 1948 he accepted the Republican nomination for governor after a suggestion by a Nashville journalist but he was unsuccessful against Gordon Browning.
The publishing company achieved their first big hit in 1950 with “Tennessee Waltz” sung by Patti Page and Roy went on to spend much of the next few years on tour even though his popularity was starting to wane due to the newer musicians on the scene.
He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1962 and made a return to the Opry, but after his record sales started dwindling and he had a very serious road accident in 1965 he went into a semi-retirement where he just made occasional appearances.
In the 1970s he regained some of his popularity thanks to an appearance on Will the Circle Be Unbroken recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. This was followed by the evening of 16th March 1974 when the Opry’s move to Opryland from the Ryman Auditorium started with a projection of him and the Smokey Mountain Boys on a big screen accompanied by a performance of “Wabash Cannonball” which they made in 1939. The guest of honour was President Nixon whom he asked to perform on the piano as well as showing him how to play with a yo-yo. Five years later the Roy Acuff Theatre was opened at Opryland in his honour and remained there until the building had to be demolished in 2011.
He continued to perform at Opryland during the 1980s and after his wife, Mildred, passed away he moved into a house on the grounds and carried on with his stage appearances as well as doing odd jobs, even though his was in his 80s by now.
When the 1990s came around he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and received the National Medal of Arts in 1991.
The following year, when he was 89 years old, he passed away at home in Nashville after suffering congestive heart failure. He leaves behind a legacy of at least 40 of his own albums, two museums in his name and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Roy Acuff Recordings
The Old Age Pension Check (Roy Acuff)
The Wabash Cannonball (Traditional American/A.P. Carter/William Kindt )