This is the grave of Roy Acuff.
Born in 1903 in Maynardville, Tennessee to a fairly prominent family for that poor region of the South, Roy Acuff grew up surrounded by music. While his family were doctors and preachers and state legislators, they were also fiddlers and piano players. In 1919, his family moved to Fountain City, just outside of Knoxville. Acuff went to high school there and was involved in music programs in school. But he was really more of an athlete. He spent his years after high school working, boxing, and playing baseball. He tried out for the local minor league team that was an affiliate of the Giants, but got sunstroke while doing so. Collapsing on the field ended his athletic career, as it had long term effects and he avoided direct sunlight for several years. Instead, he started working on his fiddle skills. That turned out pretty well.
By 1932, Acuff started performing professionally in a medicine show, which was still pretty popular in that region. Basically, a grifter with phony medicines would travel around, entertain the crowds, and sell some liquids that might not kill you if you were lucky but would probably get you drunk at least. That was Acuff’s gig. While doing this, he met Clarence Ashley, an old-timey banjo player who much later would become somewhat well known for getting a young guy named Doc Watson to accompany him when the legendary folklorist Ralph Rinzler traveled to North Carolina. Anyway, Ashley taught Acuff a bunch of old-time songs that would later make up the core repertoire of one of the first big stars of country music. Acuff left the medicine show world in 1934 and became a leading musician in the Knoxville area. His band the Tennessee Crackerjacks played on radio shows, later changing their name to the Crazy Tennesseeans. Acuff’s loud and clear voice was very popular and it got them a recording contract with ARC and Acuff’s first releases. They recorded 20 sides for the company but it was a typically bad contract and they looked to get out of it.
This all led Acuff and his band to Nashville in 1938 to try out for a new show that was sweeping the South–the Grand Ole Opry. While they kind of bombed the first tryout, they managed a second and really impressed Opry impresario George D. Hay, who offered them a contract. Hay also told them to change their name to the Smoky Mountain Boys to represent the Appalachian region their music came from. The band went through some personnel changes and Acuff hired a friend of his from Knoxville to play the dobro, Pete Kirby, better known as Brother Oswald. Acuff and Oswald would define the sound of country music in the early 1940s and Acuff soon became the most popular act on the Opry, along with Uncle Dave Macon. It was during these years that Acuff recorded and released some of his most classic tracks–“Precious Jewel,” “Great Speckled Bird,” “Fireball Mail.” He starred in a whole bunch of bad movies, as was common for a lot of country musicians during these years, and traveled and played around the country.
By the late 40s, Acuff’s old-timey style was starting to go out of fashion. But he was a smart guy and was very interested in making money. In 1942, he had partnered with Fred Rose to create Acuff-Rose Music, the legendary publishing company that made the two men rich. Like most of the music industry through, well, basically all of time, the publishers and executives primarily specialized in stealing money from artists. Acuff-Rose promised a much more pro-musician company, cutting out the scumbags for a fair shake. Both very well-connected, Acuff-Rose became the most important Nashville publishing company by the late 1940s, signed Hank Williams in 1946, and published many of the biggest hits of the era. He also made money buying tourist properties. One of them was a cave. Dunbar Cave was a popular destination outside of Nashville, so Acuff bought it in 1948 and ran it until 1963. He sold it and eventually it became part of the Tennessee State Park system. In any case, Acuff’s business ventures and experiences on the road led to one of my favorite lines ever uttered. He once said, and I guess this could be a slight paraphrase, “If God created something better than cash, He would have named it cash.”
Acuff also got interested in politics. East Tennessee was always the home of the Republican Party, going all the way back to 1860. Acuff was a very active Republican. In 1943, Acuff invited Tennessee’ Democratic governor, Prentice Cooper, to be the guest of honor at an Opry event. Cooper publicly rejected this and lambasted Acuff and the Opry for making Nashville seem like a backwards hillbilly capital instead of a forward-thinking New South city. Acuff was furious. And so, even though he had no chance of winning during this period, he became Tennessee’s Republican nominee for governor in 1948. He only got about 1/3 of the vote.
By the 1950s and 1960s, Acuff’s career was in pretty significant decline. He played occasionally, recorded a bit with Brother Oswald, rejoined the Opry after a long time away, and nearly retired completely in 1965 after surviving a serious car accident. But in 1972, he was convinced to join a bunch of hippies and country music legends to record the great Will the Circle Be Unbroken album. For the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, he was the coup that really took that album over the top. Because those guys knew the Scruggs boys, they were able to recruit Earl to play the banjo. But then Earl Scruggs was an amazingly progressive man for a country star and he liked hippies. Once they got Scruggs locked in though, connections started going out to get Doc Watson, Jimmy Martin, Mother Maybelle Carter, and Merle Travis. Acuff was really skeptical, referring to the Dirt Band as “a bunch of long-haired West Coast boys,” which was not meant in a nice way. But Brother Oswald was on board too so Roy decided to go along. And his contributions–especially “Precious Jewel”–really make that album. Turns out that the one guy they couldn’t get to perform on the album was Bill Monroe, who despite his public persona was a very, very cranky and difficult man.
In the aftermath, Acuff became a sort of senior statesman of country music. He was the guest of honor when the Grand Ole Opry moved from the Ryman to the Opryland in 1974. Richard Nixon, who Acuff absolutely loved and had campaigned hard for in Tennessee, was there too and Acuff spent the evening teaching Nixon how to use a yo-yo. As an old man, he needed to stay busy. His wife died in the early 80s and Acuff actually moved to a small house on the grounds of the Opryland and spent his free time pitching in around the place to get everything ready, including stocking the fridge. He received a National Medal of Arts in 1991 and became the first country musician to receive the lifetime achievement award from the Kennedy Center. For that matter, he was the 4th person to be inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame, all the way back in 1962. The first three: Hank, Jimmie Rodgers, and Fred Rose. He died of heart failure in 1992.
Let’s listen to some of Roy’s greatest songs.
And sure, Acuff was a rock-ribbed Republican. But even he had to admit that Social Security was pretty great!
Roy Acuff is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee.
This grave post was made possible thanks to LGM reader contributions. As you can see, I really had fun with this one. I’ve been listening to Acuff for years, so it was genuinely exciting for me to visit. If you would like this series to visit other country musicians, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. As of writing, I happen to be listening to some Conway Twitty. He is in Gallatin, Tennessee while Townes Van Zandt is in Dido, Texas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.