It was on November 23, 1992 that Country Music Hall of Fame member and Grand Ole Opry member Roy Acuff passed away in Nashville, one month after making his final appearance on the Opry. It can be said that Roy was the Opry and in many ways, he was the guiding force behind the Opry. His role cannot be understated and when we look at where the Opry has gone since he passed away, we all realize how much Roy is missed. It is safe to assume that many of the changes we have seen at the Opry since he has passed away would not have happened if he were still alive.
Roy was called "The King of Country Music" for a reason. You want to know how popular he was during his heyday? Toward the end of World War II, Japanese soldiers in the Pacific would try to psych out the American Marines by yelling, "To hell with Franklin Roosevelt! To hell with Babe Ruth! To hell with Roy Acuff! In San Diego, soldiers and sailors would hold "Roy Acuff contests," in which the object was to see who could do the best imitation of the singer. His records were so popular that the government had to issue them on V-discs so overseas troops could hear his hits. It was not unusual for 15,000 fans to show up at one of his concerts, and it was not unusual to see his name ranked with Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman in popularity polls among servicemen.
Contemporary fans who were used to seeing Roy Acuff as the stately, white-haired elder statesman of the Grand Ole Opry many have wondered what all the fuss was about and whether his popularity was the result of Opry hype. It wasn't. Acuff was country music's first great stylist after the death of Jimmie Rodgers and was a major influence on younger singers like Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and George Jones. Though he had only several modest hits from 1950 o, his longtime presence on the Grand Ole Opry gave him a platform from which he continued to influence country music: as a publisher, a media pioneer, a spokesman and, in later years, a defender of older traditions and performers. His nickname, "The King of Country Music," may sound a bit old-fashioned, but in many ways, it was very accurate.
Roy was born on September 15, 1903 in Maynardsville, Tennessee, and yes, he was from the Smoky Mountains. He was born in a small house and his father was a lawyer and a preacher at the local Baptist church. His father taught him to play the fiddle, but Roy was more interested in baseball. He was also known as a fighter and got himself into trouble more than a few times. He was offered a baseball tryout but in 1929, on a trip to Florida, he suffered severe sunstroke. While recovering, he practiced and improved his skills on the fiddle and went to work with a local medicine show man, Doc Hauer. Working with Doc, he learned show business, including comedy and doing imitations, including that of a train whistle. He also learned to do tricks, including balancing things on his nose.
He proceded to get a job at Knoxville's WROL radio with a local band called The Tennessee Crackerjacks, later to be called "The Crazy Tennesseans." They were basically a local group until their big break in 1936. Roy and band member Red Jones met up with a young Bible student named Charley Swain, who had been featuring a gospel song called "The Great Speckled Bird." Roy offered Charley 50 cents to write down the words of the song as as Charley moved away from the area, Roy started singing the song over WROL. In October of that year, they got a recording deal with the American Recording Company. In 1938, Roy and his band auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry and "The Great Speckled Bird" was one of the numbers that they did. Thousands of letters poured into WSM and the Opry and Roy became the Opry's newest star.
The name of his band was changed to The Smoky Mountain Boys, which was a more dignified name. Roy did not care for the sound of that group and in 1939, after some discussion among the members of the group, three of the members left. Among the replacements was Pete Kirby, known as "Brother Oswald." It was his dobro work that help to create the Roy Acuff sound. Late in 1939 he became the host of the NBC network portion of the Opry and even went to Hollywood and made a number of movies
The hits that followed became country classics. They included "The Precious Jewel," "Wreck on the Highway," "Fire Ball Mail," "Wait for the Light to Shine," "Two Different Worlds," "Night Train to Memphis," and of course the all time classic, "Wabash Cannonball." What was interesting about "Wabash Cannonball" was that Roy did not do the original vocals on the record, but instead Dynamite Hatcher did. Roy would not record the song with his vocals until 1947.
In 1942, Roy joined up with Fred Rose to open Acuff-Rose, the first modern publishing company to be based in Nashville. It was an instant success and they would sign everyone from Don Gibson to The Louvin Brothers to Hank Williams. When many country entertainers suffered through hard times in the 1950s, Acuff-Rose helped to keep Roy afloat. In 1962 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
While he experimented with different sounds, by the 1970s he had returned to his traditional mountain sounds. With his participation with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and many other country music old-timers in the great project, "Will the Circle be Unbroken," a brand new audience opened up for Roy.
Even though his health failed in his final years, he was still performing at the Opry almost every Friday and Saturday night right up until the time of his death. In those final years, Roy would usually host the 7:30 or 8:00 segments on the early Saturday show, right around the time when the Opry would start to come in after dark up here in Ohio. And in those days before line ups were announced ahead of time, 7:30 meant that it was time to turn the old AM transistor radio to 650 WSM to see if the Opry would come through the static and to listen to Roy Acuff sing the "Wabash Cannonball." Man, do I miss those days.
Like I said, the Opry has not been the same since Roy died. He was the anchor, it's symbol and it's compass. He helped to keep the show down to earth and he always remembered his roots.
He sang country music the way it was meant to be song. The Opry could use a Roy Acuff today.