Sunday, February 17, 2013

Roy Acuff's 75th Anniversary

This week will mark a special moment in the history of the Grand Ole Opry as it was 75 years ago this week, on February 19, 1938 that Roy Acuff became a regular performer on the Grand Ole Opry. While the Grand Ole Opry may or may not mark the occasion, I thought that it is an important enough milestone to mention.

Roy Acuff first appeared on the Opry in October 1937 but the appearance did not go well. David Cobb, a WSM announcer at the time said, "I sincerly did not want to say anything to hurt Roy's reputation, but I said the sonner he found another way to make a living, the better it would be for him." Pee Wee King also had some memories about Roy's early visit to the Opry, and in getting him to come back. "My manager, Joe Frank, was the one who gave Roy his first big boost. He contacted Roy and said, 'Man, you're missing the big boat. You don't have to be stuck in a little town like Knoxville. Come on down to Nashville. You can go national.' Roy was skittish about leaving Knoxville, especially since he'd been turned down by the Opry once."

Roy came back to Nashville and was offered another chance to audition for the show. This was on February 5, 1938 and David Stone picks up the story. "There was a gap in the program. Someone stopped too early or didn't show up. I crooked my finger at Roy. He came out and I introduced him, and Roy said he was going to sing 'The Great Speckled Bird.' Come Monday morning, the powers that be wanted to know who was the guy singing about the bird. But as the morning went on, the lanky guy who was head of our mail department called up and said, 'What are we going to do about all these letters coming about something to do with a bird?' We went down to the mail room and there were several stacks of mail just for Roy."

Roy Acuff also had some memories. "You didn't get on the Opry for singing a song or having a hit number. They didn't ask you if you ever recorded. They didn't care. You had to be a showman. The only way you could get on was to have something to show and prove it. When I came back, I was supposed to fiddle, and I did. But I sang 'The Great Speckled Bird' that night. The audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The next day, we had to be in Dawson Springs, Kentucky, then I went back to Knoxville, and in two weeks they sent my mail. It came in bushel baskets." Roy also said, "I was hired by the Opry as a fiddle player. Country music in the late 1930s was mostly instrumental. I never would have lasted as a fiddle player. I've stuck around all these years because of my singing."

At the time, the biggest stars on the Opry were the Delmore Brothers and it was through their request that David Stone offered Roy a spot on the Opry and WSM. The letter that David wrote back to Roy, dated February 10, 1938 said, "I am in receipt of your telegram that you will be here for programs starting the 19th. I will book you for a spot on the Grand Ole Opry, and also a series of 7:00 a.m. programs starting Monday February 21st.

When Roy came to the Opry, his band was called the Crazy Tennesseans. The group included Clell Summery, Jess Easterday, Imogene Sarrett and Red Jones. Because of the objections of David Stone, Roy changed the name of his group to the Smoky Mountain Boys.

What is also interesting about Roy coming to the Opry is that Harry Stone was the person who actually hired Roy, and not George D. Hay. Hay was on leave from the show in 1937 and early 1938 and during the time he was gone, Harry Stone took over active management of the Opry and began to hire professional entertainers for the show. Those included Curly Fox and Texas Ruby and Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys. What is interesting is that when Hay returned to the show he would constantly have disagreements with Pee Wee over the western style music that he played, along with the slick presentation that his group had, and with Roy. Hay's issue with Roy is simply that he felt Roy was not good enough to be on the Opry, and he had already been turned down once.

While Roy has always been associated with the Grand Ole Opry, he did have his differences with the management, one of which led him to leaving the Opry in 1946. Roy made some salary demands to management, feeling that since he was the biggest star and host of the Prince Albert Show, he should be paid more than the others. Rather than give in to his demands, the Opry hired Red Foley to come in and take over the Prince Albert hosting spot and Roy left the Opry. Roy spent his time away from the Opry touring, and in 1947 after an extensive tour on the West coast, was was hospitalized in a Nashville hospital. Among his visitors were Harry Stone and Ernest Tubb. From Roy, "Harry said, 'Roy, the Opry is losing many of its people, and it looks like maybe we're going under if you don't come back and be with us. Come and help us out. We wish you would change your mind, and come back.' I replied, 'Harry, if I mean that much to WSM and the Grand Ole Opry, I will come back and to everything I can to help the Opry at all times.'"

When Roy did come back on April 26, 1947, it was not as the host of the Prince Albert show. Red Foley, who turned out to be very popular as that host, kept the slot and Roy was given the Royal Crown Cola segment to host. He also came back at a higher rate for his appearances than union scale. Roy would remain a member of the Grand Ole Opry until his death in November 1992, and as he said he would do, he did everything he could to help the Opry at all times.

In looking back to the February 19, 1938 show that marks Roy's hiring as an Opry performer, also appearing on the Opry that night were DeFord Bailey, Dr. Humphrey Bate, Crook Brothers, Delmore Brothers, Curly Fox and Texas Ruby, Fruit Jar Drinkers, Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys, the Gully Jumpers, Jack Shook and His Missouri Mountaineers, Lakeland Sisters, Robert Lunn, Kirk and Sam McGee, Uncle Dave Macon, Sarie and Sally, and theVagabonds, among others.

The Opry doesn't seem to spend much time looking back at it's history. I wish that they would as there are so many important events that have influenced where the show is at today. While the little 8 minute video that they show before the show is nice, they could do so much more. Pete Fisher and the group can start by making special mention of Roy Acuff and the 75th anniversary from when he joined the Grand Ole Opry. No man has influenced the show more and we could use some of that influence today.


  1. Byron,

    Thanks for rmembering such an important date in Opry history.

    I have probably said this too many times here but the Opry is becoming a reflection of our politically correct society which is turning away from our heritage and our history as if it is something to be ashamed of. Officially relecting on a man who was proud to be called hillbilly would not fit into the Opry's recent advancemnts on the "cool" scale. So, I won't hold my breath and wait for them to do anything official. If Eddie reminds enough folks like Jean Shepard or maybe Jimmy Dickens if he were to be back, they might mention it.

    As I recall, the last time Roy Acuff was a big deal to the Opry was in 2003 and that took the US Postal Service to make it happen. There was some publicity to be had for that.

    The Opry should also reflect on the tragedies of March 63 as well and maybe due to Patsy Cline that could happen. Don't take that as a statement of dislike for Patsy but I am always flustrated that Cope, Hawk and Randy are overlooked when the topic comes up. And Jack Anglin too!

    At least we remember and reflect here.

    Knightsville, IN

  2. Jim, Bill Anderson mentioned last night that he will be doing a program in the town near the plane crash and mentioned the four who died in the crash.

    Byron, great job on Mr. Acuff.

  3. Michael, I was listening and also enjoyed "When Two Worlds Collide" that Bill closed with. Camden, Tennessee is the small town. I just wonder if the Opry would officially do anything. A moment of silence to remember, just like they did the following weekend of the crash would be pretty classy. There is a great photo of that moment in Jack Hurst's large format book Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.

    Knightsville, IN

  4. I always found it interesting that the artist who would become the most important Opry star ever was not wanted by the people who ran the show. But when you think about it, their hesitancy regarding Roy makes sense when you consider that his act did not really fit the traditional Opry style of the time. I would surmise that part of the reason that Judge Hay and David Cobb did not think Roy was good enough for the Opry was that he was not a very good fiddler, and they probably thought that his powerful vocal delivery overshadowed the music. Of course, they were right on both counts, but what they did not realize was that Roy would lead the Opry to a level of popularity (and profitablity) that no one at WSM could have imagined. (Even had Judge Hay known this, he might have resisted bringing Roy on the show anyway, as the Judge favored the old-time string band sound and did not care for the stylistic changes that occurred on the show throughout the 1940s.) Harry Stone seems to have been the one person in the WSM hierarchy who perceived the need for the Opry to change directions if it were going to grow and survive over the long term.

    If Pete Fisher were smart, he would make a big deal of this anniversary. He could point to Roy Acuff as someone who broadened the audience of the Opry by changing the emphasis of the show, and he could try to tie that in to what he has been doing as Opry manager to broaden the Opry's audience. I don't know that he would be able to get people like me to buy into what he's doing, but it couldn't hurt for him to try to make the case.

    Oh, and I noticed one small detail that needs to be corrected. Dr. Bate could not have been on the Opry the night Roy joined the show, since he died in 1936.

  5. Say what they want, but Roy Acuff is the biggest Opry star ever.

    This is very much a historical milestone that should not only be honored by the Opry, but also by all of the Country Music world.

    It is hard to say for sure, but imagine the direction or the existence of Country Music had Roy Acuff not performed on the Opry on February 19, 1938 ! Would our beloved genre have grown to the power house it is today?

    This is the reason, "The King", still holds his crown in my opinion.

  6. Fred, Bismarck:

    Thanks to Byron and all for these inspired reflections. The King won't languish for lack of appreciation from this crowd!

    I boarded the Roy Acuff train only in the 1950s and think I never appreciated until lately what all the excitement was about in the beginning. I'd only dipped into his Columbia stuff, on a couple of vinyl reissues of marginal fidelity and/or questionable song selection.

    Recently, though, I picked up Columbia's "Essential" CD, which does a much better job on the sound and will really have you howling at the moon.

    What's needed now: the Bear Family treatment on this early, career-making material. (They did a great job on his Capitol, Decca and MGM sides.) Don't know what's taking so long; but Barry, I think it was, sounded a while back like they were working on it. Hope so.

    Happy Roy Acuff Day, everybody!

  7. Tim, thanks for pointing out my typo mistake. What I should have written was the his former group, The Possum Hunters were on that night. Sorry about that.

    Oh, and while the Opry will probably have nothing to say regarding the plane crash and the deaths of Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas, it will be remembered here.

  8. There will only EVER be one KING of Country Music. Long live Roy Acuff! I was at an Opry matinee once when I was about 15 sitting down in front of the stage. The curtain started coming down on the segment and Acuff looked squarely at me, waved and said "bye bye." Sent shivers down my spine and I've never forgotten it to this day. I fear that Acuff is lost on the young generation. He, along with Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow and Bill Monroe deserve every honor and museum display possible. (oldtimeopry)

    1. I would add Minnie Pearl to that list oldtimeopry. Even though, Minnie does get a little more attention than the others today.