It’s fair to say that singer Roy Acuff was one of the inventors of country music. He was among a handful of innovators who shifted the sounds of old-time mountain music into the popular sphere until it took over the national airwaves.
Acuff was born in 1903 in the little town of Maynardville, Tennessee. Growing up in nearby Fountain City, he enthusiastically sang in the choir and acted in school plays while planning for his career in baseball. He was at the stage of trying out for the minor leagues when a severe case of sunstroke ended his athletic hopes. While he was getting well, he passed the time by fiddling, imitating the sounds he admired on mountain music records his dad bought him.
By the 1930s, Acuff was playing regularly at in-person and radio gigs. He formed the Tennessee Crackerjacks with friends who played guitar and steel guitar. Acuff became well-known among local radio staff for his ability to sing louder than all the instruments combined. It was with that big, clear voice that Acuff would establish an important change in the music industry: he brought the focus of string-band music toward the singer, which thereby turned the band into the accompaniment rather than the feature.
As the decade wore on, the band changed its name to the Crazy Tennesseans and started recording. Two of their singles, “The Great Speckled Bird” and “Wabash Cannonball,” were genuine hits, remaining audience favorites throughout Acuff’s six-decade career.
Acuff made nearly 40 studio albums. One of the last to be released (1984) contains his earliest known recordings, Rounder Record’s Steamboat Whistle Blues: 1936-1939. The song “Steamboat Whistle Blues” is a 12-bar blues recorded in 1936 as a single on OKeh Records. (That’s one of those labels from the days when phonograph companies, in this case the Otto Heinemann Corporation, made their own records in order to help sell their hardware.) The arrangement features a guitar solo between each verse. The band used something – a jug, probably – to sound like a steamboat whistle at the end. Acuff is on both fiddle and vocals.
Next stop was the Grand Ole Opry. The band auditioned in 1938 and was hired by Opry founder George D. Hay on the condition that they change their name to Roy Acuff and His Smoky Mountain Boys. A more substantive change occurred in the band at this time, when slide guitar player Clell Summey quit the band and was replaced by a dobro player, Bashful Brother Oswald (the stage name of Beecher Kirby). That dobro sound became part of the band’s signature.
Another of Acuff’s lasting contributions to the country music scene stems from how seriously he took the need to document ownership of his music, both on vinyl and on paper. He and composer Fred Rose started Acuff-Rose Music Publishing in the early 1940s, and it flourished into the 1970s, largely because of its reputation for treating its writers well. The Acuff-Rose company also opened its own recording studio in the 1940s.
In addition to his enduring hits, Acuff put out some records that seem like oddities today. One of those is “Old Age Pension Check,” a fascinating piece of history from 1940, when the social protections put in place by the US Government in hopes of preventing another Great Depression were still new enough to be worth singing about.
Like many early country stars, Acuff’s musical output straddled bluegrass and gospel. He had great success whenever he focused on the latter, including the album Favorite Hymns, release in 1958 on MGM records.
It’s striking to hear the difference in performances of the song “Were You there When They Crucified My Lord,” comparing Acuff’s rousing version – the harmonica, fiddle, dobro, and standing bass pump it like a dance tune – with the slow, awe-struck interpretation by Johnny and June Carter Cash. Here’s Acuff, in what is certainly the more traditional mountain style.
Just for reference, here’s Cash, getting philosophical:
An interesting development in the early 1960s was the way the term “folk song” creeps into industry lingo, thanks to the folk revival then fomenting in Chicago and New York City. The 1963 Acuff album American Folk Songs is a case in point. His Smoky Mountain Boys – by this point that name is more of a trademark than a specific band – clocks in at eight players in addition to Acuff himself on fiddle.
Acuff sticks close to his traditional Appalachian roots on this album, even when choosing more recent songs. “Birmingham Jail” was written in the 1920s by Georgia-based duo Darby and Tarlton and enjoyed some success from other singers, ranging from Leadbelly to the Andrews Sisters. The waltz tune is also the melody for the traditional mountain song “Down in the Valley.”
They say one legend recognizes another, so a tribute album to a fellow founding father of country music was hardly a surprising development. In 1966, Hickory Records released Roy Acuff Sings Hank Williams. Although not as well remembered as Williams today, Acuff was just as important to the foundations of country music. He was only the fourth person ever inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (Williams was the first, of course), and the first living artist to receive that honor.
There a range of Williams’ hits represented on this homage, from “Mansion on the Hill” to “Jambalaya.” On the closing track, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” you get a particularly good comparison with Williams’ voice. It’s not just that Acuff’s pitch range is higher, but the emotions are more intense and at the surface. He also has a more straightforward melodic line than Williams, leaving out the line-ending yodel-like flips and ornamental turns found in the earlier recording.
Here’s the original Williams version:
At the age of 72, Acuff showed a remarkable willingness to expand his definition of country. His 1975 album Smoky Mountain Memories contains a wide range of songs, from “Waltz of the Wind,” which his old friend Fred Rose had written for Hank Williams in 1948, to a couple of 1960s numbers penned by Nashville writer Kallie Jean (aka Kallie J. Smith).
But then there’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” premiered by the young John Denver only four years previously. Here’s Acuff’s take on what must have seemed like a very modern song to his old Opry ears. The swinging banjo part gives it an Appalachian flavor.
Although Acuff didn’t do much recording in the last decade of his life, he never stopped performing. Newly widowed in 1982, he moved into a house on the Opryland grounds and performed at the theater every night. He died in 1992.