While George Strait is often referred to as the reigning King of Country Music, Grand Ole Opry legend Roy Acuff actually wore the same figurative crown for decades before him. Acuff, who died 24 years ago today at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital, was one of early country music’s first genuine superstars – a charismatic bandleader and emcee and a performer, writer and publisher of some of the most well-known songs of the 20th century. Acuff’s versatility as an entertainer included demonstrating his trademark yo-yo skills onstage as well as his ability to balance the bow of his fiddle on the end of his nose.
Born September 15th, 1903, in Maynardsville, Tennessee, just east of Knoxville in the Great Smoky Mountains, Roy Claxton Acuff was on track to become a pro baseball player, having tried out for the New York Yankees, but that dream was derailed by battles with sunstroke. He focused on his musical skills instead and formed his first band, the Crackerjacks, later renamed the Crazy Tennesseans. In 1936, the group’s first recordings included a version of the hymn “The Great Speckled Bird,” the melody of which had been used in the Carter Family’s “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” and would later be borrowed for Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life” and the Kitty Wells’ classic, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.”
Two years later, in 1938, Acuff would make his Grand Ole Opry debut, but in order to be invited back regularly, he was required to change his band’s name yet again, to something deemed more palatable to the public. For the remainder of his life, Acuff led the Smoky Mountain Boys, a group which would include (as seen in the above clip) Dobro player Beecher (Pete) Kirby, better known by his stage name, Bashful Brother Oswald, guitarist Charlie Collins, Howard “Howdy” Forrester on fiddle and harmonica player (and whistle replicator) Onie Wheeler. The group soon became one of the most popular Opry attractions, rivaling banjo-playing entertainer Uncle Dave Macon.
Another of Acuff’s 1936 recordings would soon be regarded his signature song, “Wabash Cannonball.” Also recorded earlier by the Carter Family, the mighty railroad tune was a perfect fit for Acuff’s powerful voice and superb band. Estimated to have sold more than 10 million copies, “Wabash Cannonball” is the oldest of songs on Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll” list. It was performed countless times on the Grand Ole Opry stage and on Acuff’s travels throughout the world. The above performance took place on the Grand Ole Opry House stage, where the CMA Awards would also originate for several years before moving to downtown Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
Such was Acuff’s popularity that in 1948, he accepted the Republican party’s nomination for governor of Tennessee, losing to Democratic nominee Gordon Browning. Although he left the Opry for several years, his return to the venerable institution included introducing beleaguered then-President Richard Nixon in March 1974, on the night the Opry relocated from the Ryman Auditorium to its current home.
Earlier this year, when Vince Gill celebrated his 25th Opry anniversary, he recalled the tears in Acuff’s aging eyes when he welcomed Gill to the radio show’s celebrated fold. Acuff succumbed to congestive heart failure at age 89, having already survived a near-fatal car accident in 1965 and having witnessed generations of younger acts and new musical directions in country music and on the Grand Ole Opry. But the “Wabash Cannonball” whistle still resonates today with the same propulsive fervor Acuff found in it some 80 years ago.