Roy Acuff, the legendary singer, fiddler, and promoter who was known as the King of Country Music, passed away on November 23, 1992, at the age of 89. He died of congestive heart failure at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, after being hospitalized several times in recent months. His death marked the end of an era for country music, as he was one of the most influential and beloved figures in the genre’s history.
Early Life and Career
Roy Claxton Acuff was born on September 15, 1903, in Maynardville, Tennessee, to a musical and prominent family. His father was a Baptist preacher and a fiddler, and his mother played the piano. Acuff grew up listening to old-time music and learned to play the harmonica and the jaw harp at an early age. He also had a talent for balancing farm tools on his chin, which he later used as a stage gimmick.
Acuff was an avid athlete and played baseball, football, and basketball in high school. He turned down a scholarship to Carson-Newman University and pursued a career in sports. He played semi-professional baseball for several teams in Knoxville and even tried out for the New York Yankees. However, his dreams of becoming a professional athlete were shattered when he suffered a sunstroke in 1929, which affected his health for the rest of his life.
During his recovery, Acuff devoted himself to music and learned to play the fiddle. He joined a traveling medicine show and performed as a singer and comedian. He also formed his own band, the Tennessee Crackerjacks, which later became the Smoky Mountain Boys. He developed a distinctive style of singing and playing, influenced by the Appalachian folk music and the blues.
Rise to Fame and Influence
Acuff’s big break came in 1936, when he recorded his first hit song, “The Great Speckled Bird”, a gospel tune that he learned from his grandfather. The song was a controversial choice, as it was considered too sacred for commercial use, but Acuff insisted on recording it. The song became a staple of his repertoire and a classic of country music.
In 1938, Acuff joined the Grand Ole Opry, the most prestigious radio show for country music at the time. He soon became the show’s biggest star, drawing huge crowds and fan mail. He performed songs that resonated with the rural and working-class audiences, such as “The Wabash Cannonball”, “The Precious Jewel”, “Wreck on the Highway”, and “Night Train to Memphis”. He also introduced props and costumes to his act, such as a coonskin cap, a train whistle, and a yo-yo.
Acuff was not only a performer, but also a promoter and a businessman. In 1942, he co-founded Acuff-Rose Music, the first major Nashville-based country music publishing company, with songwriter and producer Fred Rose. The company signed and nurtured many talented artists, such as Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, and the Everly Brothers. Acuff also helped establish the Country Music Association and the Country Music Hall of Fame, of which he was the first living inductee in 1962.
Acuff’s influence on country music was immense and lasting. He was widely respected and admired by his peers and successors, who regarded him as a mentor and a role model. He was also one of the first country artists to cross over to other genres and media, such as pop, gospel, film, and television. He received numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Roy Acuff Cause of Death and Legacy
Acuff continued to perform and record until his late 80s, despite his declining health. He made his last appearance on the Grand Ole Opry on November 7, 1992, just two weeks before his death. He died peacefully in his sleep on November 23, 1992, surrounded by his family and friends. He was buried at Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee.
Acuff’s death was mourned by the country music community and the nation. His fellow country stars paid tribute to him with songs and speeches. President George H. W. Bush issued a statement, saying, “Roy Acuff was a true American legend. He helped make country music a worldwide force. He will be missed, but his music will live on.” The Grand Ole Opry held a memorial service for him, which was attended by thousands of fans and broadcast live on television and radio.
Acuff’s legacy lives on in his music, his company, and his institutions. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential figures in country music history. He is also remembered as a generous and humble man, who never forgot his roots and his fans. He once said, “I’ll never be worth a damn until I can walk out in front of a crowd of 10,000 people and feel as comfortable as I do in my own living room.”
According to Wikipedia, Acuff was known as the King of Country Music, and was credited with moving the genre from its early string band and hoedown format to the singer-based format that helped make it internationally successful. According to the Tennessean, Acuff was the biggest star of the Grand Ole Opry, and he never got above the common people. According to Country Thang Daily, Acuff left a lasting legacy for country music, as he was one of the first country artists to cross over to other genres and media.