1903 – 1992
The King of Country Music, otherwise known as Roy Acuff, reigned over the Grand Ole Opry for over 50 years. Acuff was known for his performances of “The Great Speckled Bird” and “Wabash Cannonball” and other country classics, as well as his presence as a showman, an essential fixture of the Opry, and a champion of classic country.
“I was one of the first fellas who reared back and hit a microphone with a strong voice. That got me my job. I never went for crooning.”Roy Acuff
Acuff’s country roots started in of Maynardsville, Tennessee in 1903, where he was born the son of the postmaster who doubled as the minister. Acuff’s original childhood aspirations were in sports, not music. He was an avid football, basketball and baseball player in his youth, earning 13 varsity letters in high school. During tryouts with the attention of major league baseball scouts, however, he suffered a sunstroke that changed his life forever.
While recovering, Acuff picked up the fiddle, an instrument he had heard around the house as his father was also a fiddle player. In 1932, he joined a touring musical group that played in the Appalachian region, where he developed both his fiddle playing and his signature booming voice.
In 1934, he returned to Knoxville and began performing on local radio stations. His local popularity with his band the Crazy Tennesseans built, and they auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry in 1938 and performed later that year. It was his rendition of “The Great Speckled Bird” that first endeared him to Opry listeners, and the amount of fan mail the Opry received for Acuff prompted them to offer him and his band, now named the Smoky Mountain Boys, a regular spot on the show.
His popularity surged and by 1943, when the governor of Tennessee declared country music as an embarrassment for the state, both the Democratic and Republican parties of the state entered Acuff as a protest candidate. This would not be the last time this happened—four years later Acuff ran for Governor, and while defeated, he had the support of many fans and Tennesseeans who saw him as more than a performer, but as an embodiment of country music and culture.
He continued to record in the 1950s and co-manage his successful publishing company, Acuff-Rose Music. When the Country Music Hall of Fame was created, Acuff was the first living person inducted in 1962.
The folk revival of the sixties created acts like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who while not closely aligned with Acuff’s clean-cut image, shared a respect for the music Acuff created and championed for many years. They recorded a tribute to classic country and hillbilly music in 1972, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” that Acuff contributed to.
For decades, he performed at the Grand Ole Opry nearly every weekend. He and Minnie Pearl became to be seen as an embodiment of the show itself. In addition to fiddling and singing, Acuff was also adept at the yo-yo, something he famously tried to teach President Nixon at the opening of the Grand Ole Opry House in 1974.
By the mid-1980s, Acuff’s health troubles started, causing diminishing hearing and eyesight, but he hardly slowed down, continuing to perform on the Opry. He even built a house next to the Grand Ole Opry House to make it easy to get to and from performances, as he was in his 80’s.
In 1992, Acuff passed away at the age of 89.
In addition to being an inductee at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Acuff also received Kennedy Center Honors, a National Medal of Art, and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy award. His indelible legacy lives on at the Grand Ole Opry in many ways, including greeting artists every night, as a giant portrait of Acuff is the first thing many artists see on entering through the Artist Entrance.