As a country music singer, he is best remembered as the “King of Country Music” and is often credited with moving the genre from its early string band and “hoedown” format to the star singer-based format that helped make it internationally renowned. He was a prolific songwriter and established Acuff-Rose Publishing that held the rights to a multitude of songs which were hits. Acuff-Rose signed acts such as Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, Don Gibson, John D Loudermilk, Boudleaux & Felice Bryant, Redd Stewart, Roy Orbison, and the Everly Brothers and Pee Wee King’s “Tennessee Waltz.”. In 1952 Hank Williams told Ralph Gleason this about Roy Acuff, “He’s the biggest singer this music ever knew. You booked him and you didn’t worry about crowds. For drawing power in the South, it was Roy Acuff, then God.”
His parents are Simon E Neill Acuff who was born 1877 and died in 1943 and Ida Carr Acuff who was born 1879 and died in 1969. His siblings included Paul Briscoe Acuff 1900-1984 and Claude Acuff 1909-1971.
He was born Roy Claxton Acuff, the third of five children, into a musical family. His father was a Baptist preacher and accomplished fiddle player and his mother played the piano. During his early years, the Acuff house was a popular place for local gatherings and at these events, he would often amuse people by balancing farm tools on his chin. He also learned to play harmonica and jaw harp at a young age. The Acuffs were a fairly prominent Union County, Tennessee family. Roy’s paternal grandfather, Coram Acuff, had been a Tennessee state senator, and Roy’s maternal grandfather was a local physician. The talent was passed through to Roy’s father and mother, and himself.
In 1919 his family relocated to Fountain City (now a suburb of Knoxville), Tennessee, where he attended Central High School and sang in the school chapel’s choir as well as performing in school plays. His primary passion was athletics and he was a three-sport standout at Central, and after graduating in 1925, he was offered a scholarship to Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee, but turned it down.
He played with several small baseball clubs around Knoxville, worked at odd jobs, and occasionally boxed. In 1929 he tried out for the Knoxville Smokies, a minor-league baseball team then affiliated with the New York (now San Francisco) Giants. After a series of collapses in spring training following a sunstroke, ended his baseball career prematurely and the effects left him ill for several years to the point where he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1930. Not only was he attracted to the sport of baseball, he had a penchant for fighting – after his family moved to Knoxville, he was frequently arrested for fighting.
While recovering, he took up the fiddle, often playing on the family’s front porch in late afternoons after the sun went down. His father gave him several records of regionally-renowned fiddlers, such as ‘Fiddlin’ John Carson and Gid Tanner, which were important influences on his early style. In 1932 he hired on with Dr. Hauer’s Medicine Show as one of its entertainers where he met legendary Appalachian banjoist Clarence Ashley, from whom he learned “The House of the Rising Sun” and “Greenback Dollar,” both of which he later recorded.
In 1934 he left the medicine show circuit and began playing at local shows with various musicians in the Knoxville area. That year, guitarist Jess Easterday and Hawaiian guitarist Clell Summey joined Acuff to form the Tennessee Crackerjacks, which performed regularly on Knoxville radio stations WROL and WNOX. Within a year, the group had added bassist Red Jones and changed its name to the Crazy Tennesseans. The popularity of his rendering of the song “The Great Speckled Bird” helped the group land a contract with the American Record Company, for whom they recorded several dozen tracks (including the band’s best-known track, “Wabash Cannonball”) in 1936 and 1937 before leaving over a contract dispute.
Acuff headed north to Chicago for a recording session, which resulted in 20 different songs. In addition to “The Great Speckled Bird,” he recorded “Steamboat Whistle Blues” and “The Wabash Cannonball,” another Tennessee standard that featured the singer imitating the sound of a train whistle; he also made a handful of risqué numbers during these sessions, which were released under the name the Bang Boys.
In 1938 the Crazy Tennesseans relocated to Nashville, Tennessee to audition for the Grand Ole Opry and they were offered a contract. He changed the group’s name to the “Smoky Mountain Boys,” referring to the mountains near where he and his bandmates were raised. Shortly after the band joined the Opry, Clell Summey left the group, and was replaced by dobro player Beecher (Pete) Kirby, or “Bashful Brother Oswald.” His powerful lead vocals and Kirby’s dobro playing and high-pitched backing vocals gave the band its distinctive sound. By 1939, Jess Easterday had switched to bass to replace Red Jones, and Acuff had added guitarist Lonnie “Pap” Wilson and banjoist Rachel Veach to fill out the band’s line-up.
Within a year, Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys rivaled long-time Opry banjoist Uncle Dave Macon as the troupe’s most popular act. In 1940 he and his band traveled to Hollywood, California, where they appeared in the motion picture “Grand Ole Opry.” He also appeared in several subsequent B-movies, including “O, My Darling Clementine” (1943), in which he played a singing sheriff, and “Night Train to Memphis” (1946), the title of which comes from a song he recorded in 1940.
In 1943, Acuff was initiated into the East Nashville Freemasonic Lodge in Tennessee and he would remain a lifelong member. Later that same year, Acuff invited Tennessee Governor Prentice Cooper to be the guest of honor at a gala held to mark the nationwide premier of the Opry’s Prince Albert show. Cooper rejected the offer, however, and lambasted Acuff and his “disgraceful” music for making Tennessee the “hillbilly capital of the United States.” A Nashville journalist reported the governor’s comments to Acuff, and suggested Acuff run for governor himself. While Acuff initially did not take the suggestion seriously, he did accept the Republican Party nomination for governor in 1948.
In 1942 he and songwriter Fred Rose formed Acuff-Rose Publishing Company. He originally sought the company in order to publish his own music, but soon realized there was a high demand from other country artists, many of whom had been exploited by larger publishing firms. Due in large part to Rose’s ASCAP connections and gifted ability as a talent scout, Acuff-Rose quickly became the most important publishing company in country music. In 1946, the company signed country singer Hank Williams, and in 1950 published their first major hit, Patti Page’s rendition of “Tennessee Waltz”.
Later that year, he left the Grand Ole Opry after a management dispute. In 1948 he made an unsuccessful run for the governor of Tennessee on the Republican ballot. He then spent several years touring the Western United States, although demand for his appearances dwindled with the lack of national exposure and the rise of musicians such as Ernest Tubb and Eddy Arnold, who were more popular with younger audiences. He eventually returned to the Opry however, by the 1960s, his record sales had dropped off considerably.
After nearly losing his life in an automobile accident outside of Sparta, Tennessee in 1965, he contemplated retiring, making only token appearances on the Opry stage and similar shows, and occasionally performing duos with long-time bandmate Bashful Brother Oswald. In 1972 his career received a brief resurgence in the folk revival movement after he appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” paving the way for one of the defining moments of his career, which came on the night of March 16, 1974, when the Opry officially moved from the Ryman Auditorium to the Grand Ole Opry House at Opryland, Tennessee. The first show at the new venue opened with a huge projection of a late-1930s image of Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys onto a large screen above the stage. A recording from one of the band’s 1939 appearances was played over the sound system, with the iconic voice of Opry founder George Hay introducing the band, followed by the band’s performance of “Wabash Cannonball”. Here is the access to his 1940 rendition of “Wabash Cannonball” on youtube (you will have to click on the link to go to youtube because the embed feature has been disabled):
Roy Acuff was called the King of Country Music, and for more than 60 years he lived up to that title. If any performer embodied country music, it was Roy Acuff. Throughout his career, Acuff was a champion for traditional country values, enforcing his beliefs as a performer, a music publisher, and as the Grand Master of the Grand Ole Opry. Acuff was the first country music superstar after the death of Jimmie Rodgers, pioneering an influential vocal style that complemented the spare, simple songs he was performing. Generations of artists, from Hank Williams to George Jones, have been influenced by Acuff, and countless others have paid respect to him. At the time of his death in 1992, he was still actively involved in the Grand Ole Opry, and was as popular as ever.
The beginning of the 1980s was a difficult period for Acuff, as he experienced the death of his wife and several longtime band members, including pianist Jimmie Riddle and fiddler Howdy Forrester. In 1987, he released his final charting record that was an inspirational duet with Charlie Louvin called “The Precious Jewel.”
In the 1980s, after the death of his wife, Mildred (Mildred Louise Douglas Acuff 1914-1981) he moved into a house on the Opryland grounds and continued performing. He arrived early most days at the Opry, performing odd jobs, such as stocking soda in backstage refrigerators. In 1991, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts and given a lifetime achievement award by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the first Country music artist to receive the esteemed honor. Additionally, in 1962 he became the first living inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Two museums have been named in his honor, the Roy Acuff Museum at Opryland and the Roy Acuff Union Museum and Library in his hometown of Maynardville. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 1541 Vine Street. He died of congestive heart failure in Nashville, Tennessee at the age of 89.
During his musical career, he recorded a total of 43 albums (from 1949 to 1987) and 20 singles (from 1936 to 1989). One son, Roy Neill Acuff was born 1943; and died in 2015. Roy Claxton Acuff is buried at Spring Hill Cemetery at Nashville, Davidson County, Tennessee. He rests in a plot in Hill Crest Garden.
What is so interesting about Roy Claxton Acuff is his kin to our Isbell line through his mother Ida Carr Acuff.
Ida Carr’s parents were: Alonzo Willett Carr born 1855 and Mary Paralee Sharp
Roy Acuff’s descent from Zachariah Isbell:
Zachariah Isbell born circa 1722 and wife Elizabeth Polly Miller. Zachariah Isbell and Elizabeth Polly Miller had a daughter Lovisa Isbell.
Lovisa Isbell was born 21 November 1743 in Charleston, Dorchester County, South Carolina and died 6 April 1808 in Jonesborough, Washington County, Tennessee. She married John Carr, a soldier of the Revolutionary War, in 1756 in Charleston, Dorchester County, South Carolina. John Carr was born 1737 or 1743 in Charleston, Dorchester County, South Carolina and died in 1818 in Washington County, Tennessee. His birth is given as 10 or 19 Jan 1737 by some researchers and as 21 Nov 1743 by other researchers. His death is given as 6 April or 11 June 1818 by other researchers. John Carr and Lovisa Isbell Carr are buried at Carr-Crumley-Krouse Cemetery in Jonesborough, Washington County, Tennessee.
Ralph Bolton Carr made application to DAR on the Revolutionary War service of John Carr, husband of Lovisa Isbell Carr, as a fourth-great-grandson of John Carr. John Carr’s service is documented in the South Carolina Archives as having served in Captain Thomas Woodward’s 8th Company of Rangers under Col William Thompson, and also having served later in Col William Thompson in the 3rd Regiment of South Carolina. John Carr’s Revolutionary service is documented through the genealogical line as provided by 1) the family Bible, 2) the family Bible in possession of Mrs Peter Naher (who is the aunt of Ralph Bolton Carr) of Johnson City, Tennessee, by by the Will of Alfred Carr, 3) by the family Bible in possession of Mr Paul Carr (uncle of Ralph Bolton Carr) in Johnson City, Tennessee and marriage records of Washington County on page 44 Marriage Records 1787-1840 by Mullins, 4) by Willis of Washington County, Tennessee, Book 1, page 302 of Richard Carr, and 5) Will Book 1, page 166 Will of John Carr, Washington County Will, State of Franklin DAR Publication.
The descent of Roy Claxton Acuff continues with the son of Lovisa Isbell and John Carr through their son John Carr who married Dorcas McCubbin. One of the children of John and Dorcas McCubbin Carr was James McCubbin Carr.
James McCubbin Carr was born 5 February 1801 in Claiborne County, Tennesssee and died 8 September 1889 in Union County, Tennessee. He was amarried to Sarah Sallie Rogers and one of their seven known children was Richard Jackson Carr. Richard Jackson Carr was born 26 February 1826 in Claiborne County, Tennessee and died 12 February 1899 in Maynardville, Union County, Tennessee. Some give his death year 1889, but it is likely that 1899 is correct. His burial place has not with certainty known. Richard Jackson Carr married Nancy Ann Marshall and one of their sons was Alonzo Willet Carr.
Alonzo Willet Carr was born 1 July 1855 in Union County, Tennessee and died 2 July 1933 n Clinton, Anderson County, Tennessee. He was laid to rest in Knoxville, Knox County, Tennessee. Alonzo W Carr married Mary Paralee Sharp and they had seven known children: Ormiston T Carr born 1876, Charles A Carr born 1877, James Carr born 1883, Ollie Carr born 1883, Nellie M Carr born 1891, Trula F 1896 and Ida Florence Carr. Ida Carr was born 21 October 1879 and died 17 September 1969 in Nashville, Davidson, Tennessee.
Ida Florence Carr and Rev Simon Ed Neill “Eddy”Acuff were married 25 September 1898 in Union County, Tennessee, USA, likely in Maynardville. By 1930 they were living in Knoxville, Tennessee. and later located to Nashville. There may have been a good reason for that re-location. Their known children were: Paul Briscoe Acuff 1900-1984, Nancy Juanita Acuff 1901-1985, Roy Claxton Acuff 1903-1992, Susie Lee Acuff 24 September 1905-22 December 1990, and Claud R Acuff 1910-1971. Nancy Juanita Carr married Harstell D Phillips. Susie Lee Acuff married Robert L Allen.
Roy Acuff’s ancestors with the surname Isbell included many Revolutionary War Soldiers and veterans of many of wars and boatloads of Ministers of the Gospel. The state of Tennessee was founded by Zachariah Isbell. He was a member of the Watauga Settlement and among the original 13 Commissioners who set up the settlement. Zachariah and many other Isbell kin were at King’s Mountain and some of the fiercest and most pivotal battles of the Revolution.
And the beat goes on with talent of the musical variety in our local Isbell family in northwestern Alabama. A local Isbell relative, Jason Isbell. He earned two Grammies this year. His group is known as Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.
Isbell cousin, Roy Acuff seems to have been the first to record “The House of the Rising Sun.” His rendition dates back to 1938.
Hmmm, the Crackerjacks are not just Tennessean, but Alabamian, too.