If Roy Acuff hadn't been born on this day 1903 in Maynardville, Tennessee, third of Ida Carr and Simon E. Neill Acuff's five children, Tennessee might not be the hillbilly capital of the world today.
Least, if you ask former Tennessee Governor Prentice Cooper, that might be so. Not that you could, 'cause Governor Cooper's dead. But stick with me here for a strange intersection of politics and country music, and of the Democratic and Republican parties in the American South.[jump]
Years before his run-in with Governor Cooper, Acuff was born into a prominent Union County family - his paternal grandfather had been a Tennessee state senator, and his maternal grandfather was a local physician. His father, an accomplished fiddler and Baptist preacher, and mother, proficient on the piano, put performing in young Roy's blood early on, but by the time the family relocated to the Knoxville area when Acuff was a teen, his interests turned to athletics. He tried out for the Knoxville Smokies, a minor league team for the New York (now San Francisco) Giants, but a series of sunstroke-induced collapses in spring training ended his baseball career, and left him ill for several years. At the age of 27, he suffered a nervous breakdown as a result. "I couldn't stand any sunshine at all," he'd later explain. Now, doesn't that sound like an old-timey ailment? Sunshine-induced nerves.
As he recovered, he honed his fiddle skills by playing on the family's front porch as the sun went down, and two years later he was recruited to play for Dr. Hauer's medicine show, a revue that toured the Southern Appalachian region hawking tonics and where Acuff was able to cut his teeth as a vocalist who could sing loud and clear enough to cut through a crowd, sans microphone. From there, he started playing local shows, then on local radio, and eventually landed on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, performing with a group named the Smoky Mountain Boys that soon became one of the Opry's most popular acts.
"Smoke on the Water," from O, My Darling Clementine
From the Opry Acuff went to Hollywood, where he not only appeared in a film about the Opry but also played parts in a number of B-movies, including O, My Darling Clementine, in which he played a singing sheriff. I mean, why not? This was the 1940s. Acuff began headlining Opry traveling tent shows throughout the American Southeast, and from 1939 to 1946 hosted the Opry's Prince Albert segment, a nationwide network radio show sponsored by the tobacco company of the same name.
In 1943, Acuff invited Tennessee Governor Prentice Cooper to be guest of honor at a gala celebrating the nationwide premier of the show. Cooper, a pro-segregationist Tennessee lawyer educated at Vanderbilt and Harvard, refused to appear, lambasting Acuff and his "disgraceful" music for making Tennessee the "hillbilly capital of the United States."
What words! A Nashville journalist, reporting Cooper's comments to Acuff, suggested he run for governor himself. The Republican Party jumped on the opportunity to capitalize on Acuff's popularity, and offered him the party's nomination for governor in 1948.
While he ultimately lost to his opponent, Democrat Gordon Browning, the Democratic Party feared Acuff's inclusion on the ballot would draw large crowds to Republican rallies and prop up other statewide candidates, which it did. Keep in mind, at this time the Republican Party formed a small minority in Southern politics - the party was less than one hundred years old, formed as a coalition of anti-slavery activists opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would have opened Kansas and Nebraska Territories to slavery and future admission as slave states.
A lot's changed in politics since then, but Governor Cooper was right; without Roy Acuff, country music may not have held the grip it holds still today on American music and culture, and its epicenter may not have continued to sit in Tennessee. While Acuff never enjoyed the popularity of performers like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and others, he and songwriter Fred Rose formed the publishing company Acuff-Rose Music in 1942, which supported and helped bolster the careers of countless important country artists over the years, from Williams, to the Everlys, to Roy Orbison. His career surged briefly with the popularity of the folk revival movement in the early 70s, after he appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, but otherwise, he was content to spend the rest of his years continuing to give life to the Opry, both onstage and off - he was known to arrive early most days to perform odd jobs, like stocking soda in backstage refrigerators.
After receiving the National Medal of Arts and being the first living person inducted to the County Music Hall of Fame, Acuff died in Nashville on November 23, 1992 of congestive heart failure, at the age of 89.
Happy birthday, Roy Acuff!