Just how popular was Roy Acuff during his heyday? In the latter days of World War II, Japanese soldiers in the Pacific would try to psych out American Marines by yelling taunts like, “To hell with Franklin Roosevelt! To hell with Babe Ruth! To hell with Roy Acuff!” Back in San Diego, soldiers and sailors from all over the country would hold “Roy Acuff contests,” in which the object was to see who could do the best imitation of the singer.
Acuff records were so popular that the government had to issue them on V-discs so overseas troops could hear hits like “Low and Lonely.” It was not unusual for 15,000 fans to show up at Acuff concerts, and not unusual to see the Acuff name ranking with Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman in popularity polls among servicemen. Nobody in the music business was really surprised to see Roy Acuff run for governor of Tennessee in 1948.
Modern fans who are used to seeing Roy Acuff as the stately, whitehaired elder statesman of the Grand Ole Opry may wonder what all the fuss is about and whether Acuff’s role is partially the result of Opry hype. It isn’t. Acuff was actually the music’s first great stylist after the death of Jimmie Rodgers and was a major influence on younger singers like Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and George Jones.
Though he’s had only three modest hits since 1950, his continual presence on the Grand Ole Opry gave him a platform from which he continued to influence country music: as a publisher, a media pioneer, a spokesman, and, in later years, a defender of older traditions and performers. His nickname, “The King of Country Music,” may sound a bit mawkish and oldfashioned, but, in many ways, it is remarkably accurate.
Acuff actually came from the Smoky Mountains. He was born in Maynardville, Tennessee, on September 15, 1903. He was born at home, “in a little three-room house,” he recalled, modest circumstances even though his father had attended a local college and served as a lawyer and as the preacher of the local Baptist church.
His father taught him to play the fiddle and sent him to an occasional church singing school, but as a teenager Roy was more interested in baseball and fighting. “There was nothing I loved as much as a physical fight,” he said, and though he was small for his age, he soon developed a reputation as a scrapper around Knoxville, where he’d moved. Old-timers still talk about a brawl in which Roy took on seven local policemen at a ballpark melee and wound up in jail.