Though he was a good enough ball player to be invited to a major league training camp for a tryout, he suffered a severe sunstroke on a fishing trip to Florida in 1929. While recovering, he honed his skill as a fiddler and apprenticed himself to a local medicine show man, Doc Hauer. Here he learned show business: the comedy, the hucksterism, the way to work an audience. He did imitations—he had learned to do a neat train whistle while working as a railroad “call boy” as a teenager— and tricks that called for balancing things on his nose. These skills led to a job on Knoxville’s WROL with a local band called the Tennessee Crackerjacks.
An announcer later dubbed the band “the Crazy Tennesseans,” and soon they were playing $25 schoolhouse gigs all over east Tennessee. “Mostly, we fiddled and starved,” Roy remembered. All this changed one day in early 1936. Acuff and fellow band member Red Jones met up with a young Bible college student named Charley Swain, who had been working part-time as a radio singer. Swain had been featuring an unusual gospel song called “The Great Speckled Bird,” which both Red and Roy liked.
When Roy learned that Swain was moving and would not be singing the song in Knoxville anymore, he offered him 50 cents to write down the words. Swain agreed—though Jones recalled, “We had to borrow an extra quarter to pay him.”
Soon Acuff was singing the song over WROL; that October it landed them a recording deal with the American Recording Company. In 1938, when Acuff and his band were offered a chance to audition for the Grand Ole Opry, “Great Speckled Bird” was one of the songs he sang.
Thousands of letters poured in, and the surprised Opry management realized they had a new star on their hands. At first, the Acuff band—now dubbed the Smoky Mountain Boys, a name the Opry management thought more dignified than the Crazy Tennesseans—tried to follow the western swing formula, mixing oldtime country with pop material like “Coney Island Baby.” Roy didn’t like this, though, and in 1939 three members left. Among the replacements Roy recruited was Pete “Oswald” Kirby, whose soulful tenor singing and breathtaking dobro work soon became permanent elements in the Acuff sound.
Roy’s preference for the “mountain sound” over the western sound was underscored when he became the star of the NBC network portion of the Opry in 1939. It was also an issue in the seven Hollywood films he made in the 1940s, when he refused the demands of Hollywood directors to turn his outfit into a cowboy band. Fans rewarded him with hit records.