Roy Claxton Acuff
Copyright (2002) * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(Ruth Ford Wallace Collection)
Roy Claxton Acuff
Perhaps no other Fountain Citian has reached the level of name recognition achieved by Roy Claxton Acuff. Certainly, he deserves a place among Fountain Citians who made a difference.
Roy’s "roots" may at least partially account for the lifelong drive for success that marked his career. Among the patriots who found their way out of East Tennessee and into the Union Army at Cumberland Gap was Corum Acuff, Roy’s grandfather. Corum was born on August 23, 1846, in Grainger County, Tennessee, the son of Simeon and Susan (Strange) Acuff. He attended the common schools at Walnut Grove in Knox County. Although the first Detachment Muster Roll in his military service record, dated July 26, 1862, reads "age 18 years," he was only sixteen years old when he left home to join Company D of the First Regiment of East Tennessee Infantry (USA). By the time he was mustered out in Nashville on June 21, 1865, Pvt. Corum Acuff had accompanied his regiment through many miles of march and participated in some of the hardest fighting of the Civil War. When he was granted thirty days leave before mustering out, the document was signed by Major General W. T. Sherman himself. (1, 2)
After "reading" law, Corum Acuff was elected clerk of the Union County Court and served from 1874-1886. He was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly, serving from 1887-1889. Corum married Nancy Ellen Clapp on June 23, 1870. They had six children: Charles, Pryor, Frank, Simeon, Neill and Ella Zell. He died on January 30, 1931 in Maynardville.
Roy’s father, Neill Acuff, showed the same initiative his grandfather had shown. Neill Acuff, was born in Maynardville on April 16, 1877. He served as postmaster, "read" law, became a member of the bar and was elected to the office of County Court Clerk. He became an ordained Baptist minister. Sometime after he moved to Knox County, where he felt his children would have better opportunities for an education, he became a general sessions judge. Neill married Ida Carr, daughter of Dr. A.W. Carr, a Union County physician. Neill and Ida had five children: Briscoe (1900-1984), Roy (1903-1992), Sue (Mrs. Robert Allen, Jr.) (1905-1963), Claude (Spot) (1909-1971) and Juanita (Mrs. H.D. Phillips) (1917-1981). (3)
Roy Claxton Acuff was born on September 15, 1903 in Maynardville and attended grade school there. In 1919, when Roy was 16, the family moved to Fountain City. Their home was on College Street on what was once the campus of the old "Normal School." His father was minister of the Fountain City Missionary Baptist Church (predecessor to present-day First Baptist Church) from 1920 to 1924. Roy attended Central High School, graduating in 1925. (4, 5)
Roy Acuff, 1925 Central High School Sequoyah
It was Miss Hassie Kate Gresham, revered principal of Central High, who introduced Roy to the stage. She heard someone singing on campus and asked a student, "Who is that?" The student looked out the window and answered, "It’s Roy Acuff." Miss Gresham said, "Tell him I want to see him." Roy thought he was really "in for it" but instead Miss Gresham said, "Roy, I want you to lead singing tomorrow morning in Chapel." Roy replied, "Aw, I couldn’t do that. I’d drop dead. My legs wouldn’t hold me up." She answered, "Son, you can lean on me." He didn’t have to lean on anyone and he enjoyed it so much he wanted to lead singing regularly. (6)
In later years it would be observed that Roy found a way to deal with stage fright or jitters by rocking back and forth slightly as he performed. He would use the trick throughout his career.
There was more to his high school years than academics. Although his talents earned him a position on the publications staff of the school annual (The Sequoyah) in 1923, his chief interest was athletics. He earned thirteen letters in three sports (football, baseball and basketball). Roy later said that this was more letters than anyone else ever earned at Central. It was also said of Roy that "he didn’t go around seeking a scrap, but he didn’t dodge one either." Friends from his high school days remember that Roy was sometimes so "pumped up" after a football game that he would provoke a fight with someone on the other team, so the police would be called. Some even remember that he continued the fight with the police.
Many after school hours were spent either in Sherman Wallace’s barber shop in the old "Station Building" at the foot of high school hill or in John I. Copeland’s garage, a block further up the street. At Wallace’s Roy was good friends with Charles "Charlie" Duncan, the shoe shine expert. Many years later Charlie said, "Roy always claimed he had better rhythm with the rag than I did. I think he was probably right, but I never let him know that." At Copeland’s the conversation gravitated to sports, boxing matches and fox hunting and sooner or later Copeland would get out his fiddle. John I. Copeland was later credited with teaching Roy to play the "fiddle."
Three years after his graduation from Central the family moved to 231 Raleigh Avenue, just up the street from George "Doc" Stevens’ Arlington Drug Store. By 1927 Roy is listed in the Knoxville City Directory as a "caller" for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and, in the 1929 edition of the directory, as a machinist for the Southern Railroad.
It was on July 7, 1929 that disaster struck. Roy was playing semi-pro baseball for the L&N baseball team at Knoxville’s Caswell Park. It was an unbearably hot and humid day. Lib Julian described how Roy fell; once, twice, then a third time. This time he did not get back up. Roy had suffered a sunstroke that would require two years of recuperation, dashing his dream of playing for the New York Yankees and forcing him to become a self-taught musician "with a little help from his friend," John I. Copeland.
Although ailing, he sat up in bed, sawed off a few tunes; and, as his health improved, progressed to the front porch. The neighbors approved especially Dr. Frank Hauer who ran the "Mo-ca-ton" Medicine Show ("Backward, it doesn’t spell a thing"). Doctor Hauer (Master of Ceremonies), Roy (fiddle and vocals) and Jake Tindell (guitar and blackface) were the traveling medicine show. The folding platform on the back of an old Reo sedan was the stage for their performance on Saturday afternoons in many parts of East Tennessee and Virginia. (7)
Later, behind his Arlington Drug Store, "Doc" Stevens built a stage and turned it over on Saturday night to Roy Acuff and the Crazy Tennesseans, as his group was known by now. Red Jones and his wife Tiny, "Dynamite" Hatcher, Clell Sumney and Jess Easterday were the earliest members of the band. By 1933 they were on radio in Knoxville, first at WROL and later on WNOX. One of his more popular songs was "The Great Speckled Bird." In 1937, with the favorable reaction it received, he took the song to Chicago to make a recording.
Using the record as one would a business card, he sent it to WSM in Nashvillle, hoping it would unlock the door to the Grand Ole Opry. Nothing happened for a while, so he decided to ask the assistance of a Nashville acquaintance, Joe Frank, in an attempt to get an audition. A close co-worker of George D. Hay (the Solemn Old Judge), David Stone, auditioned him, heard "The Great Speckled Bird" and asked if Roy could appear in a guest spot on the Saturday night show. He went back to Knoxville and loaded up the band and an enthusiastic group set off for Nashville. The song got its share of applause but it didn’t lift the crowd and, disappointed, the band returned to Knoxville.
Fortunately, that is not the end of the story. A trickle of fan mail came in from WSM listeners that Judge Hay forwarded. Then more mail came and in a few more days a telegram from Nashville asked if Roy would accept an early morning spot on WSM, become regular on the Opry and make personal appearances around Nashville. When success did not come immediately; all the band members but Jess Easterday, the bass fiddle man, decided to go home. Roy remembered a Sevier County native, Oswald (Pete) Kirby (later known as Bashful Brother Oswald), who had gone to work in a bakery in Knoxville after a stint on a Detroit radio station in his own act. Oswald’s dobro-style steel guitar and high tenor voice would compliment Roy’s style and an association that would be unbroken through the years was formed. Before long Lonnie Wilson and Harold B. (Shot) Jackson joined. The band soon was renamed the Smoky Mountain Boys.
"The Great Speckled Bird" became their trademark song. Late in his life he was asked the meaning of the song, which took its Biblical inspiration from Jeremiah 12:9, "Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her; come ye, assemble all the beasts of the field, come to devour." Roy explained, "To me, the speckled bird means the church--not A church but ALL churches--with the other birds gathering round to peck and find fault." So Roy added what he considered an explanatory verse:
With all the other birds flocking ‘round her
She is so despised by them all
The Great Speckled Bird in the Bible
Representing the great church of God.
Roy’s first car was a flamboyant red roadster with a rumble seat and 60 horses under the hood, a hot rod with a confident young man at the wheel. He pulled up to a corner and asked, "Wanna ride?" of the girl standing there waiting for a bus to town. She answered, "If I do I’ll get a stickhorse." That was the introduction, but their paths would cross again and friendship would develop, then courtship. It was some eight years later that she answered "Yes" to a much more important question.
Mildred Louise Douglas (1914-1981) had worked as a clerk in "Doc" Stevens’ drug store. As the relationship and his career both developed, Roy felt he was ready to take on more responsibility. He "popped the question" and he and Mildred were married on Christmas day, 1936, in the lamp-lighted parlor of a justice of the peace in Middlesboro, Kentucky. She was later described by one writer as being, "... pert, stock-market wise, a combination of Myrna Loy and Claudette Colbert, with a wit locally described as ‘funny as a speckled pup.’" Roy was always proud of her business ability as well as her attractiveness and charm. He recalled the lean years when her salary as cashier exceeded his earnings. He observed, "The price of that marriage license was the best investment I ever made."
Roy recounted to one of his biographers, "Mildred has been a steadying influence on my life. Her faith has given me encouragement when I needed it most. She is one of the truest and most honest persons I have ever known. I’ve always left all the business up to her, and it has been in the best of hands. She’s done a lot more for me than I could ever do for her." He felt he might have hung up his fiddle and bow more than once; but for her encouragement, hope and confidence in him. (8)
After the marriage, Mildred held on to her job, scrimped and saved and managed the family budget. Her savings helped buy the first family domicile, a house-trailer (price $500). Their only son, Roy Neill, was born on July 24, 1943.
As his recording career continued, other songs would rival "The Great Speckled Bird." "The Wabash Cannonball," "The Tennessee Waltz," "The Night Train to Memphis," and "The Wreck on the Highway" would follow. Incessant touring and a number of movie roles increased his popularity. "Waiting around" was not a part of Roy’s nature. He hated making movies because there was too much waiting between "takes." When the band was recording, Roy would say, "We’re doing this in one take." His friends gave him another nickname, "One-Take Ake." (9)
In 1942 Mildred Acuff, displaying her business acumen, encouraged the formation of Acuff-Rose Publishing Company with Fred Rose. The firm became the leading publisher of country songs with offices in England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, Japan, German and Switzerland. Acuff-Rose published most of the hit songs of Hank Williams, Don Gibson, the Everly Brothers, and many others, including Roy’s own.
Roy did many, many shows for the servicemen during World War II, both in the United States and overseas. After the war he and "Dizzy" Dean were on the air together and "Dizzy" called him "the King of the Hillbillies." As the music gained respectability, the title became "the King of Country Music."
At the urging of friends, Roy first considered trading his reported $50,000 annual income for the $4,000-a-year Governorship of Tennessee in 1944, but decided not to run. By 1948 repeated requests from all over the state encouraged him to run on the Republican ticket and he did. He lost to Democrat Gordon Browning.
When he first started in radio WROL and WNOX paid him 50 cents a program; which, he modestly observed, "was what I was worth, I guess." By 1948 Ross Holman, writing in Coronet Magazine, stated that he was earning $200,000 a year, having sold over 10,000,000 records to that point. "The Wabash Cannonball" was reported to have accomplished total sales of $5,000,000.
In spite of all his fame and fortune, Roy C. Acuff never forgot his roots or those who helped him in his youth. In 1939 Sherman Wallace’s barber shop burned and his business was wiped out. A couple of days later, when he heard, Roy flew to Knoxville for the express purpose of helping his friend. Later, when he visited Miss Gresham, his high school principal, in her home in Johnson City after her retirement, he told her he was scheduled for a television program soon and asked her to watch, since he was going to dedicate a song to her. Miss Gresham said she had no television set, but that very afternoon a beautiful one was delivered to her with the compliments of Roy Acuff.
Until Mildred passed away, the Acuffs lived in a southern colonial mansion, crowning a bluff of the Cumberland River overlooking Opryland theme park and the Opryland Hotel. In 1968 they remodeled the 30-year old house and added a den wing and a master bedroom wing. Sometime after Mildred’s death Roy built a home in the theme park within easy walking distance of the Opryland Theater. For the last few years of his life he continued to sing on the Opry many Friday and Saturday nights, although he had given up playing the fiddle.
Dunbar Cave Resort (pending)
Generous by nature, Roy announced on the Grand Ole Opry one night about 1965 that he would be hosting a reunion at his Dunbar Cave Resort near Clarksville (now a state park) for the Acuffs and offered to provide food and lodging for them. He later observed that he never realized how many cousins he had until that event. (10)
When he heard in 1988 that Central High School had 160 athletes using a dressing room that accommodated about 60, he donated $25,000 toward a new one and brought a number of Nashville stars to entertain close to 700 people at $10 each, raising another $35,000 toward the new building. In 1992 the fund-raising for the Roy C. Acuff Union Heritage Museum and Library in Maynardville, Tennessee, was begun. He donated $25,000 and some of his personal memorabilia to the museum. (11)
In 1962 he became the first living performer to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Roy returned for "Honor Fountain City Day" in May 1986 and was awarded Fountain City Man of the Year at a ceremony in Fountain City Park, which he knew so well in his youth. President and Mrs. George Bush awarded Mr. Acuff the National Medal of Arts in July 1991.
On November 23, 1992, Roy Claxton Acuff died in Nashville of complications from congestive heart failure. He is buried in Nashville’s Spring Hill Cemetery beside his wife of 45 years.
References:1. R.M. McBride and D.M. Robison, Biographical Dictionary of the Tennessee General Assembly, Vol. II (1861-1901), Tennessee State Library and Archives (Nashville), 1979. 2. Billie R. McNamara, Abstracts of Military Service Pension Records for the Surname Acuff (Knoxville), 1995; Military Service Record, Pvt. Corum Acuff, National Archives Microfilm, Vol. 395, Page 117. 3. K.G. Graves and W.P. McDonald, Our Union County Heritage, 1978; K.G. Graves and W.P. McDonald, Our Union County Heritage, Vol. II, 1981; W.P. McDonald and B.H. Peters, Our Union County Families, 1992; B.H. Peters and W.P. McDonald, Union County Faces of War, 1995; Acuff Family Archive Website, http://www.acuff.org/. 4. A.C. Dunkleberger, King of Country Music (The Life Story of Roy Acuff), Nashville, 1971.
5. Betsey Morris, "More a Country Gentleman," Knoxville News-Sentinel, March 20, 1977.6. Dunkleberger, op. cit. (1971); E. Schlappi, Roy Acuff, the Smoky Mountain Boy, Gretna (Louisiana), 1978; R. Acuff (with W. Neely), Roy Acuff’s Nashville: the Life and Good Times of Country Music, New York, c1983. 7. R.L. Holman, "King of Mountain Music," Coronet Magazine, September, 1948.
8. Ibid., Dunkleberger.9. B.R. McNamara, Personal Correspondence, July 27, 2001.
10. Ibid., McNamara.11. K.A. Simsen, "Acuff’s Generosity Benefits His Alma Mater’s Field House," Knoxville News-Sentinel, August 29, 1988; "Roy Acuff Contributes $25,000 to Union County Museum Fund," Knoxville News-Sentinel, July 20, 1988.
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