Week 39: Roy Acuff, King Of Country

Week 39: Roy Acuff, King Of Country

A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.

Business is the Achilles’ heel of many a country great. Country legends, as a genus, tend to be trapped by contracts so stingy, they could have been negotiated by a blind, blackout-drunk blues musician. They’ve historically been afflicted with managers, roadies, and entourages who see them as sentient, self-destructive piggy banks to be tapped, then discarded once the funds run out. 

Roy Acuff, a man equally skilled in music and finance, was the exception who proved the rule. Over the course of this project, the words “Acuff-Rose,” the name of the famed publishing company Acuff shared with partner-songwriter-producer Fred Rose, have popped up in such auspicious places that they’ve come to seem almost magical. Acuff-Rose appears in the credits of albums by Hank Williams, who employed Rose as his regular producer and close collaborator. It also appears in the credits of Lefty Frizzell, Roy Orbison, Mickey Newbury, The Louvin Brothers, and The Everly Brothers. When Jeff Tweedy sang, “Name me a song that everybody knows / And I’ll bet you it belongs to Acuff-Rose” on “Acuff-Rose,” a track from Uncle Tupelo’s final studio album, Anodyne, he wasn’t exaggerating.

It even figured prominently in a court case that veers into my comfort zone of X-rated Miami bass anthems. When 2 Live Crew recorded a song based on Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” Acuff-Rose sued Campbell in what became “Campbell V. Acuff-Rose Music,” a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court and became a landmark ruling that expanded an artist’s right to parody copyrighted material. Starting Acuff-Rose was the smartest country business move this side of Eddy Arnold dumping Colonel Tom Parker as his manager. 

But while Acuff was an anomaly in his business savvy, he set the template for country stardom in many other crucial ways. He was defiantly larger than life, a titan who cast a shadow over the sum of pop music. Born September 15, 1902, as the scion of a prominent Tennessee family, Acuff dabbled in music as a youngster, but concentrated on baseball. His skill won him a tryout to play professional ball, but he was devastated by a case of sunstroke so severe, it killed his major-league dreams and sent him into a depressive episode that culminated in a nervous breakdown. 

Thankfully for country music, Acuff had other gifts to fall back on. In the early 1930s, he hooked up with a medicine show where his job was to entertain deafeningly loud crowds so hucksters could sell them bogus elixirs and “cures” that generally consisted of massive doses of alcohol designed to make the sick feel, if not better or healthy, then at least too fucking drunk to care. The history of the medicine show is long and fascinating, and overlaps considerably with country-music history. It only added to the early public perception of country as the exclusive province of hillbillies and rubes. 

Like so many of the country musicians who followed, Acuff honed his trade the hard way. On the medicine-show circuit, he learned to sing loudly and clearly enough that his voice could be heard above even the loudest ruckus, and he learned how to dazzle an angry, hostile, or indifferent crowd. On the medicine-show circuit, Acuff wasn’t just a singer or a fiddler: He was a complete entertainer, a gift that served him well when he succeeded Jimmie Rodgers as the second giant solo country star. 

The unlikely vessel for Acuff’s ascent to superstardom was a country take on an exceedingly odd hymn called “The Great Speckled Bird,” recorded in 1936. The history of popular music is a history of theft and cooption, so for his breakthrough hit, Acuff borrowed the melody from a folk song called “I Am Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes.” In return, a pair of country standards borrowed from Acuff’s borrowing: Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side Of Life” and Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”

“The Great Speckled Bird” is the product of what Greil Marcus indelibly described as “old weird America.” It’s a woozy, Hawaiian-guitar-driven bit of homespun proto-psychedelia depicting the “church of God” as a great speckled bird, confronted at all sides by those out to destroy and subvert her. It’s an opium dream of a hymn with a yawning, seemingly stoned vocal and a lilting melody that shambles along in a sleepy haze. 

It’s one of the weirdest songs ever to become a standard, and it reflected Acuff’s highly idiosyncratic take on religion. In the early numbers on the three-disc box set King Of The Hillbillies, Acuff roars through a series of interchangeable clamorous ditties. He aspired to do little more than make people dance, but some of his upbeat, fun songs proved venerable, like “Wabash Cannonball,” a classic train song that begins with a joyous imitation of a train whistle. 

But I find Acuff’s religious songs much more revealing, creepy, and fascinating. He was a massive influence on the Louvin Brothers. The Louvins and the gentleman who would become known as the King Of Country share a fire-and-brimstone faith disconcerting in its unforgiving intensity. The purest, most haunting manifestation of that extreme faith can be found on “Wreck On The Highway,” an adaptation of a Dixon Brothers song that Acuff and the Louvin Brothers both recorded. 

The song combines Southern gothic with ominous biblical overtones. Acuff begins by asking, “Who did you say it was, brother? Who was it fell by the way?” before speaking ominously of a wreck where “whiskey and blood ran together,” but no one prayed for God’s forgiveness with their dying moans. The Louvin Brothers were equally inspired by Acuff’s faith and the tight, high harmonies he sang with a dobro player who went by the moniker Bashful Brother Oswald. So it seems altogether fitting that the Louvin Brothers recorded a tribute album to Acuff, and that Acuff’s last single was a duet with Charles Louvin on “The Precious Jewel.”

Acuff was a magical magpie who picked up songs wherever he traveled. As a musician, he traveled far and wide. He recorded an early version of the old chestnut “The House Of The Rising Sun” (which you might know from the Animals’ slightly more rocking version) and was the first person to record Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” a song that would later become the centerpiece of Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, which changed country music—and put even more money in Acuff’s pockets. 

But Acuff was bigger than music. In the mid-1940s, he was so popular in his home state of Tennessee that when Democratic governor Prentice Cooper derided Acuff for making the state “the hillbilly capital of the United States,” a miffed Acuff accepted the Republican nomination for governor and ran opposite the country-music detractor. He didn’t win, but his candidacy helped revitalize the Republican Party in Tennessee. 

Acuff was a product of his times. His direct, intense style fell out of favor in the ’50s and ’60s, as smoother crooners like Eddy Arnold picked up scores of young fans. As Acuff’s popularity faded, he embraced his role as an elder statesman of a genre he came close to embodying. He picked up a mess o’ new followers, however, when he sang guest vocals on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s cover of “I Saw The Light” in 1971. 

Over the course of a life that stretched from the turn of the 20th century to the early 1990s, Acuff came close to making the major leagues, learned his trade at medicine shows, became a prolific hit-maker and a cornerstone of the Grand Ole Opry, and founded the most influential and prestigious publishing house in country. And when the Opry shifted venues from the famous Ryman Auditorium to Opryland on March 16, 1974, Acuff jammed with President Nixon and showed him how to perform yo-yo tricks. If he’d lived two years longer, he could have even sued Luther Campbell himself. 

Yes, Acuff did it all, and Jimmie Rodgers aside, he did it first. But where Rodgers lived fast, died young, and left a handsome, debonair corpse, Acuff lived long enough to enjoy the fruits of his labor. In 1962, Acuff was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame, an honor that had previously gone only to some dead folks he was more than a little familiar with: Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Fred Rose. Acuff played such a huge role in the development of hillbilly music that he became the first icon who didn’t even have to die to join the greats in country heaven.

Up Next on Nashville Or Bust:
Townes Van Zandt
Buck Owens
Loretta Lynn
Shania Twain