Twenty years ago today, one of the earliest stars of the Grand Ole Opry died. Roy Acuff joined the Opry in 1938 when it was less than a decade old, still struggling under country music's hayseed reputation. Acuff helped contribute the star power that was needed to bring country music – and the Grand Ole Opry – into the mainstream.
This Nov. 1943 file photo shows Roy Acuff, second from left, performing with the Smoky Mountain Boys at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. From left are Lonnie Wilson, Acuff, Jimmy Riddle, Pete Kirby, and Velma Williams, partially hidden behind Kirby. In July 2012, a fiddle once belonging to Acuff will be displayed at the Museum of East Tennessee History's "Voices of the Land" exhibit in Knoxville, Tenn., where it will take its place among such iconic country music artifacts as the red dress Dolly Parton wore on stage early in her career, and Chet Atkins' original album covers. (AP Photo, File)
As frontman of the Smoky Mountain Boys, Acuff faced an uphill battle toward acceptance of country music. When, five years after his entry unto the ranks of the Opry, Acuff invited the governor of his home state of Tennessee to an Opry gala, he was rudely rebuffed. Governor Prentice Cooper called Acuff's music disgraceful and blamed him for making Tennessee the "hillbilly capital of the United States." Harsh criticism for a man who was a veritable country music star – and who was about to crack the Top 20 of the U.S. singles chart, too.
Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys had a time of popularity, but it was brief. Songs like "Tennessee Waltz" were loved by Grand Ole Opry fans, but that was a limited audience.
As important as Acuff's success as a singer was his foray into music publishing. In 1942, along with songwriter Fred Rose, he formed Acuff-Rose Music, the first Nashville-based country music publishing company. The original goal was to publish their own music, but Acuff and Rose soon found other country artists who wanted to work with them. Acuff-Rose soon became an important part of the Nashville music scene, signing greats like Hank Williams and remaining legendary to this day.
Acuff remained a member of the Grand Ole Opry for 40 years, contributing both his own music and that of others signed to Acuff-Rose (Roy Orbison and The Everly Brothers among them) to the annals of country stardom. In 1991, just a year before his death at age 89, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts and given a lifetime achievement award by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – the first country singer to be so honored. Whether he was performing himself or furthering another artist's career, Roy Acuff truly was the king of country music.
Written by Linnea Crowther