Plain-spoken style pioneered by Acuff still defines country

November 24, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

These days, there's a lot of talk in the music business about the people who have helped make country music more popular than it has been in years. Some will point to Randy Travis, and the way his singles revitalized the unvarnished sincerity of country singing; others will applaud Dwight Yoakam for making hillbilly music hip again. And of course, everyone will mention Garth Brooks, who almost single-handedly proved that a country fTC artist could have a pop-star-sized audience.

But if you want to know the truth, there's nothing any of them have done that can compare to the revolution wrought by Roy Acuff.

Acuff, who died of heart failure yesterday at the age of 89, was called "the King of Country Music," and it was by no means an exaggeration. On a business level, his achievements were simply awesome. He was a regular on the Grand Ole Opry since 1938, and the first living musician elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. He made records, movies and TV appearances, founded the most successful music publishing company in Nashville (Acuff/Rose), and even ran for governor of Tennessee twice, in 1944 and '48. (He lost both times, but drew more votes than any Republican candidate before him in the traditionally Democratic state.)

But the "what" of his success matters far less than the "why." Because in many ways, Roy Acuff was solely responsible for our notion of what a country star should sound like -- concepts that carry over even to today's biggest names.

Like Randy Travis, Acuff's vocal style was simple and sincere. He hadn't planned on a career in music; born in Maynardsville, Tenn., in 1903, the son of lawyer, he grew up wanting to play baseball professionally. He got as far as the semi-pro leagues before sunstroke put him out of the game permanently in 1927. Looking for some other way of making a living, he hooked up with a patent medicine show peddling "Moc-a-Tan." Acuff sang, acted, played the fiddle and got what he later described as "a world of training."

It certainly served him well. He may not have been a particularly accomplished singer, but there was no denying the emotional power of his delivery. Even today, it's hard to hear his 1936 rendition of "Great Speckle Bird" without being moved by its plain-spoken piety.

That certainly was the case with the Opry audience. Acuff and his band were brought on the show on Feb. 19, 1938, as last-minute replacements for fiddler Arthur Smith, and against the urging of his bandmates, Acuff included "Great Speckle Bird" in their performance. Acuff thought he'd blown their chance, but the fans argued otherwise. Acuff said later, "The mail had come in tremendous -- bushel baskets full." Within weeks, he was a regular on the show, and by 1939 had replaced Uncle Dave Macon as star of the show.

Like Dwight Yoakam, Acuff was an unabashed traditionalist. He started out singing mountain music with a group he dubbed the Tennessee Crackerjacks; it wasn't fashionable, but it was honest. By the time he made it to the Grand Ole Opry, they had changed the name to the Crazy Tennesseans, but even that seemed a bit too unrefined for the Opry, which eventually had the band re-christened the Smoky Mountain Boys.

Acuff may have agreed to changing the group's name, but he wasn't about to monkey with its totally traditional approach. Indeed, he held on to its old-fashioned instrumentation (fiddle, guitar, banjo, dobro, harmonica and double bass) well into the '50s, after other country stars had brought in electric instruments.

And, like Garth Brooks, Acuff was the sort of star whose appeal went well beyond the normal boundaries of country music. As a recording artist, Acuff pretty much peaked in the early '40s, after churning out such million-sellers as "Great Speckle Bird," "Wabash Cannon Ball" (a big number for Acuff on the Opry, although the singing on the original 1936 recording was by Sam "Dynamite" Hatcher), "Wreck on the Highway," "Fireball Mail" and "Night Train to Memphis."

But his popularity grew, thanks to the Opry. By World War II, Acuff waswell-enough known that the Japanese invoked his name when they tried to provoke American GI's; according to war correspondent Ernie Pyle, their taunts went: "To hell with Roosevelt! To hell with Babe Ruth! To hell with Roy Acuff!"

No wonder an Armed Forces Network poll at the end of the war foundAcuff placing ahead of Frank Sinatra as "Most Popular Vocalist."

And though other stars would eventually take his place in the popularity polls, there would never be any denying the fact that without Roy Acuff, Nashville might have ended up as just another city in Tennessee.

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