Roy Acuff, hailed as “the king of country music” during 54 years on the Grand Ole Opry, and founder of one of country music’s largest publishing companies, died here yesterday from congestive heart failure. He was 89.
Acuff, known for such twangy tunes as “Wabash Cannonball” and “The Great Speckled Bird,” died at Baptist Hospital early in the day and was buried at Spring Hill Cemetery hours later. A memorial service will be held later in Nashville, according to Opry officials who said the quick burial was done at the family’s request.
Bill Ivey, director of the Country Music Foundation and Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, said Acuff’s career was “a precursor of the careers of Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton. He was our first modern career artist; he combined success on records, the radio, movies and touring.”
Acuff was the first living person to be inducted into country’s Hall of Fame, winning the honor in 1962.
He was a co-founder of Acuff-Rose Music Publishing in the 1940s. Ivey said establishment of the firm marked the point “when Nashville took a step away from being a radio town and toward being a music town.”
Before Acuff entered the hospital Oct. 30, he sang on the Opry just about every weekend with characteristic, full-throated verve.
During commercial breaks, he did yo-yo tricks and balanced his ever-present fiddle upright on the bridge of his nose.
He was a gracious entertainer who always kept his dressing room door open backstage at the Opry, where he warmly greeted visitors and swapped jokes.
President Bush, a country music fan, said Acuff leaves behind “a touch of the American dream.”
Acuff for Bush
In one of Acuff’s final public appearances, the ailing star was helped to a Nashville stage Sept. 29 for a campaign rally for Bush.
In a 1983 interview, he recalled that his singing style in the 1930s was new to country music: “I reared back and sang it. I did it like I was going for the cows in Union County.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Acuff was a regular on TV’s “Hee Haw.”
A street on Nashville’s Music Row and a theater at Opryland are named in his honor. He lived in a home next to the Grand Ole Opry House.
Acuff, a native of Maynardville in the east Tennessee hills, originally yearned for a baseball career and didn’t sing professionally until he was almost 30.
The son of a Baptist minister, he became a regular Opry cast member in 1938 after getting his start singing and fiddling in a medicine show in the mountains of Virginia and Tennessee.
Over the years, Acuff sold more than 25 million records with hits like “Wreck on the Highway,””Fireball Mail,””Night Train to Memphis,””Low and Lonely” and “Pins and Needles.”
With his band the Smoky Mountain Boys, Acuff maintained a traditional style of country music– shunning electric instruments in favor of fiddles, dobros, acoustic guitars, pianos and harmonicas.
In 1990, Acuff and other Opry stars went to Houston to entertain Bush and other dignitaries at an economic summit.
Ran for office
Acuff himself was keenly interested in politics and twice ran for Tennessee governor as a Republican in the then-solidly Democratic state. He lost both times and was criticized as a “hillbilly fiddler” by the Democrats.
But in 1948, his second race, he received 167,000 votes–more than any GOP nominee had ever earned in a statewide race.