Tuesday, May 19, 2009
A to Z : Roy Acuff
Roy Acuff - Wabash Cannonball (buy)
Roy Acuff (1903-1992) was a major figure in country music's coming of age. He was the one who took old time Appalachian music and made it something big, something new, adding pop elements, new instruments (like the dobro). He is less acclaimed now than Hank Williams, The Carter Family or Jimmie Rodgers, but in my opinion he was the first "modern" country star, paving the way for Hank and honky tonk. Unlike Jimmie or Hank Williams, he was not a rebel (he was rather conservative) and he didn't die young.
But I love his songs and his voice. What a hit maker !!!
Roy Acuff had a great role in the development of the Grand Ole Opry and in the music business when he founded in 1942 the Acuff-Rose company.
Born in Maynard, a remote Tennessee community, he was from a family of musicians. Roy remembered that his daddy used to play the fiddle in the morning. It would wake him up and he stayed in bed for a long time listening to him.
But Roy didn't plan to be a musician : he tried his luck at baseball, but due to a severe sunstroke followed by a nervous breakdown, he never could play as a professionnal.
That's when he turned to music, becoming a member of Doc hauer's big medicine show in Tennessee in 1932 where he met people like Clarence Ashley and a dobro player, Cousin Jody.
He soon started his own band with Jody, called the Crazy Tennesseans and they got their first contract with ARC and producer Art Satherley in 1936. Roy recorded an old spiritual he had re-arranged, called "Great Speckled Bird" that became a hit in the Southeast. "Wabash Cannonball" (with vocals by his harmonicist Dynamite Hatcher) followed that year, along with songs featuring Cousin Jody's dobro work, like "Steel Guitar Blues".
In 1938, the Grand Ole Opry invited Acuff to audition for the show. At first, they were a bit reluctent to have him in because they thought his music was not "traditional" enough, but the big success of "Great Speckled Bird" proved them right. Acuff's popularity helped the GOO become popular nationwide in the 1940's.
From 1940 to 1947, Acuff and his band (now renamed the Smoky Mountain Boys and featuring dobroist Pete "Brother Oswald" Kirby in place of Cousin Jody and the great harmonica player Jimmie Riddle) had a big string of hits. Their music changed too, adding elements of jazz and pop, and became a sortof all-acoustic "eastern swing", keeping but updating the old Appalachian sound in "Precious Jewel", "Fireball Mail" or the beautiful "Wreck On The Highway" (one of my favorite country songs ever).
Roy Acuff - Wreck On The Highway (buy)
In 1947 his version of "Jole Blon" a traditional cajun tune was his last national hit until 1958.
After the war, Roy Acuff refused to "electrify" his band in the honky tonk style that he had partially influenced. He toured a lot, recorded for various companies and stayed one of the major figures at the Opry. In 1962, he became the first living performer to be inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1974 he was invited by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to appear in their album Will the Circle Be Unbroken and scored a last hit with Charley Louvin for a remake of "The precious Jewel" before passing away in 1992.
My sources for this post : Roy Acuff's bio on AMG and Guide de la country music et du folk by Gerard Herzhaft and Jacques Brémond, a great French country encyclopedia.