The King of Country Music

Roy Acuff’s recording career after the 1944 debut of what was then the hillbilly record tracking system was insignificant that few except hardcore fans can name even of these releases. He only scored a dozen times on the country music charts, never hitting any higher than the third spot.

Acuff was widely known and revered as “The King of Country Music,” and was the first living artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1962. His appearances on the pop chart numbered to only four, with a total of just seven weeks spent in the top one hundred. Despite not having the chart number to make any more than a minor player, but Roy Acuff still remains a genuine star.

His Beginnings

Once a baseball player, Acuff was a Baptist minister’s son who once dreamed of being able to play for the major league baseball until a heat stroke confined him to bed for the better part of the year. During his recovery, he began to rethink his career aspirations. Then suddenly after thinking it thoroughly, while he was listening to his father’s collection of fiddle records, Roy began to scratch around on one of the family violins. In no time, he taught himself to play almost all of the fiddle jigs he heard as a child.

As the 1930s approached, he had formed his own band, the Tennessee Crackerjacks, and worked dances all around the area of Knoxville, Tennessee. His first real break came in 1932 when he and his band landed a regular spot on the locally-popular “Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round” on WNOX. After about a year, Acuff brokered a deal with WROL which gave him his own show.

 A slip of an announcer’s tongue may have changed the name of Roy’s band to the Crazy Tennesseans, but it did nothing for their financial status. Achieving just minor local fame, no recording contracts and only small-time bookings, the group was barely scraping by. They forged on that way for three more years. Then things started to change.

The Song

Combining fiction with a patriotic theme, William Kindt used the very fabric of the American heartland to set up a version of the song he wrote and published in 1905. Kindt’s “Wabash Cannonball” was probably not the first, but it was the initial version to be both copyrighted and noticed by the public.

The first recorded versions of Kindt’s composition didn’t appear until the late 1920s. Record companies, eager to cash in on the success of acts such as the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, were releasing scores of new versions of old songs. By this time, Kindt’s copyright had fallen into the public domain and a shrewd A. P. Carter “rewrote” the song and claimed ownership of a newly-published version of the Kindt number. The Carters themselves sang the epic on many occasions. Yet, even with A. P.’s strong backing, “Wabash Cannonball” remained uncharted and, outside of the rural reaches of hillbilly music, very obscure.

 It took Acuff’s 1938 release to put the song and the by-then-defunct passenger line on the map. By December Roy and his band had made it to #12 on the national pop chart, one position higher than “The Great Speckled Bird’s” #13 finish. From that moment on, Roy owned the song. Henceforth, no Acuff performance was complete without his audience being taken for a ride on America’s finest passenger train.

With the lasting effect of his two signature songs, Roy had come to the Opry during its most formative, fruitful and influential period, and through his own personality became the man who most signified country music. As the cornerstone of the show, he performed there every week for over fifty-four years, right up to the end of his life on November 23, 1992. He was 89. Roy Acuff may be gone, but his presence is still felt on the stage where his reign began.