Roy Claxton Acuff was an American country music singer, fiddler, and promoter. Known as the King of Country Music, Acuff is often credited with moving the genre from its early string band and “hoedown” format to the star singer-based format that helped make it internationally successful.
Acuff began his music career in the 1930s, and gained regional fame as the singer and fiddler for his group, the Smoky Mountain Boys. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1938, and although his popularity as a musician waned in the late 1940s, he remained one of the Opry’s key figures and promoters for nearly four decades. In 1942, Acuff co-founded the first major Nashville-based country music publishing company—Acuff-Rose Music—which signed acts such as Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, and The Everly Brothers. In 1962, Acuff became the first living person inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Roy Acuff was born in Maynardville, Tennessee to Ida Carr and Simon E. Neill Acuff, the third of five children. The Acuffs were a fairly prominent Union County family. Roy’s paternal grandfather, Coram Acuff, had been a Tennessee state senator, and Roy’s maternal grandfather was a local physician. Roy’s father was an accomplished fiddler and a Baptist preacher, his mother was proficient on the piano, and during Roy’s early years the Acuff house was a popular place for local gatherings. At such gatherings, Roy would often amuse people by balancing farm tools on his chin. He also learned to play harmonica and Jew’s harp at a young age.
The Acuff family relocated to Fountain City, a suburb of North Knoxville, in 1919. Roy attended Central High School, where he sang in the school chapel’s choir and performed in “every play they had.” Roy’s primary passion, however, was athletics. He was a three-sport standout at Central, and after graduating in 1925, he was offered a scholarship to Carson-Newman, but turned it down. He played with several small baseball clubs around Knoxville, worked at odd jobs, and occasionally boxed. In 1929, he tried out for the Knoxville Smokies, at that time a minor league baseball team for the New York Giants. A series of collapses in spring training following a sunstroke, however, ended his baseball career prematurely. The effects left him ill for several years, and he even suffered a nervous breakdown in 1930. “I couldn’t stand any sunshine at all,” he later recalled. While recovering, Acuff began to hone his fiddle skills, often playing on the family’s front porch in late afternoons after the sun went down. His father gave him several records of regionally-renowned fiddlers, such as Fiddlin’ John Carson and Gid Tanner, which were important influences on his early style.