Roy Acuff was born 100 years ago today, September 15, 1903.
Roy Acuff helped to create the basic industry of commercial country music, but his import is somewhat obscure to many people today. He made some great music, but he was more important perhaps as a symbol or ambassador of country.
In some music polls in the 1940s, he was more popular than even prime teen idol Frank Sinatra. One reflected indication of his cultural significance: there were reports of Japanese troops charging American forces shouting "To hell with Roosevelt, to hell with Babe Ruth, and to hell with Roy Acuff."
He represented a kind of purity, total sincerity and devotion to straightforward conservative rural religious values. His main signature song was "The Great Speckle Bird," a charismatic Christian parable from his first recording sessions in 1936.
"Wabash Cannonball" was his other biggest hit. My personal pick of his career is "Wreck on the Highway," one of the purest displays of existential despair in popular music. There are few things in popular culture more sobering than the mournful mountain harmonies putting forth these words:
When I heard the crash on the highway
I knew what it was from the start
I went to the scene of destruction
And a picture was stamped on my heart.
There was whiskey and blood all together
Mixed with glass where they lay
Death laid her hand in destruction
But I didn't hear nobody pray
A couple of basic Acuff notes. He started out to become a professional baseball player. He played some minor league ball, and was being considered for the Yankees before a severe sunstroke in 1929 that left him largely bedridden for a couple of years.
He also twice ran unsuccessfully as the Republican candidate for governor of Tennesse.