Off The Record: The Jingle, The Rumble, The Roar – The Magic Of America’s Smoky Mountain Boy

By Bailey George, September 15, 2017

Our Radio Bristol DJs are a diverse bunch – and they like a huge variety of musical genres and artists. In our Off the Record series, we ask one of them to tell us all about a song, record, or artist they love.

From the great Atlantic Ocean to the wide Pacific shore, Roy Acuff represents our great musical heritage. To me and millions of others, he was and still is country music. His charm, his charisma, and his ability to handle an audience will never be surpassed. Though others have come and gone and might have had bigger star power or critical acclaim, he still stands as a giant in our music.

My discovery of “The King of The Hillbillies” came at a very difficult time for me in my life. My mother died of cancer when I was 10 years old. Suddenly the world as I knew it changed. I didn’t realize fully what had even happened. All of a sudden, I was motherless and lost in a dark, threatening place. Then, one night while at my new residence with my grandparents, a Hee-Haw rerun aired on television.

Like a prophet from heaven, Roy Acuff came into my living room and with a whistle and Dobro kick-off, I was instantly hooked on this thing called country music. The piece: “Wabash Cannonball.” I was entranced by this man dressed in a modest suit and tie, suspiciously balancing and holding a fiddle, but never actually playing it, twirling a Yo-Yo and boldly pronouncing the names of each of his soloists including one “Bashful Brother Oswald.” As the tune ended, I immediately knew that this music was something I wanted to be in too.

I’ve always been interested in people who are larger than life. From my favorite childhood authors to my fascination with folks like Mark Twain and Walt Disney, I’ve always loved the people who could take me from the small community of Walnut Grove, South Carolina, to the largest adventures across the universe. While I had certainly listened to music before, specifically John Denver, Alan Jackson, The Beach Boys with my mother, and Carolina beach music (known to the rest of the world as 1950s rhythm-and-blues) with my grandmother, I had never really experienced music quite like this. The sound, look, and style of Mr. Acuff completely filled my mind with visions of Americana. I wanted to be Roy Acuff. I wanted to dress like him, sing like him, act like him. He was unlike anything I had ever seen and in all my experience diving into the history of American music, I have still never come across anything quite like him.

When you came to see Roy Acuff and His Smoky Mountain Boys and Girls, you got a show. Not a concert. Not a performance. But a SHOW. He had it all. Heart and home songs, sacred numbers, train songs, comedy from “Bashful Brother Oswald” and Sister Rachel, jug bands, harmonica solos, fiddle tunes, and featured vocalists all in one repertory group of “hillbilly” entertainers. I treasured that. I’ve always been a sucker for entertainment, and Roy Acuff and his team were never short on vaudeville-esque antics and razzle dazzle. In an age of loud arena-filling pop country schlock, this down-home, personal style of performance has grown even more fascinating to me, and it’s a tradition I hope to continue in my own musical pursuits.

We have several Roy Acuff records in the museum’s collections. © Birthplace of Country Music; Gift of Betty Lou Dean and Roger Allen Dean 

Admittedly, Acuff’s open-throat mountain style of country music might strike some modern ears as antiquated, rural, and possibly even melodramatic. But it was this passionate, heartfelt, and authentic performance that drew me in as something real and completely different from the more metropolitan sounds I’d been accustomed to in the music of my formative years.

Now, even as my music tastes have widened to include everything from classical arias to punk and rockabilly, Acuff still stands supreme in my mind as the world’s greatest performer. He was always true to himself and his music. He never updated during the heat of the rock-and-roll era. He stuck to what he knew.

And he worked hard! He traveled the world and entertained troops during three of our nation’s wars – World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He brought the Grand Ole Opry and the city of Nashville to the forefront of the country music industry. He appeared in several Hollywood films, sharing the screen with huge stars such as Tex Ritter. He campaigned for governor of Tennessee. He shook hands with and hosted several presidents and heads of state. He was christened by Baseball Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean as “The King of Country Music” and was the first living inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1962. Yet, even with all those accolades, he was still the curly-haired boy from the Smoky Mountains. He never left behind his upbringing in Maynardville, Tennessee.

This poster from Roy Acuff’s 1948 gubernatorial bid was later signed by him in 1972. © Birthplace of Country Music; Donated at the request of the late William Wampler

Roy Acuff brought country music to the world and inspired me to dig deep into this fascinating and important music. Perhaps, the greatest lesson he taught me though was how to be humble. Always treat your audience with respect. Never be unapproachable. Stick around until every picture is signed and every hand is shook. “They’re the ones that got you here. Give them all you got.” That was the rule that Acuff lived by: a lesson often lost on many modern music performers.

Roy Acuff represented the best of mountain class and southern culture. He symbolized everything that’s great about our nation: work hard at what you believe in, but always be humble.

A jewel here on earth, a jewel now in heaven. Thank You, Mr. Acuff.

Guest blogger Bailey George is a DJ on Radio Bristol. He hosts The Honky Tonk Hit Parade every Wednesday from 3 to 5pm. Bailey plays the best in classic country, honky tonk, rockabilly, and all around good music for his listeners who he calls “The Greatest People in the World.”

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