King of Country Music and Freemason
Ivan M. Tribe, MM
The following narrative reviews the life and accomplishments of an east Tennessee mountain boy who made good. Roy Claxton Acuff rose from humble beginnings to become known as the "King of Country Music." In a career that spanned some sixty years, Acuff performed on Nashville's "Grand Ole Opry" for more than a half century, sold millions of records, and starred in several motion pictures. Casual fans will remember him for popularizing songs like "The Great Speckled Bird," "Wabash Cannonball," "The Precious Jewel," and "Wreck on the Highway."
Born on September 15, 1903 near Maynardville, Tennessee, Roy Acuff's father was a struggling Missionary Baptist minister who later studied law and became a county judge. Grandfather Acuff had fought for the Union during the Civil War and Roy would reflect his "Mountain Yankee" and "Southern mountain Republican" values throughout his life. While he also absorbed much of the rich culture of Appalachia during his youth which would later be reflected in his own music, the young Acuff manifested more interest in baseball and other sports. When his father moved the family to the Knoxville suburb of Fountain City in 1919, Roy belatedly entered junior high and then high school, graduating from Knoxville Central High School in 1924. Athletics constituted his principal interests in those days, when he lettered in baseball, basketball, and football.
After graduation, Roy worked as a callboy for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and played semi-pro baseball until felled by a sunstroke in 1929. He spent many months recovering his health and vigor, during which time he listened to early country phonograph records and learned to play the fiddle. By 1932, Acuff had emerged from convalescence and toured for several months with the Mocoton Medicine Show. When this valuable experience ended, he formed a band — the Crazy Tennesseeans — which performed alternately over WNOX and WROL radio stations in Knoxville. The group played throughout the little towns and villages of east Tennessee but barely earned enough cash to survive in those depression days.
In October 1936, the Crazy Tennesseeans journeyed to Chicago where they made their initial twenty recordings for the American Record Corporation (absorbed into Columbia in 1938). Among these numbers was a religious lyric of obscure origins, "The Great Speckled Bird," which would ultimately become his signature song. Although none of the tunes could be classed as immediate hits, they sold well enough for the band to be recalled for additional sessions in March 1937 and November 1938. Ironically, some of the materials recorded were somewhat uptown country arrangement of pop song with various band members doing the singing, but the numbers with Roy's lead vocal and the rough-edged hard country sound went over better.
In the meantime, Roy moved his band from Knoxville to Nashville where they joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry at WSM radio. The shift would prove a wise move in terms of being in the right place at the right time. The Opry had been a popular radio show ever since it had started in November 1925, but portions of it began to be carried via a regional network in 1939, and then nationally by NBC in 1941. Furthermore, the country music scene had increasingly shifted from an emphasis on string bands and duets toward individual solo stars. Uncle Dave Macon, the reigning individual Opry star continued as a popular and revered figure, but at age 70 in 1940, was a bit elderly to capture the younger audience. Acuff — who looked younger than he actually was — could and did hold this group. Older country folk, however, found his sentimental mountain ballads, such as "The Precious Jewel," and moralistic warnings like "Wreck on the Highway" to their liking as well as the numerous sacred songs in his repertoire. By the end of 1940, he stood at the top in his field and remained there for several years thereafter.
In 1940, Roy Acuff took his band — renamed the Smoky Mountain Boys when he came to Nashville — to Hollywood for their first film Grand Ole Opry for Republic Pictures. It also starred Uncle Dave Macon, Opry emcee George D. Hay, and vaudeville veterans the Weaver Brothers and Elvira. Although generally classed as corny by most critics, light in plot, and intended primarily for rural audiences it did quite well at the box office and further spread the fame of the man baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean termed "the King of Country Music." The same could also be said of the seven other films in which Acuff appeared during the decade of the forties. Some of these latter efforts for Columbia such as Smoky Mountain Melody and Night Train to Memphis rank among the better of their type.
During this decade of his peak popularity, Roy Acuff petitioned East Nashville Lodge No. 560 to receive the degrees of Freemasonry. Accepted for membership, he was initiated as Entered Apprentice on November 29, 1943. Subsequently Acuff passed to the degree of Fellowcraft on January 10, 1944 and received the Master Mason degree on Febrnary 21, 1944. Three months later he completed the Scottish Rite degrees and was created a noble of Al Menah Shrine Temple on June 27, 1944. Beecher R. Kirby, known on stage as "Bashful Brother Oswald," a long time member of the Acuff band and comedian also became a member of these bodies. More than eleven years after his raising, on the last three days of November 1955., Roy took the York Rite degrees at Edward G. Corbitt Chapter No. 147, R.A.M.; Nashville Council No. 1, R. & S.M. and Nashville Commandery No. 1, K.T., all in the Tennessee capital city.
In 1948 Roy, being a popular figure of Southern mountain Republican stock, was prevailed upon by Volunteer State GOP leaders to seek the governorship of Tennessee. Two persons of country music backgrounds (and also both Masons) W. Lee O'Daniel of Texas and Jimmie Davis of Louisiana had already been elected to the top office in their respective states. While east Tennessee provided solid Republican majorities, the state as a whole remained strongly Democratic and neither Roy nor his Senatorial rnnning mate B. Carroll Reece (long time congressman, and member of Roan Creek Lodge No. 679 Butler, Tennessee and Watauga Commentary No. 25 Johnson City, Tennessee) did as well as hoped. Nonetheless, the King did rack up a record that stood for some years as amassing a record number of losing votes in a Tennessee gubernatorial contest. Al- though primarily an entertainer, he did participate in political causes of his choosing mostly for moderate to conservative republicans, but never again sought public office. He did win the friendship and respect of several presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to George Bush.
The decade of the fifties saw Roy Acuff decline somewhat in popularity as newer and younger country stars began pushing him out of the limelight, yet he remained a revered figure in the business. After fifteen years, he left Columbia Records in 1951, switching to Capitol, and later, Decca, MGM, and Hickory. By the end of the decade, he began approaching the legendary status in the industry that he would hold for the last three decades of his life. Like Bob Hope, he derived special satisfaction from touring foreign military bases during the Holiday season and did so many times. In 1962, Roy became the first living member of the Country Music Hall of Fame (as of this writing at least seven other Masons have also been elevated to this honor: Eddy Arnold, Gene Autry, Jimmie Davis, Tex Ritter, Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Rogers, and Hank Thompson).
Life on the road tended to be a gruelling experience and Roy barely survived an auto crash in 1965. But he mended and continued onward, although he didn't travel quite as much afterward. From the early seventies he increasingly contented himself with Friday and Saturday night appearances at the Opry, and certain special occasions. Through wise investments-including Acuff-Rose song publishing-he no longer had to work at all but chose to do so through sheer love of performing and his fans expecting it. He received numerous honors through the years, both civil and Masonic, including the KCCH on October 15, 1979, and the 33rd degree on October 21, 1985.
A little more than seven years after receiving this highest of Masonic honors, Brother, Companion, Sir knight, and Noble Roy Claxton Acuff went to his reward on November 23, 1992. In order to prevent his funeral from being turned into a spectacle as sometimes happens with celebrities, he was buried within hours of his death. A memorial service was held several days later. His wife, Mildred, had passed away some years earlier. A son and daughter survived, the latter of whom had managed his business affairs in recent years. That many of his recordings remain available today on compact disc, some of them recorded more than a half-century ago, testifies to the enduring quality of much of his music.
Note: Those wishing to learn more about Acuff might wish to consult the book Roy Acuff; The Smoky Mountain Boy by Elizabeth Schlappi (Gretna, LA: Pelican Books, 1978 and 1993). In preparation of this narrative, I am indebted to the aid of the Grand Secretaries of the Grand Lodges of Ohio and Tennessee, as well as to Roger E. Van Dyke and Roger A. Wiseman.