Grave Story: Roy Acuff (1903-1992)

Here lies Roy Acuff, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and one of the earliest country music stars. For more than 50 years, he served as an ambassador for country music and was a fixture at the Grand Ole Opry.

Now, you might be thinking, “Hey, this is RIP Baseball, not Hillbilly Heaven. What gives?!” Ah, but there is a baseball connection here. Acuff accomplished everything that he did in country music only because his dreams of playing pro baseball almost killed him. (Incidentally, if you are interested in gravesites of country music legends, go to Instagram and do a search of the hashtag #rip_countrymusic. I’ve found quite a few in my trips to Nashville.)

A young Roy Acuff in the Tennessean, March 8, 1925.

Roy Acuff was born in Maynardville, Tenn., on September 15, 1903. He was a terrific athlete in high school in Knoxville, Tenn., lettering in basketball, football and baseball. A Tennessean article from 1967 said he was a good pitcher and could play in the field as well. In fact, Tennessean newspaper columns in the 1920s did frequently mention the young Acuff’s athletic accomplishments, not knowing that the paper would be covering him for much different reasons within a few years. He played semi-pro baseball and even earned a tryout in 1929 with the Knoxville Smokies, a minor-league team affiliated with the New York Giants, but a sunstroke ended his dreams.

“One day I passed out in the dugout,” he said. “I tried to play again two or three more times, but the same thing happened. So I knew I couldn’t play baseball.”

That disappointment and illness led to a nervous breakdown. Stuck indoors, Acuff took to practicing on a fiddle, and a new passion for music sprung up. By the end of the decade, he was appearing on the Grand Ole Opry and releasing hit songs. “Wabash Cannonball,” “Great Speckled Bird” and “Night Train to Memphis” are among his memorable songs.

President Richard Nixon and Roy Acuff on the Grand Ole Opry stage, 1975. Source: Country Music Hall of Fame

Acuff tried to parlay his music success into politics, but a bid to become the Republican governor of Tennessee in 1948 fell short. Behind the scenes in country music, he formed Acuff-Rose Publications, a publishing house that’s still around today, albeit as part of the Sony Music empire. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1962, the first living person to receive the honor. He was the face of the Grand Ole Opry until his dying day. When President Richard Nixon showed up on the Opry on March 16, 1974, Acuff famously tried to teach him some yo-yo tricks (Acuff was a whiz at it). Nixon was neck-deep in Watergate at the time, looking to get away from it all and, without a golf course to call his own, went to Nashville to receive a hero’s welcome at the Opry. “I will stay here and try to learn how to use the yo-yo,” Nixon cracked. “You go up and be president, Roy.”

Roy Acuff was well before my time when I got into country music, but “Wabash Cannonball” is a tremendous song, and “Great Speckled Bird” belongs in the canon of country music, too. I believe that one of his last recordings, if not the last, was a guest appearance on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. II album. He sang on their first Circle album, too, and I thought it was great that one of country music’s old-school legends would show up to sing with a bunch of long-hair West Coast hippies. He didn’t rail against the next generation of country music; he helped pass along the torch.

Roy Acuff died on November 23, 1992 from heart failure. He was 89 years old. He is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, which is a virtual who’s who of country music legends. Right across from Acuff’s monument is Earl Scruggs’ final resting place, and bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin is not far away. There’s also a good bit of baseball history at Spring Hill as well, and we’ll get to that in time, too.

Hopefully in the Field of Dreams, some skinny kid from Tennessee got a chance to play on a sunny day with no health problems whatsoever.

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