Roy Acuff is one of the towering figures in country music history, a highly-regarded performer and Grand Ole Opry star, Acuff was also a business visionary and helped transform Nashville from a sleepy regional town into "Music City, USA," the iconic hub of the country music industry. The root of his power came from his publishing house, Acuff-Rose Music, which he formed in 1942, with his partner Fred Rose. They understood early on the importance of publishing rights, and swiftly corralled as much songwriting talent as they could, and helped create the studio-oriented system that has dominated Nashville ever since, where managers, label heads and publishers determine what music gets made, and what music doesn't.
In addition to his legacy as a businessman, Acuff was a fine performer. Although he came to specialize in gospel material, he also sang some great stuff in his early years that drew on traditional mountain music and blues roots as well. When honky-tonk music swept the country scene, Acuff's style soon sounded hopelessly old-fashioned; and yet, for modern listeners, his sentimental old recordings now can hold great appeal. Here's a quick look at his work...
Roy Acuff "The King Of Country Music: 1936-1947" (ASV-Living Era, 1998)
Roy Acuff was one of the main movers and shakers in the growth of Nashville from just another Southern city into the nerve center of American country music. He gained nationwide fame as the host of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930s, as the ambitious regional radio show expanded into a nationally broadcast program, soon to become the premiere hillbilly radio show. Acuff was also a key player in the music publishing industry; the Acuff-Rose publishing house, founded with partner Wesley Rose, became one of the dominant powers in Music City, brokering high profile deals between artist's, managers, record labels and the numerous songwriters that flocked to Nashville in the postwar years. Finally, Acuff was a fine performer who helped form a bridge between country music's bluesy "hillbilly" roots and its smoother postwar incarnations. This fine 25-song collection includes his biggest hits, back from when Acuff was king of the hillbilly singers, including such early country standards as "Great Speckled Bird," "Wabash Cannon Ball" and "Beautiful Brown Eyes." Coming up at a time when an entire generation of singers devoted themselves to imitating yodeller Jimmie Rodgers, Acuff found his own voice, hewing to nostalgic and religious material, but singing in a stripped-down, less emotive style that softened the twangy, backwoods music and made it more accessible to a mainstream audience. Acuff was a prefect country spokesman, sticking to a tradionalist repertoire while expanding the music's appeal into a wider audience. As with other ASV releases, this generously programmed best-of has first-rate song selection, fine sound quality, and -- most importantly -- includes the original versions of tunes that Acuff re-recorded numerous times in years to come. Thus far, this is the best single collection of Acuff's work to be found in the CD era... Highly recommended!
Roy Acuff "Columbia Historic Edition" (Columbia/Country Music Foundation, 1985)
This set originally came out as an LP, back in 1985, and the cover art ain't much to write home about. But hey, if it's curated by the folks at the Country Music Foundation, you know it's gotta be good. Vintage oldies from Acuff's early years; I have it on vinyl and I suspect that the sound quality is better there than on the CD reissue, which came out fairly early in the digital era. Still, it's a first-class look at Acuff's glory years, worth picking up if you wanna check him out.
Roy Acuff "The Essential Roy Acuff: 1936-1949" (Sony, 1992)
This was the old standard-issue best-of from the early CD era. It's another nice set, generously programmed with twenty tracks, all taken from Acuff's early years. Pretty tasty stuff; more or less interchangable with the ASV and CMF albums listed above.
Roy Acuff "The King Of Country Music" (Bear Family, 1993)
This 2-CD set is drawn from Acuff's 1950s recordings, made for the Capitol and Decca labels, and includes re-recorded versions of many of his classic songs, first recorded on Columbia in the 1930s and '40s. It's nice, though the studio sound at the time was much smoother and less bluesy than on the originals. Although he was one of the most powerful men in Nashville at the time, Acuff was still a bit of a throwback, with sparse arrangements and a plain, simple delivery that was in sharp contrast to the increasingly lavish production and poppish crooning of the day. Personally, I find his old stuff more exciting, but this is still a nice set, and has Bear Family's hallmark great sound quality and well-researched liner notes.
Roy Acuff "Two Dozen Times The King Of Country" (Binge Disc/Cattle, 2006)
Roy Acuff "The Rare Masters By The King Of Country Music" (Binge Disc/Cattle, 2006)
Roy Acuff "Hear The Mighty Rush Of Engine" (Jasmine, 2001)
Roy Acuff "King Of Country Music" (Proper, 2004)
Roy Acuff "King Of The Hillbillies, v.1: The First 100 Commercial Recordings" (Proper, 2008)
Roy Acuff "King Of Country Music" (Tee Vee, 1982)
Roy Acuff "Songs Of The Smoky Mountains" (Capitol, 1955)
Roy Acuff "The Essential Roy Acuff" (Sony Legacy, 2004)
Although this 14-song collection is a step backwards from Sony's previous Essential collection of a decade earlier (which had a half-dozen more tracks on it), it's nice that students of country music can still find an affordable best-of set for this legendary figure. And the sound quality is quite nice; CD technology has come a long way since '92. So, all in all, I'd say this one's a winner, full of prime material from Acuff's peak years, 1938-49. If you don't already have this music, you should pick this one up and check it out.
Roy Acuff "Gospel Favorites" (Music Mill, 2004)
Religious material; this disc is generously packed with twenty tracks, although I'm not sure what vintage they are (I haven't seen the album myself, and often these cheapie reissues don't have the greatest liner notes anyway...) If you're interested, though, you might also want to check out my Country Gospel section for similar albums.
Roy Acuff "The Good News According To Mr. Roy Acuff" (Audium, 2001)
A collection of gospel material recorded during Acuff's stint on his own Hickory Records label, recorded during the 1960s and '70s.
Roy Acuff "In The Shadow Of The Smokies" (BACM, 2005)
Roy Acuff "The Great Roy Acuff" (Capitol, 1964)
The world of country music had long since passed Acuff over as a recording star when this album came out. His style was antiquated and a bit stiff, and though he was a major force in the Nashville song publishing establishment, his hits were few and far between following the advent of the swank, hi-fi "Nashville Sound." That being said, this is a mighty fine album. Sure, Acuff was kind of long in the tooth and geezerly, but he made the most of modern recording techniques and the crackerjack studio crews available at the time. Revisiting some old hits, he gives them a new lease on life with the sonic richness of the stereo era, and like many old-school country singers, he knows how to sing with sincerity and conviction, particularly on the gospel material. This album is certainly worth picking up... an old master still in fine form.
Roy Acuff "The Voice Of Country Music" (Capitol, 1965)
Roy Acuff "Roy Acuff Sings Hank Williams" (Hickory, 1966)
(Produced by Wesley Rose)
Sounds like a great idea -- the Acuff-Rose publishing house owned all of Hank's songs, to there was certainly history between the two, and a wealth of material to draw on... But this is a pretty blah album: Acuff was clearly over the hill, and doesn't really sound like his heart was in it. And while there are some talented musicians adding some sweet riffs, in general the arrangements were kind of bland and an uneasy mix of traditional and pop-tinged country. On track after track, you keep hearing the start of a great old Hank song, and then being disappointed by the followthrough. Oh, well. I'm sure there are Acuff devotees out there who will disagree with me, though, so take this review with a grain of salt. (NOTE: A 2007 CD reissue on Varese Sarabande adds several bonus tracks from different sessions -- I haven't heard those tracks yet, but imagine they add some nice perspective on the original album.)
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