Roy Acuff: Athlete, musician, friend

Sandra ClarkFountain City, Our Town Stories, Union

Sevierville’s got Dolly Parton, but Fountain City and Union County have Roy Acuff, the King of Country Music. And after Roy made some money, playing his fiddle and singing at the Grand Ole Opry, he discovered cousins he never knew he had.

Dr. Jim Tumblin selected Mr. Acuff as one of 56 individuals who made a difference in Fountain City history. (Find his book here.) And that’s quite an honor since the book extends from John Adair, who settled Fountain City in 1788 and built Fort Adair, to Joseph Bruce Gorman Ph.D., who represented the state in 1962 as a member of UT’s GE College Bowl national runner-up team and later wrote the definitive biography of Estes Kefauver.

Jim Tumblin

Three stories reflect Acuff’s love for his friends in East Tennessee, according to Dr. Tumblin.

The first came after Acuff was a settled money-maker in Nashville. When Sherman Wallace’s barbershop in Fountain City burned in 1939, Roy flew in to help his old friend.

He went to Johnson City to visit his high school principal, Hassie Kate Gresham, after her retirement. He told her he was going to be on television and asked her to watch. He was dedicating a song to her. She said she had no television. That afternoon, a brand-new TV was delivered to Ms. Gresham, compliments of Roy Acuff.

A story (not told by Tumblin) is that Acuff was such a good high school athlete that he might have played for more than four years. Back then the biggest game in town was Knoxville High vs. Central High on Thanksgiving Day. Years later, in 1986, Tumblin reports Acuff came to Fountain City Park to be honored as the community’s Man of the Year. He learned that Central High School had 160 athletes using a dressing room that was built for 60, so he pitched in to help build the Roy Acuff Field House at CHS. Acuff donated $25,000 and brought in some buddies for a concert that drew 700. Eventually, another $35,000 was raised.

In a story that hints at why Ms. Gresham got a school named for her (and a new TV), Tumblin recalls Acuff getting called to the principal’s office. Seems Gresham had heard the new kid singing on campus and asked him to lead the singing at chapel the next day. Roy replied, “Aw, I couldn’t do that. I’d drop dead. My legs wouldn’t hold me up.” And Gresham answered, “Son, you can lean on me.”

Finally, when residents of Union County wanted to build a museum to memorialize the county’s history, Roy Acuff stepped up again. He donated $25,000 and some music memorabilia for the facility which bears his name.

Take a minute and meet Roy Acuff through his music. Roy Acuff, born in Maynardville, schooled in Fountain City and worth an estimated $15 million at his death in 1992.          .

1940 recording of Wabash Cannonball

Roy’s father, Neill Acuff, was a lawyer, a judge and pastor of the Baptist church that later became First Baptist of Fountain City. You can hear the Southern Baptist tradition in songs such as “Uncloudy Day.”

And Roy’s favorite song, Great Speckled Bird. (You can see nervousness when he is introduced.)


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