HIS VOICE, A DESOLATE TENOR, COULD be as sad and lonesome as the Smoky Mountains, where he was horn. But Boy Acuff liked to provide his own comic relief between such somber songs as “The Great Speckled Bird” and “The Precious Jewel.” Often he would perform yoyo tricks or balance his fiddle bow on his nose.
Last week, Acuff, the enduring King of Country Music, died in Nashville of heart failure at 89. A Grand Ole Opry stalwart for 54 years, he was buried next to his late wife, Mildred, in a private ceremony in Madison, Tenn.
Acuff had lived for the past 10 years in a house specially built for him on the grounds of Opryland USA, and he made his final Opry appearance on Saturday, Oct. 17. “Up until he went into the hospital in October, he performed every weekend,” says Opryhouse manager Jerry Strobel. “He’d walk around the park for hours on end, signing autographs and getting his picture taken with fans.”
The son of a backwoods preacher and his wife, Acuff—born in Maynardsville, Tenn.—was 26 and eyeing a career as a baseball pitcher when fate intervened in 1929. “I had a contract to go to the Yankees’ camp,” he once recalled, “but I got sunstroke so bad I couldn’t even throw underhand. That was the end of that.”
He fell back on his second love, music. A long apprenticeship took the singing fiddle player from traveling medicine shows to his first Opry date in 1938. An immediate hit, Acuff quickly became one of country’s biggest and—thanks to his and songwriter Frank Rose’s savvy founding of the Acuff-Rose music-publishing company in 1942—richest stars. But it wasn’t his business sense that folks mourned last week. “There was nobody else that sounded like him,” says Opry hand Porter Wagoner. “Not before him or since.”