Crazy Tennesseans: In Downtown Knoxville, Roy Acuff Started More Than a Career

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

They were well-named. It was a crazy, unexpected thing that happened here, right about 81 years ago.

Country music wasn’t always popular here. In those days that was mainly fiddle music, and it was an esoteric pursuit, rarely encountered on actual stages. Maybe Knoxvillians encountered more of it than the average American did, from buskers at the train station or annual fiddling contests on Market Square. Still, it was easy to avoid.

In the 1920s and early ’30s, Knoxville radio offered only occasional short “hillbilly” shows, a half-hour here or there, often peppered with humor. Knoxville’s two leading stations, WNOX and WROL, offered much more orchestral music and dance jazz, both from national and local sources, than country music.

Despite the Depression, or maybe partly because of it, America tried hard to be elegant. It was the era of Bing Crosby’s hits and Astaire-Rogers musicals shown at the Tennessee or the Riviera. When a man sang a song into a microphone, on film or in person on the stage at the Tennessee, he crooned, and he wore a suit and tie, if not a tuxedo. When you performed in front of people, regardless of the audience, you got dressed up. Of course you did.

Your backup band was called an “orchestra,” regardless of its size, and it generally included cornets, clarinets, perhaps violins. American popular music was like that in the ‘30s. Pop bands were orchestras. The small string band, guitar, banjo, fiddle, whatever, was a ragged folk curiosity.

Roy Acuff fomented a rebellion.

He was an authentic rebel. Making trouble came naturally.

Born in Maynardville, he had moved to Fountain City with his family as a teenager. Before he was a professional musician, Roy Acuff was mentioned in the Knoxville papers for two things. One was his aggressive prowess on the athletic field. A fearsome competitor in football, and basketball, sometimes boxing, and especially baseball, he was such a good hitter he drew the attention of some big-league scouts. His fair skin didn’t get along with the sun, though. After a collapsing a few times, his doctor told him it was safer to come out at night.

Of course the nighttime has its own hazards. The other thing Acuff was known for was a small-time crime. He was occasionally arrested for gambling, bootlegging, and fighting. In July 1930, at the Green Lantern Tea Room on Hotel Avenue, he was shot and wounded in the arm during a fight with a fellow former footballer. In trial, the gunman was freed; it was justifiable self-defense. A lot of folks were afraid of Roy Acuff.

He found a healthier indoor activity when began working seriously on his fiddling and his high, clear singing. His first band was called the Three Rolling Stones. A larger band, formed in Lonsdale, was called the Tennessee Crackerjacks. He added a few more fellows, including Smokies native Clell Summey, who was making sounds with a dobro no one had ever heard before, and his band became the Crazy Tennesseans. There was no better name for them.

They opened a new vein in popular music, unleashing raucous, hard-driving, uninhibited string-band music. People had heard country fiddlers before, but had never seen anything like this. They weren’t suave, they weren’t well-practiced, they weren’t even good looking. Country bands are supposed to be small, but in their early days, the Crazy Tennesseans’ fiddlers, guitarists, and harmonica players sometimes numbered 14. Sometimes they wore work clothes—blue jeans, even—right on stage.

Audiences went wild. In a carefully ordered society, they were a welcome bit of anarchy, a bracing daily riot.

First on WROL, in late 1935 they switched to playing live noon shows on WNOX. That winter the Crazy Tennesseans exploded as a local phenomenon. They represented not just a new kind of music, though much of their music was new and different, but a new kind of subversive, propriety-shattering fun. Maybe it’s a stretch to compare it to the impact, 40 years later, of punk rock.

By February 1936, their audiences were too big for the studio atop the Andrew Johnson Hotel. They were evicted, by some accounts. They had to move into a space in an old newspaper building on the corner of Church and Gay. The stage was a former boxing ring. Crowds outgrew that space, too, and they had to move again, to the 1,500-capacity Market Hall on Market Square. Their success may have been the inspiration for a new noon variety show on WNOX, soon to be called the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round.

Local movie theaters protested. The Crazy Tennesseans were so popular they were hurting cinemas’ matinee crowds, and they didn’t like the fact that the city seemed to be supporting it by letting them use the public hall.

Sometimes the Crazy Tennesseans were superheroes. In May 1936, they were credited with preventing a race riot in Oliver Springs by distracting the populace.

Acuff and his band quit WNOX that spring and went to WROL, that summer inaugurating a concert series of Monday evening shows at North Knoxville’s Arlington Open Air Theater.

They went to Chicago to make records, including one called “The Great Speckled Bird,” extraordinary for its imagery and instrumentation. Most folks had never heard dobro before. It was the beginning of their national fame, but they had some more time to spend in Knoxville. By early ’37, now styled “Roy Acuff and the Crazy Tennesseans,” they were doing midnight shows at the Strand on Gay Street.

The band Acuff took to Nashville was smaller than it had been, and he dropped the Crazy. It became Roy Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys. It made the Opry, and country music, a national phenomenon.

Roy’s boys led the way, and some of their crazy survived. They began something maybe bigger than country music. Within 15 years, the string-band combo, as opposed to the brass orchestra, was becoming the model for pop music, and performers didn’t have to dress up anymore. Acuff’s innovations are mentioned in some histories of rock ’n’ roll. A new madness was loose in the world.

Featured Photo: Roy Acuff (left) performing on WNOX. The other gentlemen may be Jess Easterday and Red Jones. Courtesy Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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