Roy Acuff was the grand old man of the Grand Ole Opry and country music's first superstar.
He sang and recorded such evergreen anthems as "The Great Speckled Bird," "Wabash Cannonball," "Fireball Mail" and "Night Train to Memphis" and was a fixture for more than 50 years at the Opry, that Big Rock Candy Mountain of corn and country where fans go to worship while young singers and pickers perform and pray for success.
Becoming a multimillionaire in a field that prides itself on humble beginnings, Acuff had watched country music begin to grow in the 1920s, when a young balladeer named Jimmy Rodgers was singing for pennies. In those days, Rodgers told simple tales of trains that would take him to faraway places. Today, electronically balanced concerts by such megastars as Willie Nelson draw tens of thousands to outdoor spectaculars.
Yet Acuff seemed unchanged through all the decades of popularity and profit. As an aged icon he told a gathering of cultural giants who had gathered for his 1991 Kennedy Center award that "there are a lot more people who deserve it more than me."
His millions of fans would have taken great exception.
Even as his gait wavered and his eyes dimmed, the acknowledged King of Country continued to fill auditoriums.
Roy Claxton Acuff, who was believed to have been designated "The King of Country" by baseball legend Dizzy Dean, had hoped to become a ballplayer himself.
He had won 13 athletic letters at Central High in Knoxville, the city where his family had moved after Roy's birth near Maynardsville in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. His father was a Baptist preacher and amateur fiddler, and Acuff said he came honestly by the sobriquet "hillbilly."
He was offered a contract by the New York Yankees after he graduated from school, but a severe case of sunstroke ended his athletic aspirations. Instead, he turned to music, which he had learned by singing in his father's churches while teaching himself to play the fiddle.