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Roy Acuff -- King of Hillbillies -- regrets changes in country music

By JIM LEWIS

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It was baseball great Dizzy Dean who said it first: Roy Acuff is king of the hillbillies.

That was later updated to 'King of Country Music'. Roy is still king, but some of his majesty's knights and ladies have gone astray.

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Acuff passed 80 last September and now lives in splendid proximity to the kingdom he was instrumental in building.

He has a little house at Opryland U.S.A., really only a short gulley-jump from the Grand Ole Opry House.

Few people are ever called the 'king' of anything and even fewer live long enough to hear the title to their face.

But, in spite of suggestions that modern country has passed him by, Acuff keeps going every Saturday night at the Opry. He still yo-yos and balances his fiddle bow on his chin to the delight of the Opry crowds.

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He'sobviously done some thinking about the new breed, many of whom don't acknowledge his kingdom and scoff at his devotion to the Opry.

He said some of today's country music is getting away from the basics and many of the new songwriters don't pen tunes out of a Christian atmosphere.

Acuff and William Neely have written 'Roy Acuff's Nashville: The Life and Good Times of Country Music' (Perigee Books, $8.95). During an interview, Acuff was asked whether country music is getting too slick or commercial.

'It's not the very best for me,' he replied. 'But if that's what the people want...They're getting away from the basics of country music. Some of it that's got over into our field is not too presentable especially for the Grand Ole Opry.'

He said many of the songwriters use the 'honky tonk' atmosphere now.

'The atmosphere around them is different than the atmosphere around me when I grew up. I grew up around a Christian atmosphere and my thinking was in a Christian line. Everything I would write was in a Christian line. I wrote a little too much in the Christian line. I get to thinking of death, angels heaven and the Lord and you write what you think.

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'These boys that are writing songs today and calling it country - they are not in the right atmosphere to write good songs. They write about what they are thinking about -- laying on the ground and sleeping on a blanket.'

This was an apparent reference to a song popular a few years ago about a couple of young lovers making love on a blanket.

Acuff's book is spare in its criticism of modern or progressive country music, but he writes that Dolly Parton 'has drifted farther away than most of them.'

'She's become a Hollywood glamour girl, and that's a shame for us because she used to write some good songs,' he wrote.

'A lot of them have drifted away over the years. Take Johnny Cash, for example. If he had stayed with the Opry, he would have been one of the Opry greats, but he wanted to be another John Wayne. He did make a big comeback, for which I think he owes a lot to his wife, June. I'm proud of him. He overcame some big problems and he's a star again.'

In regard to the new country music he says, 'I don't think they (the public) like it as much as it is pushed on them. I think Mr. Deejays are young boys -- most of them are -- and they like it, of course. It's sexy... I think they forget what country music is all about and what it represents. I do hate to see it destroyed. I would hate to see it lose all of it (traditional music).'

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Acuff recounts the early days inrew up and his first work as an entertainer in Knoxville. He moved to the Grand Ole Opry in 1938 and has been a regular performer almost ever since.

Acuff confesses he strayed to Hollywood a while and made a half-dozen movies but he came back to his roots.

Some of the entertainer's hard times and dues paying are recalled - the old medicine and tent shows before he became a star and the gruelling one-night stands made on winding roads in cramped breakdown-prone automobiles.

Acuff tells about his early attempts to be a professional baseball player and his washout because of sunstrokes.

He laughed heartily when asked in the interview why he hasn't bought the New York Yankees.

'Too much Steinbrenner,' he replied. ---

He tells about performing a show at New York's RKO Palace Theater where he had top billing over Ronald Reagan. The book has a picture of the marquee to prove it.

Acuff recalls a 1936 record session in Chicago before he became a star of the Opry. Before the session was over, the record producers figured there were two more songs needed.

'I wrote some more words to a couple of songs I knew as a youngster but was not allowed to sing at home: 'When Lulu's Gone' and 'Doin' It the Old Fashioned Way.',' Acuff says in his book. 'I made them promise me that they wouldn't put my name or any of my boys' names on them in the (record) catalogue. They were a bit risque.'

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The recording artists were listed in the catalogue as the 'Bang Boys.'

He praises Hank Williams, a burnout at 29 but unquestionably one of the greatest talents country music will ever see. He discusses favorably many other artists, such as maverick Waylon Jennings.

Acuff's book mentions many high points in his life, including playing the Palace, Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden in New York, introducing former President Nixon when he dedicated the new Opry House, riding in Air Force One with John Wayne to entertain POWs at the White House, having two stars in the Walk of the Stars in Hollywood and having his footprints in front of the Chinese theater. ---

'Fifty years in show business itself is a high point: I mean just to think that I got paid all of those years for doing something I love so much is unbelievable,' he writes. 'I think I would have done it for nothing if I hadn't gotten paid. The money was always secondary.'

Acuff failed to mention one 'high point' in his life. He ran as a Republican candidate for governor of Tennessee in 1948 and found out the voters didn't want popular entertainers running their state government.

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'I'm proud I wasn't elected because my life in the entertainment world has been prolonged and my life would have been much shorter if I had been governor,' Acuff said. 'I would have been forgotten in the country music field.'

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