70 Years Ago: Roy Acuff Declares His Candidacy for Tennessee Governor
On July 24, 1948 -- 70 years ago today -- Roy Acuff declared his candidacy for governor of Tennessee. But it wasn't the first time the country legend had become embroiled in state politics.
According to Acuff's New York Times obituary, he was a "protest candidate" for governor in the 1944 primaries on the Republican and Democratic ballot. The reason? In 1943, then-Tennessee governor Prentice Cooper disparaged country music by declining to attend a party feting the Acuff-hosted Grand Ole Opry radio show going nationwide. According to the book Smile When You Call Me a Hillbilly: Country Music's Struggle for Respectability, 1939-1954, in Cooper's eyes, Acuff was making Nashville and Tennessee the "hillbilly capital" of the U.S.
Four years later, however, the country legend emerged from the primaries as the Republican candidate, on a platform the New York Times noted centered on the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. "If they don't work in the Capitol, then I don't want to be governor," Acuff reportedly said.
The musician breezed through the primary, receiving 81 percent of the vote, and then hit the campaign trail while still juggling his Grand Ole Opry duties. Acuff's popularity buoyed him in the solidly blue state, and — save for an appearance in which he was hit with a grapefruit and an ill-advised attempt to stretch his stumping speeches from 15 to 30 minutes — he was taken seriously. His platform was robust: The book Roy Acuff, The Smoky Mountain Boy outlines that, among other things, he was anti-poll tax and against a tax on churches, and pro-union and pro-states' rights.
That same book quotes a contemporary article about the gubernatorial run that noted Acuff's "earnestness" and "homespun honesty" as he campaigned: "Oh, he still sings and fiddles, but they meet a new man, a plain, sincere man who impresses them as a fellow who wants to be governor to serve the average citizen, to do his best for the people regardless of party affiliation. It's evident that they are sold on Roy Acuff as an honest sincere politician, just as much as they were sold on Roy Acuff the troubadour. How many of them will come back and vote for him, however, I don't know."
That last line proved to be unfortunately prophetic. In fact, the Nov. 2, 1948, election wasn't close: Acuff received just 33 percent of the vote and lost to the Democratic candidate, Gordon Browning. Decades later, however, Acuff made it clear that the loss didn't bother him; in fact, he considered it almost a blessing in disguise.
"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 told UPI in 1984. "I would have been forgotten in the country music field."
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