Roy Acuff’s Fiddle Finds Rightful Place Thanks to Vince Gill

There are some items that are so important, so revered, they shouldn’t be possessed by any individual, but by us all. In country music, this includes a specific set of instruments tied to the music’s history so irrevocably, they comprise the very bedrock of the genre.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has a name for this collection of instruments: The Precious Jewels. This includes the father of bluegrass Bill Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin, the 1928 Gibson L-5 guitar owned by Mother Maybelle Carter, the 1930 Gibson RB Granada banjo owned by Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt’s 1950 Martin D-28 guitar, and the Martin D-28 guitar owned by none other than Hank Williams.

But one of the most important country legends that was previously not represented in this collection was Roy Acuff. The argument can be made that Acuff was country music’s first true superstar. As the face, voice, and fiddle of the Grand Ole Opry for decades, he really helped popularize the genre in the 40’s before Hank Williams and others came on the scene, and was the first performer to adopt the moniker “The King of Country Music.”

Now, a fiddle owned and regularly used by Roy Acuff—and one with a very interesting story behind it—will finally find its way into the Country Music Hall of Fame’s permanent collection, and thanks to a musician who admired Roy Acuff, worked as an Acuff understudy, and currently serves as the President of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Board of Officers and Trustees, Vince Gill.

“We got to be really great friends out at the Opry when I started turning up out there in the late 80’s, and he liked my singing, all the harmony singing that I had in my songs, and I was always undone by his kindness,” says Vince Gill.

The story of Roy Acuff’s fiddle goes back to World War 2. During the war, The Grand Ole Opry presentation persevered back home, and was broadcast overseas to troops serving abroad. In fact a poll conducted by Armed Forces Network’s “Munich Morning Report” near the end of the war found that Roy Acuff was more popular at the time with American GI’s than Frank Sinatra. Acuff was also a regular performer on USO tours. Apparently in the Pacific, some Japanese soldiers took to yelling “To hell with Roy Acuff!” to rib American troops.

That popularity with the troops translated into four soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 348th Engineer Combat Battalion finding a fiddle made in 1890 in a bombed-out music store in Frankfurt, Germany in 1945 near the conclusion of the war, and sending it back to Roy Acuff in the States. The fiddle turned out to be spectacular find—a Austrian-made copy of the highly prized violins crafted by a luthier named Jacobus Stainer in the 1600s.

Roy Acuff didn’t just enjoy and play the fiddle for the sentimental value. If was one of his favorites from the sweet tone it produced, and the fine craftsmanship it boasted. Undoubtedly, it did time balancing precariously on the bridge of Acuff’s chin, which was his signature stage move when the fiddle wasn’t tucked under his chin being sawed away on.

“I came upon it through my friend George Gruhn,” Vince Gill explains. “The granddaughter of ‘Bashful’ Brother Oswald who played for so many years with Roy found out that their granddaughter was going to put it up for sale, and I immediately purchased it for several reasons, the main one being I’d always intended on hoping it would find a home [at the Country Music Hall of Fame].”

The fiddle had been kept in a shadowbox for years in a private collection, with a letter of authenticity signed by Roy Acuff, as well as a letter from 1969 between Acuff and John E. Johnson Sr., who was one of the four original servicemen who sent Acuff the fiddle. Now being affectionately named “Soldier’s Joy” for the old fiddle tune, the instrument has been put on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame with the two original letters, further memorabilia, and with the origin story.

“What’s neat is this fiddle really does have history,” says Vince Gill. “It’s not something he gave somebody to get rid of. It’s a tool he used out there a lot. [And now] it’s home. It’s where it belongs.”

© 2021 Saving Country Music
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