Monday, July 18, 2016

"Down in Union County" as played by Charlie Acuff, arguably East Tennessee's best old-time fiddle player

Charlie Acuff interviewed by John Rice Irwin

In this interview at Irwin's Museum of Appalachia on Highway 61 near Norris, he and Acuff discuss Charlie's father and fiddle-maker Fate Cassidy, comparing Everett Acuff's fiddles to Uncle Fate's. Then they play a tune -- "Down in Union County to see Mrs. Suzy Ann."

Acuff died in 2013 at the age of 93. He worked at the Alcoa Inc. aluminum plant in Alcoa, Tenn., and played in Knoxville-area bands for many years. Old-time musicians considered his style to be less commercial than that of musicians who moved to Nashville and played in the growing country music industry. He was revered by younger musicians, especially after the old-time music revival that began in the 1970s and continues to the present.

"Over the years his gentle spirit and steadfast love for old-time music has inspired scores of younger players, a number of whom will be on hand to play for his birthday party," said staff writer Morgan Simmons of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, when his 90th birthday was celebrated in 2009 at the Music Row store outside of Maryville.

Simmons said Acuff had been hospitalized recently, but:

"We decided to go ahead with the event even if we have to take Charlie down in a wheelchair," said Juanita Johnson, who has played bass with Acuff for the past 30 years. "The doctors are optimistic he'll be able to make it."

Like his second cousin, country music legend Roy Acuff, Charlie grew up in Union County. At age 12 he learned to fiddle from his grandfather, Charlie Boyd Acuff, whose repertory included "Josie Girl" and "Cricket on the Hearth" - tunes that date back to the Civil War.

In 1938 Acuff began playing on Knoxville radio with his brother, Gayle, backing him up on guitar. For 14 years he played fiddle with the old-time band the Lantana Drifters, and in 1985 he received the Tennessee Governor's Award in the Arts.

His last public performance was in October at the Museum of Appalachia's Fall Homecoming. Accompanying him on guitar that day was 30-year-old John Alvis, who has been playing with Acuff since he was 12 years old.

"Charlie has never been one to turn down a gig," Alvis said. "He still gets that twinkle in his eyes. All he has to do is walk out on stage, and the crowd loves it."

According to an unsigned obituary in the Maryville paper:

Acuff received a Tennessee Governor’s Award in the Arts in a 2005 ceremony that also included Memphis soul legend Isaac Hayes. Roy Garrett, who owned Roy’s Record Shop in downtown Maryville for 42 years before closing the store in 2005, said Acuff was a longtime customer.

Garrett said he would visit venues where Acuff was playing and he was oftentimes invited onstage to play alongside the southpaw fiddler.

“I didn’t play a whole lot back then,” Garrett said. “But he knew that I did and he would always invite me up to do a song or two with him when they were playing.”

Garrett said Acuff had a large number of fans in the area and was an extremely likeable person with a great personality.

He said musician and songwriter John Hartford, who died in 2001, learned a great deal of Old Time fiddle tunes from Acuff.

“John’s well known for knowing a lot of Old Time fiddle tunes,” Garrett said. “But John learned a lot of (those) tunes from Charlie. When someone like Charlie dies out, they take a lot of Old Time fiddle tunes out with them in their head.”

Another Performance

Roger Howell - Lunsford Festival 2015 - "Down in Union County."

At the daytime portion of the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival at Mars Hill University, in Mars Hill, N.C., Oct. 24, 2015. Master fiddler Roger Howell playing and singing "Down in Union County." Other musicians are Bobby Hicks on the fiddle, Mike Hunter on the mandolin, Brian Hunter on the guitar, and John Davis on the bass.

Works Cited

"Lefty Fiddler Charlie Acuff Dies," Maryville (Tenn.) Daily Times, Nov. 23, 2013.

Morgan Simmons. "Event to Recognize Fiddler Charlie Acuff's 90th Birthday."

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