“What [Charlie] loved more than anything was playing with people. He was just as happy playing in the house as he was someplace like the World’s Fair. And he never forgot where he came from.” —Boyd Acuff, Charlie’s son
Charlie Acuff (1919-2013) grew up in Union County in eastern Tennessee. “All of us Acuffs were musicians,” he said of his extended family. Some family members also had talents beyond playing instruments—Charlie’s father, Evart, was a luthier, making fiddles that Charlie thought sounded better than anyone else’s. As an adult, Charlie owned five of his father’s fiddles and played them all his life.
Charlie was a frail child, suffering from chronic allergies that made life in the country hard for him. He eventually went to live with his grandparents in the city of Knoxville, where his health improved, and where his musical journey took a turn he’d never expected:
“I started out [learning fiddle] when I was about twelve years old. I was named after my grandfather, and he played the fiddle, and he asked me if I ever got my daddy’s fiddle down and played, or tried to play. I said, ‘Well, I’m left-handed; I don’t guess I could learn.’ He said, ‘We’ll just see about that!’ So he put dots on the fingerboard to show me how to put my fingers, and I started out with that.”
“[Every now and then] he said, ‘Well, let’s try to learn another song, Charlie.’ And he’d start me out on another tune. I’d get tired and want to rest a while, you know, but he’d say, ‘Well, you’ve just about got it. Play it again; try it one more time.’”
Despite the challenges of being a left-handed musician playing a right-handed fiddle, Charlie was a dedicated student. He learned tune after tune from his grandfather, many of them from the Civil War era or earlier. His left-handedness gave him a unique style, and even made it easier for him to play some tunes that right-handed fiddlers found challenging.
“Whenever I heard a song or a tune,” he said, “if I liked it, I played it! I didn’t care what it was.”
In 1938, when Charlie was in his late teens, he and his brother Gayle teamed up with “hillbilly musician” Esco Hankins. With Charlie carrying his fiddle and Gayle bringing a guitar, they’d get into Hankins’ car and travel to Knoxville to perform on a morning radio show, then make the hour-and-a-half drive back to Union County in time to get to school. Radio listeners liked the brothers’ sound, and soon Charlie and Gayle were being hired to play at events from square dances to church socials.
“Square dancers wanted to hear that fiddle, and my dad could sure play it for them,” his son Boyd said.
Charlie enjoyed being paid to perform, and he eventually sought out his second cousin Roy Acuff—the well-known “King of Country Music”—to ask his advice about the music business. Roy warned him that it was hard to succeed, but Charlie might still have tried to become a professional musician if the start of World War II hadn’t intervened. As it was, when the military wouldn’t let him enlist because of his back problems, he took a job at a nearby aluminum plant that badly needed workers. This detour from professional music might have helped him to preserve the rare tunes he’d learned from his grandfather, instead of having to play more common and popular tunes.
For the next forty-odd years, Charlie continued working at the aluminum plant and living a quiet life in Blount County with his wife and three sons—but he remained a performer at heart. He played for audiences or dancers, or at home with family and friends, every chance he got, and was part of the old-time string band The Lantana Drifters for fourteen years. Later in his life, he joined the Museum of Appalachia Band, playing tunes and telling stories for visitors who wanted to experience traditional Appalachian culture.
After Charlie’s retirement in 1982, he devoted himself even more to playing and teaching. He performed often at local and regional festivals and venues, traveled to larger festivals across the nation, and was always eager to pass on tunes and wisdom to the next generation of musicians. As journalist Morgan Simmons wrote, “Over the years his gentle spirit and steadfast love for old-time music has inspired scores of younger players.”
In 2005, Charlie received the Tennessee Governor’s Heritage award for his continuation of old-time music traditions. When someone called him to ask what he thought about getting the award, he related his surprise:
“At first, I just sat on the couch, shocked. Then I got to thinking about all the friends that I have that said all those nice things about me to make this possible. I really think they should have this award, not me. They did the work, and all I did was just fiddle!”
Charlie was known all his life for his friendliness, generosity, and warm personality, especially toward his many fiddle students. They remember him as a welcoming and enthusiastic teacher, always asking them to stay longer to learn another rare tune or two, and constantly echoing his grandfather’s patient encouragement: “You’ve just about got it—play it again.”
Even in Charlie’s last years of life, as old age and health challenges made it increasingly difficult for him to play publicly, he performed when he could and got excited when other musicians would come jam with him. “Charlie has never been one to turn down a gig,” said guitarist John Alvis, who started playing guitar with Charlie as a preteen in the museum band. “He still gets that twinkle in his eyes. All he has to do is walk out on stage, and the crowd loves it.”
Charlie died in 2013 at the age of ninety-three, after a long life and a rich eighty years of fiddling.
“He lived to play the fiddle, and he played all the time. […] If you look at how good of a fiddle player he was, the friends he had, and all of the places he played, then he was a very successful man.” —Boyd Acuff
“Songs of Appalachia: Fiddler Charlie Acuff” – some tunes and excerpts from an interview
Archived biographical information – SmokyKin.com
Article on Charlie’s 90th birthday gathering – Knox News
Memories of Charlie – FiddleHangout.com (scroll down)
Obituaries – Maryville Daily Times; Jubilee Community Arts (scroll down)