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Acuff, Roy (15 September 1903–23 November 1992), country music singer and composer, was born Roy Claxton Acuff in Maynardsville, Tennessee, just a few miles north of Knoxville in a spur of the Great Smoky Mountains, the son of Neil Acuff, an attorney and pastor, and Ida Florence Carr. The family moved to Fountain City, a suburb of Knoxville, when Acuff was sixteen, and he spent most of his high school years excelling in sports. After graduation he was invited to have a tryout at a major league baseball camp, but a 1929 fishing trip to Florida resulted in a severe sunstroke, and Acuff was bedridden for a number of months. During his convalescence he reawakened an early interest in music and began to hone his abilities on the fiddle. By the time he had recovered, he had given up his dreams of a baseball career and had determined to utilize his newly discovered musical talent....

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Akeman, Stringbean (17 June 1914–10 November 1973), banjo player and comedian, was born David Akeman in Annville, Kentucky, the son of James Akeman and Alice (maiden name unknown). Situated halfway between Corbin and Richmond, Annville was part of a region that produced several other notable banjoists, such as ...

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Autry, Gene (29 September 1908–02 October 1998), country singer, actor, and baseball team owner, was born Orvon Gene Autry in Tioga, Texas, the son of Delbert Autry, a livestock dealer and tenant farmer, and Elnora Ozmont Autry. He later recalled that his family was poor but “never Tobacco Road poor. My father earned good money, when he felt like it, which was some of the time” (Autry, p. 4). They moved frequently during his childhood, to small farms and hamlets in northern Texas and southern Oklahoma, eventually settling outside Ravia, Oklahoma. His grandfather, a Baptist minister, taught him to sing when he was five years old so he could join the church choir; his musically talented mother taught him how to play a mail-order guitar. As a teenager he sang ballads for tips at cafes, and around 1923 he toured for three months with the Fields Brothers Marvelous Medicine Show. During these years he was reportedly fired from a job as a ranch hand because his singing distracted the other hands from their labor....

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Gene Autry. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Foley, Red (17 June 1910–19 September 1968), country music recording artist and television star, was born Clyde Julian Foley in Blue Lick, Kentucky, near the black community of Middletown, the son of Benjamin Harrison Foley, the proprietor of a Berea, Kentucky, general store, and Katherine Elizabeth (maiden name unknown). Foley’s older brother Clarence nicknamed him “Red” because of his hair color. The Foleys attended a black Southern Baptist church, whose music influenced Red. Family members recalled him “entertaining almost as soon as he could walk.” He began playing guitar in earnest when his father took one as trade for groceries. In grade school he was a prankster. At Berea High School (and briefly in college in 1928) he became a star basketball player. A teacher impressed by seventeen-year-old Foley’s singing entered him in a classical competition at Georgetown College (Ky.). Though he forgot the song’s words, he kept going and, said the contest administrator, “won not just for his voice but for his grit.” In 1929, during Foley’s first semester at Berea College, he frequently sang on WCKY radio in Covington, Kentucky, and on Cincinnati’s WLW, where a WLS radio scout heard him and offered a job. Foley left college and borrowed $75 to join the Cumberland Ridge Runners vaudeville group as vocalist and clown on Chicago’s “WLS National Barn Dance,” carried on fifty NBC radio stations. In 1930 he gained a solo spot, dubbed “Ramblin’ Red.” His rich baritone and ease with “high hard” notes earned him instant popularity as “the ...

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Ford, Tennessee Ernie (13 February 1919–17 October 1991), country-music entertainer, was born Ernest Jennings Ford in Bristol, Tennessee, the son of Clarence Thomas Ford, a postal worker, and Maude Long. Ford grew up in a religious family that valued song as an expression of faith. He later said of music, “It was part of our religion, part of our way of life… . God and the Bible meant a lot to us, and hymns and spirituals and gospel songs seemed to us just about the best way of saying what was in our hearts and minds” ( ...

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Ford, Whitey (12 May 1901–20 June 1986), vaudeville and country musician and comedian, also known as the Duke of Paducah, was born in DeSoto, Missouri, fifty miles from St. Louis. The names and occupations of his parents are unknown. When he was one year old his mother died, and he was sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, to be reared by a grandmother. Ford attended Peabody Grammar School, acting in school plays and performing in talent shows. He ran away at age seventeen to join the navy during World War I and served four years. During this time he practiced on the tenor banjo, at that time a competitor with the guitar, until he became an accomplished performer. ...

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Nelson, Rick (08 May 1940–31 December 1985), singer and actor, was born Eric Hilliard Nelson in Teaneck, New Jersey, the son of Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard Nelson (née Peggy Lou Snyder), radio and television stars who did much to define the situation comedy. Nelson made his first professional appearance on radio in 1949 on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” He played the smart-aleck little brother to David Nelson, and his wisecracks were used as laugh-winning punch lines. Moving with his family to television, Rick used the medium to debut as a rock star in the early days of that musical form (1957), recording a cover version of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’,” reportedly to impress a girl. The record sold more than 1 million copies in two weeks, highlighting the fact that the white treatment of rhythm and blues, called rock and roll, could sell, particularly if the singer were photogenic and nonthreatening, or at least not black....

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Ritter, Tex (12 January 1905–02 January 1974), singer and actor, was born Woodward Maurice Ritter in Murvaul, Texas, the son of James Everett Ritter, a farmer and cowboy, and Elizabeth Matthews. Ritter attended school in his church, “which was partitioned into two rooms.” When he was fifteen, the family of eight resettled in Nederland, southwest of Beaumont and Port Arthur. After the harvest, he attended “singing schools” conducted by itinerant teachers, one of whom was ...

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Rogers, Roy (05 November 1911–06 July 1998), country singer and actor, was born Leonard Frank Sly in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of Andrew Sly, a shoe-factory worker, and Mattie Womack Sly, who had become disabled after being stricken by polio. (During the early 1930s he began to use the name Leonard Franklin Slye, although no documentation has been found showing a legal name change.) When Leonard was an infant, his father built a makeshift houseboat on which the family lived on the Ohio River for approximately eight years; they spent much of that time moored near Portsmouth, Ohio. In 1919 they settled on a small farm in Duck Run, Ohio. His father continued to work in Portsmouth and lived away from home for two weeks at a time, so eight-year-old Leonard became responsible for running the farm and hunting with a slingshot in order to feed his mother and three sisters. He later recalled that “for the Slye family, about the most fun we could have together was singing. My whole family was musical. Pop played mandolin and mother played guitar, and my sisters and I all joined in” (Rogers and Evans, p. 25). He and his mother were also accomplished yodelers, using yodels as a form of communication: for example, when his mother wanted to call him in from the fields for dinner, she would use one type of yodel, and if a storm was approaching he would use another yodel as a warning. He learned to play mandolin as a boy and became skilled at calling square dances. Although his ambition was to become a dentist, he was forced to drop out of high school after two years because of financial difficulties. His family then moved back to Cincinnati, where he took a factory job at the U.S. Shoe Company alongside his father....

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Roy Rogers. [left to right] Dale Evans, Roy Rogers, and their horse Trigger, 1958. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Tubb, Ernest (09 February 1914–06 September 1984), singer and songwriter, was born in Crisp, Texas, the son of Calvin Robert Tubb, a cotton sharecropper and sometime bootlegger, and Sarah Ellen Baker. When he was six, his family moved to Benjamin, where his father was a farm overseer. Tubb began school at age nine, attending for two years (which he maintained was equal to four). Described by siblings as a child of “smarts, ambition, and drive,” Tubb wrote poetry and, influenced by silent film stars ...

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Wakely, Jimmy (16 February 1914–23 September 1982), cowboy singer, composer, and film star, was born James Clarence Wakely near Mineola, Arkansas, into a poor farming family. His parents’ names are unknown. Showing musical skills on the guitar and piano, Wakely was influenced by the neowestern music of ...