Roy Acuff. Elvis Presley. Bob Wills. George Strait. That’s pretty good company. All four of these men have, rightfully, earned the nickname “The King.” And then there’s that other guy.
You can compare numbers, records, weeks spent at the top of the chart–but it’s really the things you can’t measure that make these artists kings. Consider the cultural impact that they have had on music, America and the world. What would Las Vegas be like without Elvis? What would Texas be like without Bob Wills? These are the questions that make these artists legends.
The Case for Roy Acuff
It pretty much all comes down to firsts here. Roy Acuff started playing the Grand Ole Opry in 1938 and was invited back on a near weekly basis. But up until then, the Opry was primarily an instrumental deal; vocals were often drowned out and overlooked. Enter Acuff. He reared back and belted it out. He himself claimed that he liked to think he brought voice to the Opry, and thus country music. By then he had recorded various hit songs and had already earned himself the nickname “The King of Country Music.”
Then he went on to found Acuff-Rose Publishing Company in Nashville in 1942. Acuff and partner Fred Rose published a young man named Hank Williams, which would forever change the direction of country music. Meanwhile, the success of their company would forever ensure that Nashville remained the home of country music.
In 1962, Acuff was the first living member inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He had sold 25 million records by this point, including more than any other country artist in both the 30’s and 40’s.
The Case for Spade Cooley
The original King of Western Swing, Spade Cooley appeared in 38 western films and had a string of six consecutive No. 1 singles in the 40s. But Cooley was more big band than western. He also nicknamed himself the King, which unhappy Bob Wills fans quickly reclaimed (see below). And he also murdered his wife.
READ MORE: 10 True Crime Stories in Country Music
The Case for Bob Wills
When Spade Cooley died in 1969 after serving eight years in prison for murder, Bob Wills inherited his title as the King of Western Swing. Wills pioneered genre-defying music, fusing big band with western and throwing in a little rhumba, mariachi, jitterbug, or really whatever he wanted. He called his music “Texas fiddle music,” which at its heart, it was.
Wills and the Texas Playboys got people dancing and set a whole bunch of records along the way. For example, “New Spanish Two Step” spent 16 weeks at No. 1 in 1946. Wills and his Texas Playboys were inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Case for Elvis Presley
First of all, he’s Elvis. If that isn’t case enough consider that Elvis has reputedly sold over 600 million records. His certified sales made him the best-selling solo act of all time until Garth passed him this January–but these figures tend to favor modern artists. Elvis has 114 Top 40 singles and his albums spent 67 weeks at No. 1, more than any other artist in history.
While technically, Elvis is the King of Rock & Roll, his style mixed country and blues and he remains to this day the only pop musician some country fans will listen to. He is simply The King to most, regardless of genre.
But the numbers only tell part of the story. Elvis was also a soldier, movie star, sex symbol, and one of the most influential people of the 20th century. His legacy will forever be inscribed in our culture in Elvis sighting, UFOs, collectible plates, shotgun weddings and Graceland, among too many other references to name.
Then there was that shimmy. The devil’s music, I say! The devil’s music!
The Case for George Strait
No one in country music history has more No. 1 albums, gold albums, platinum albums, or multi-platinum albums than Strait. Only Elvis and the Beatles have more in the history of music. He has more No. 1 and Top 5 songs than any artist, ever.
He’s won 22 CMA awards.
He has a holiday named after him in Texas.
And here are 23 more reasons why George Strait is the King.
So? Who deserves to be the King?
Tough call. It ultimately has to come down to Elvis and George Strait, despite Acuff’s and Wills’ contributions to shaping the country landscape. You simply can’t argue with the records that the two have set.
Elvis or George? Elvis or George? Elvis or George?
It’s impossible. Perhaps the best way to test the lasting legacies of these two men is to ask the next pre-teen you see to sing you one of their songs. Whichever artist they sing first, that’s your man.
Of course, if Waylon or the Mick had anything to say about it…