Uncle Dave Macon

Known variously as ‘The Dixie Dewdrop,’ ‘The King Of The Hillbillies’ and ‘the King Of Banjo Players,’ Uncle Dave Macon was the first real star of The Grand Ole Opry. A natural entertainer and fine five-string banjoist, he didn’t perform professionally until he was past fifty, but went on to become one of the first superstars of country music. He first appeared on the Opry in 1926, where the jovial, exuberant Macon, clad in his waistcoat, winged collar and plug hat, soon became a firm favourite. An Opry performer almost up to the time of his death at eighty-two, the fun-loving banjoist recorded many fine records during his lifetime, sometimes recording solo and sometimes as part of The Fruit Jar Drinkers or, on more religious tunes, as a member of The Dixie Sacred Singers, usually employing fiddler Mazy Todd and The McGee Brothers as supporting musicians. He derived much of his repertoire and stage patter from vaudeville and minstrel shows, but his songs reflected on a wide variety of subjects from political corruption to current events like the advent of the automobile. His long-lasting career presence affected country music like none before it. He was elected to The Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1966, his plaque recalling that the man known as ‘The Dixie Dewdrop’ was: ‘a proficient banjoist and singer of old-time ballads who was, during his time, the most popular country music artist in America.’ The Annual Uncle Dave Macon Days Old-Time Music & Dance Festival has been held every July at Cannonsburgh Village in Murfreesboro, Tennessee since 1977.

The three-day, family-oriented event regularly draws more than 40,000 people and features three National Grand Championships—Old-Time Banjo, Old-Time Buckdancing and Old-Time Clogging. There is also ‘shaped-note’ singing in the country church, and impromptu jam and dance sessions.

David Harrison Macon was born October 7, 1870 in Smart Station, Tennessee. He grew up in a theatrical environment, his parents running a Nashville boarding house catering for showbusiness folk. Following his marriage to Mathilda Richardson, Macon moved to a farm near Readyville, Tennessee, there establishing a mule and wagon transport company which he operated for around twenty years. A talented banjoist and comic, he played at local functions for many years, but always on an amateur basis. He remained unpaid until 1918 when, wishing to decline an offer to play at a pompous farmer’s party, he asked what he thought was the exorbitant fee of fifteen dollars, expecting to be turned down. But the fee was paid and Uncle Dave Macon played his first paid function, being spotted there by a Loew’s talent scout, who offered him a spot at a Birmingham, Alabama theatre.

With the coming of the automobile, especially the mass-produced Ford cars and trucks, his mule-drawn freight line became obsolete. He turned to the only other talent he had, and embarked on a career in entertainment. In 1923, while playing in a Nashville barber’s shop, he met fiddler and guitarist Sid Harkreader, the two of them teaming up to perform at the local Loew’s Theatre, then moving on to tour the South as part of a vaudeville show. A year later, while playing at a furniture convention, the duo were approached by C. C. Rutherford of the Sterchi Brothers Furniture Company, who offered to finance a New York recording session with Vocalion. Macon and Harkreader accepted, recording fourteen songs at the initial sessions and returning in 1925 to produce another twenty-eight titles. Macon's next New York sessions in 1926 found him playing alongside guitarist Sam McGee and recording such tunes as The Death Of John Henry and Whoop Them Up Cindy. By this time, Uncle Dave was touring everywhere from Boston to Florida. His repertoire included well over two hundred songs, ranging from old folk ballads to vaudeville fare and from gospel to minstrel tunes. His comic songs, like Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour, Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy and Hill Billie Blues endeared him to thousands. Soon he was appearing on Nashville’s Saturday Night Barn Dance on WSM, which in 1927 was renamed The Grand Ole Opry.

He appeared in the 1940 film Grand Ole Opry and toured regularly throughout the 1940s. Even though he was at that time in his seventies, he maintained a heavy schedule. Often undertaking long haul trips in package shows with Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Curly Fox and others. He died aged eighty-two on March 22, 1952 in Readyville, just three weeks after his final appearance on The Grand Ole Opry. Uncle Dave had never learned to drive a car, and even said in one song: ‘I’d rather ride a wagon to heaven than to hell in an automobile.’

Recommended Listening

Gayest Old Dude In Town (Bear Family 1985)
At Home In 1950 (Bear Family 1987)
Laugh Your Blues Away (Rounder 1988)
Wait Till The Clouds (Historical 1990)
Country Music Hall Of Fame (MCA 1992)
Travelin' Down the Road (BMG 1995)
Classic Sides Volume 1 – 1924-1938 (JSP 2004)
Classic Sides Volume 2 – 1924-1938 (JSP 2006)