Uncle Dave Macon

Banjo strummer and country pioneer, one of the earliest members of the Grand Ol' Opry.

David Harrison Macon, b. October 7, 1870 in Smart Station, TN, d. March 22, 1952 in Readyville, TN, old-time banjo player, singer, songwriter, and comedian. Known for his chin whiskers, plug hat, gold teeth, and gates-ajar collar, he gained regional fame as a vaudeville performer in the early 1920s before becoming the first star of the Grand Ole Opry in the latter half of the decade.

Macon's family moved to Nashville when his father, a Confederate captain in the Civil War, bought the city's Broadway Hotel. Macon learned to play the banjo and acquired songs from the vaudeville artists who stayed at the hotel. He married in 1889 and started the Macon Midway Mule And Wagon Transportation Company, which was later described in the song 'From Here To Heaven'. His mule-drawn wagons carried goods between Murfreesboro and Woodbury. Macon performed at venues along the way. However, the business collapsed following the advent of a motorized competitor in 1920. Although he had worked as a jovial entertainer for many years, he never thought of turning professional until a pompous farmer asked him to play at a wedding. Macon demanded $15, certain that he would be turned down; it was accepted and became his first professional booking. At the age of 52, when Uncle Dave Macon launched his professional career, his songs and humour proved so popular that he was soon known all over the south. He became the first star of the Grand Ole Opry when it was launched in 1925 with material covering folk tunes, vaudeville, blues, country and gospel music.

In 1927, Macon formed the Fruit Jar Drinkers with Sam And Kirk McGee and Mazy Todd - their tracks among the finest produced by old-time string bands. In 1931 he was the main attraction of the Grand Ole Opry's first touring show, working with his son, Dorris (d. 15 February 1981), and the Delmore Brothers. Between 1924 and 1938, Macon recorded over 170 songs, which makes him among the most recorded of the early-day country stars. Despite the age of the recordings, his whooping and hollering brings them to life, and notable successes included 'Arkansas Traveller' and 'A Soldier's Joy'. 'Hill Billie Blues' is possibly the first recorded song ever to use hillbilly in its title. His 1927 recording of 'Sail Away Ladies' was converted into the 50s skiffle hit, 'Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O'. Macon appeared with Roy Acuff in the 1939 film Grand Ole Opry, which showed that, even at an advanced age, he was a fine showman.

Macon stopped touring in 1950 and he made his last appearance at the Grand Ole Opry on 1 March 1952. After his death at Murfreesboro in 1952, a monument was erected near Woodbury by his fellow Grand Ole Opry associates and he was posthumously elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1966.


Uncle Dave Macon Biography by James Manheim

Uncle Dave Macon, beginning his professional musical career after the age of 50, brought musical and performance traditions of the 19th-century South to the radio shows and the recording catalogues of the early country music industry. In 1925, he became one of two charter members of the Grand Ole Opry, then called the WSM Barn Dance. A consummate showman on the banjo and a one-man repository of countless old songs and comic routines, Macon remained a well-loved icon of country music until and beyond his death in 1952.

Born David Harrison Macon in Smartt Station in middle Tennessee's Warren County, he was the son of a Confederate officer who owned a large farm. Macon heard the folk music of the area when he was young, but he was also a product of the urban South: after the family moved to Nashville and began operating a hotel, Macon hobnobbed with traveling vaudeville musicians who performed there. After his father was stabbed near the hotel, Macon left Nashville with the rest of his family. He worked on a farm and later operated a wagon freight line, performing music only at local parties and dances.

Macon's turn toward a musical second career was due partly to the advent of motorized trucks, for his wagon line fell on hard times in the early '20s after a competitor invested in the horseless novelties. In 1923, he struck up a few tunes in a Nashville barbershop with fiddler Sid Harkreader, and an agent from the Loew's theater chain happened to stop in. Soon Macon and Harkreader were touring as far a field as New England, and when George D. Hay began bringing together performers two years later for what would become the Opry, Macon was a natural choice. The tour also brought Macon the first of his many recording dates, held in New York for the Vocalion label in 1924. Macon would record prolifically through the 1930s (and occasionally up to 1950) for various labels, accompanied at different times by Harkreader, the brother duo of Sam & Kirk McGee, the Delmore Brothers, the young Roy Acuff, and other string players including a then-unknown Bill Monroe. For secular material, his backing band took the name of the Fruit Jar Drinkers.

Macon's recordings are richly enjoyable in themselves and are priceless historical documents, both for the large variety of banjo styles they preserve and for the window they afford on American song of the late 19th century. Macon performed musical-comic routines such as the "Uncle Dave's Travels" series, topical songs, often of his own composition ("Governor Al Smith"), playful folk songs ("I'll Tickle Nancy"), gospel with his Dixie Sacred Singers, blackface minstrel songs, unique proto-blues pieces that Macon learned from African-American freight workers ("Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy"), and songs of other types. Yet "the Dixie Dewdrop" was loved most of all for his presence as a live musician, captured not only on the weekly Opry broadcasts (which were broadcast nationally for a time in the 1930s) but also in the 1940 film Grand Ole Opry. Macon delivered what an 1880s southern vaudeville audience would have demanded for its hard-earned dollar: showmanship (he handled the banjo with Harlem Globetrotters-like trick dexterity), humor, political commentary (often of the incorrect variety by modern standards), and unflagging energy.

Macon continued to appear on the Opry almost until his death, gradually taking on the status of a great-hearted living link to country music's origins. He became the tenth member of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1966, and the revival of old time music that flourished as part of the folk movement focused the attention of younger listeners on his music. Yet Macon remains less well understood, and less present in the musical minds of country listeners, than Jimmie Rodgers or the Carter Family, even though he was nearly as well-known in his own day. Perhaps that's because he represents an older layer of American music-making than almost any other performer known to country audiences: modern hearers can easily connect with Rodgers' blues or the Carters' homespun sentiment, but Macon may require greater effort. Such effort, in any case, is well repaid by an acquaintance with his musical legacy.