Uncle Dave Macon in the studio at WSM circa, 1925. Photo courtesy of Gloria Shacklett-Christy
On Nov. 28, 1925, a white-bearded man sat before a carbon microphone to play a few fiddle tunes on WSM radio.
Uncle Jimmy Thompson played on the air for about an hour as listeners throughout Middle Tennessee perked up to hear the familiar tunes that had been played for generations at barn storming, church socials and square dances.
The response was dramatic. Phone calls began pouring into the radio station demanding to hear more of that “hoe-down” music. The station was besieged by pickers and fiddlers wanting a shot at airwaves. George D. Hay, creator and founder of the Grand Ole Opry, later recalled, “We soon had a good-natured riot on our hands.” And thus the Opry was born.
This was the environment that Uncle Dave Macon began his musical career at the age of 50. Uncle Dave, known as the “Dixie Dew Drop,” was an established performer and recording artist before he joined WSM’s Grand Ole Opry in 1926. It was then he became the first individual performer on the Opry, the status he maintained until his son Dorris joined him in the early 1930’s.
Uncle Dave Macon’s music was steeped in the rural tradition of the South. As with many performers of his day, his music celebrated the rural folk culture of the communities surrounding Nashville and Middle Tennessee. Until the 1920s, most communities surrounding Nashville were remote and isolated. In the 1930s, a description from a local writer from Ashland City, James Aswell, described the area.
“Here, where Paradise Ridge rots away into a series of high limestone knobs cut by trees and ravines, is a pocket of land and people which might have been lifted directly out of our east Tennessee hills. Sagging moss-green cabins, cascades and small waterfalls, barefooted washed out women and gaunt, hard faced men, stills, rutted winding hill traces. Until the highway cut through, these folk were quite isolated as the people of the Smokies, though Nashville was thirty miles away.”
Local artists were heading for popularity. The old-time traditional music played was finally being broadcast over the radio and being heard in these remote areas by the people who had loved the music for generations. This formula launched the successful career of Uncle Dave Macon and deemed him the, “King of the Hillbillies.”People would walk for miles to one house that had a headset just to listen to their local hero on the Opry.
“I remember one Saturday Night, in 1926, when Uncle Dave made his debut on WSM. We had read it in the paper, but we didn’t mention it in Lascassas. We had one of the two head sets in the community, and we were afraid that everybody in that end of the county would swarm our house to hear Uncle Dave and trample us. Nevertheless, the word got around and just about everybody did swarm into our house, except for a few local sages who didn’t believe in radio.”
Around Middle Tennessee, Uncle Dave became a folk hero of sorts with his banjo antics, singing, dancing and jokes. He recorded far more than anyone else in the early days of the Opry and became its first featured superstar. Modern folklorists have said this about Uncle Dave Macon, “With the exception of the Carter Family, Uncle Dave preserved more valuable American folklore through his recordings than any other folk or country music performer.”
Macon’s Opry performances energized the broadcasts in novel fashion, and his success was instantaneous. His habit of a spoken introduction to his songs and his lyrical novelties contrasted nicely to the then largely instrumental presentations.
His consummate showmanship excited the audiences in the Ryman Auditorium. This was picked up by the radio listeners who, in turn, attended in even larger numbers his traveling act.
Uncle Dave’s hillbilly preeminence culminated in the movie “Grand Ole Opry” in 1940, filmed when he was 70. He continued his Opry performances until three weeks before his death in 1952. His son, Dorris Macon, continued in his stead through 1982. Posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1966, the Dixie Dewdrop is survived by a legacy that will be discernible no less in the 21st century.
Uncle Dave proudly played from town to town with his instrument case denoting his notoriety. Sam McGee, who had once played the guitar with Uncle Dave recalled, “I will never forget what Uncle Dave had on his instrument case—‘Uncle Dave Macon, the World’s Greatest Banjo Player,”
The musical heritage is celebrated every year at Uncle Dave Macon Days at Cannonsburgh Village in Murfreesboro. The 37th annual celebration -- starts July 11 when gates open at 8 a.m. with the Matilda Macon Folk Arts Village, Dave Macon Artisan’s Court and Marketplace plus food by the Nashville Food Truck Association.
The Old-time Musical and Dance Competitions begin at 1 p.m. on the Main Stage and the “newest” Dixie Dew Drop Stage. At 6 p.m., the festival will feature 2014 Trail Blazers Tennessee Mafia Jug Band and Leroy Troy with Rowland White. The festival continues July 12 with the famed Motorless Parade Down Historic East Main to Cannonsburgh at 10 a.m., National Dance and Banjo Competitions and the Presentation of the 2014 Heritage Award at 3 p.m. to Grammy Award Winners, Dailey and Vincent.
Also, on July 12 during the Motorless Parade, the Great-grandson of Uncle Dave Macon, John Doubler, will be performing live at Uptown Talk during the Motorless Parade, July 12 at 10 p.m. on the Balcony at Shacklett’s Photography.
Continuing on July 13 the festival entertains with the Gospel Showcase, Wilson Bank and Trust Antique Car Show and Community Service Fair.
Uncle Dave Macon Days is a nationally recognized festival with National contests in Old-time Dance and Banjo. Sanctioned by the U.S. Congress in 1986, the festival’s sole purpose is to not only honor the man who popularized America’s “roots” music, but to preserve and perpetuate the history and culture of the era that defined what we are today. For more information about the 2014 Uncle Dave Macon Festival go to http://www.uncledavemacondays.com.
Excerpts from “A Good Naturied Riot” by Dr. Charles Wolfe, former board member of the Uncle Dave Days and English professor at MTSU, and was one of the leading experts on the history of country music.