By 1987, after its small beginnings as a one day banjo pickin’ contest, Uncle Dave Macon Days had become one of the Southeast’s fastest growing old-time music festivals. 1987 marked the 11th Annual Uncle Dave Macon Days.
In 1986, Congress had declared the festival National Championships in old-time dance in clogging and buckdancing. In addition, Uncle Dave’s “claw-hammer banjo” performing style had achieved prominence as the festival’s National Championship in the Old-time Banjo competition. So 1987 was the first year that these national competitions would be featured as a part of the festival. Clearly, Uncle Dave Macon Days was carving out its own popular niche beyond loyal and regional enthusiasts to include musicians and dancers across America.
When I first volunteered to help the summer of 1982, I soon found that Jesse Messick, the founder of Uncle Dave Macon Days, a man of remarkable character and conviction. He had the ability to see the “best” in an individual and encourage them beyond their own perception of themselves.
In 1984, Jesse had asked me to direct the festival. In those days, I was grieving from a broken marriage and was overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy and failure. Somehow, in his wisdom Jesse persuaded me to look beyond my circumstances and rely on God for the results in every facet of my life. This included how a festival was to be developed and directed. Up until then, I really did not think God cared about those kinds of details in everyday life.
Jesse, a prominent businessman, owned Messick Family Pharmacy which had been a fixture on the Public Square. Jesse had served on the County Commission and was devoted to his community particularly the downtown area. He particularly loved the music and the comedy of the early days of the Grand Ole Opry. In 1977, after being involved in an event that inspired Uncle Dave Macon Days called the “Homespun Days”, Jesse came up with the idea to create an event featuring the music of those early Opry days. It was his hope that this event would bring a family friendly activity to the Square drawing interest back to the downtown area. The business area around the Public Square had succumbed to the impact of shopping centers.
Jesse’s dream was to stimulate the economy and vitality of the downtown by establishing an event around the Opry’s first superstar, Uncle Dave Macon. Uncle Dave, one of Rutherford County’s most flamboyant and famous figures as well as a life-long resident, had died in 1952.
By 1987, through Jesse’s leadership and guidance the festival organizers had truly bonded. Jesse’s “empowerment technique” was simply to affirm your gifts and allowing them to flourish in the context of working in a group initiative on the festival. As the 1987 festival approached, we all realized that the Uncle Dave Macon Days Committee was more than just a group of organizers. Not only had we become a national competition, but with Jesse’s leadership, we had flourished into an extended family. Indeed, we were truly a blended family each one with their own unique gifts.
Jesse’s life-path of sacrificial faith was an eye-opener, the like’s of which I had never experienced. Although I had been festival director since 1984 and being a “control freak,” I found this kind of behavior unsettling. How could one surrender everything to God including a music festival? He always reassured me that God was a like a kind father who really cared about the assignments that were given to us. “Total surrender to God” seemed so unrealistic, even irresponsible, like a pious evasion of personal responsibility.
That year many encircling circumstances threatened to stifle our efforts. If Uncle Dave Macon Days was going to happen in 1987, it was clearly going to take more than Jesse, myself as director, or any of the rest of us on the committee. Similar to this year, among other obstacles was the over powering heat and drought that had plagued Middle Tennessee. As I recall it had not rained significantly since May.
As Saturday morning of the competition began, the sun beat down relentlessly on the pavement of the Public Square. Wave’s of heat blurred one’s sight when looking out from the splotches of shade beneath the immense trees on the Courthouse lawn. Only a few pickers would brave the elements and only a few ventured out to endure what was to be a scorcher of an afternoon.
During the opening ceremonies on Friday, Jesse’s pastor had led the smattering crowd in a brief prayer. Among his simple petitions to the Lord, he fervently prayed for rain. I remember thinking as I gazed up into the blazing, clear, cloudless blue sky, “That’s nice, but not this weekend, okay, Lord? It’s not going to fit into the plans for the festival.”
Out of no where on that Saturday afternoon in the summer’s haze like sheep in a vast field of blue appeared a clouded canopy. Then, as if a towering angel began to flap her dewy wings, a sweet breeze breathed in a delightful afternoon shower which swept across the Square bringing soothing cool relief over the entire downtown area.
Moistened and refreshed, the air was sparked with a charge of excitement and attraction. Within a short time after the rain, an enormous crowd converged. Attendance kept growing and growing and by Saturday evening, we had the largest crowd ever at Uncle Dave Macon Days. It was the first year that the crowd expanded outside the courtyard and onto Main Street, and it was apparent that the event would soon outgrow the Square. Eventually, in 1989, we moved the festival to Cannonsburgh Village right off the Public Square.
As it happened that would be Jesse’s last Uncle Dave Macon Days. He died in the spring of 1988. Beyond his passing, Jesse left a legacy of faith in all of us who have volunteered for the past 37 years with this remarkable gift of love to our community. Year after year, we have learned that the festival is an opportunity to discover God’s power as well as a way to honor and reflect his kindness and abundance.
Recently, we have discovered that many of our young prodigies have gone on to great things—careers in music playing such talents as Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent, and the Dixie Chicks. Many of our dancers are now professionals on the Grand Old Opry. Jamie Dailey from the famed, “Dailey and Vincent” bluegrass duo and one of the 2014 Heritage Award Winners played as a young musician under the canopy of trees and majestic columns at Uncle Dave when the festival was on the Square. I am still amazed how God has used this festival to show His grace and goodness across the decades.
All who are involved continue to face the challenges of organizing an event run primarily by volunteers. Every year, there is a unique set of circumstances that we must trust to God. Together, those of us who organize and operate Uncle Dave Macon Days collectively rise to meet the challenge and take confidence that in some small way we may serve to advance God’s Kingdom here in Rutherford County.
We thank God as He continues to bless our efforts. Uncle Dave Macon Days is noted as one of the South’s premiere music festivals. Twice, the event was honored by the American Tour Bus Association as one of the Top 100 Events in North America. This year, 2014, the Southeastern Tourism Society honored Uncle Dave Macon Days as the one of the Top 20 Event in the Southeast for the month of July. Also, we were selected as the “Best Festival in Middle Tennessee”.
The 37th Annual Uncle Dave Macon Days is filled with activities for all ages is always the second weekend in July. This year’s dates are July 11-13. The music and dance competitions are the centerpiece for a weekend of 20th century Americana. From blacksmithing demonstrations to the Matilda Macon Craft Village, you’re sure to find yourself infatuated with the Uncle Dave lifestyle.
The festival starts Friday, July 11 (gates open at 8 a.m.) with competition beginning at 1 p.m. on two stages simultaneously this year (old-time singing on the Dixie Dew Drop Stage and the Dobro and Dulcimer and the National Championship Junior old-time dance categories on the Main Stage.
Friday evening at 6 p.m. will feature the 2014 Trail Blazers the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band with Leroy Troy and Rowland White. Saturday, July 12th at 9 a.m., the festival continues with the Motorless Parade down East Main to the festival at Cannonsburgh at 10 a.m. The 2014 Heritage Award Winners “Dailey and Vincent” will be Grand Marshall’s and be appearing live on stage at 3 p.m.. On our new Dixie Dew Drop Stage, Sunday, July 13 will feature the Wilson Bank and Trust Antique Auto Show and the Gospel Showcase and Community Service Fair for 10-4 p.m. with some of the best old-time gospel music ever. All three days will feature some of the best artisans and vendors in the village and also the Dave Macon Artisan’s Court and Marketplace.
Thank you, Jesse, for teaching us faith in the context of an old-time music festival. If you have not experienced Uncle Dave Macon Days, come, take a break from your routine, and enjoy. Guaranteed, you will feel the enthusiasm, revive old friendships, and make new ones. Needless to say, you will be changed by the warm sounds of traditional music on the banks of Lytle Creek in Cannonsburgh Village. For more information and the schedule go to: http://www.uncledavemacondays.com