Uncle Dave festival has grown beyond founder's dreams

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By 1987, after its small beginnings as a one-day banjo picking contest, Uncle Dave Macon Days had become one of the Southeast’s fastest-growing, old-time music festivals.

The year marked the 11th annual Uncle Dave Macon Days and come on the heels of a 1986 declaration by Congress, which declared the festival the National Old-Time Banjo Championships.

In addition, Uncle Dave’s claw-hammer banjo style had achieved prominence as the festival’s national championship in the competition.

So, it 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 in the summer of 1982, I soon found that Jesse Messick, the festival’s founder, to be a man of remarkable character. He had the ability to see the best in people and encouraged them beyond their own perception of themselves.

In 1984, Messick asked me to direct the festival. At the time, I was coping with personal issues. But, he persuaded me to look beyond my circumstances and rely on God for results. This included how a festival was to be developed and directed.

Messick, a prominent Murfreesboro businessman, had served on the Rutherford County Commission and was devoted to his community, particularly the downtown area.  And he loved the music and comedy of the early days of the Grand Ole Opry.

In 1977, after being involved in the Homegrown Days, an event that inspired Uncle Dave Macon Days, he came up with the idea to create a festival featuring that music.

It was his hope that this event would bring a family friendly activity to the Square in an effort to draw interest back to downtown, which had succumbed to the impact of large retailers.

His dream was to stimulate the economy  of downtown by establishing an event around the Opry’s first superstar, Uncle Dave Macon.

Uncle Dave, one of Rutherford County’s most flamboyant figures and a lifelong resident, died in 1952.

Thirty-five years later through Messick’s leadership, festival organizers had truly bonded. His empowerment technique was simply to affirm your gifts and allow 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 Messick’s leadership, we had flourished into an extended family.

Indeed, we were truly a blended family.

Jesse’s life-path of sacrificial faith was an eye-opener, the likes of which I had never experienced.

As someone who admittedly can be a control freak at times, I found this kind of behavior unsettling.

Yet, he always reassured me that God was like a kind father who really cared about the assignments that were given to us. Totally surrendering to God seemed so unrealistic, even irresponsible, like a pious evasion of personal responsibility.

Many encircling circumstances threatened to stifle our efforts that year.

If Uncle Dave Macon Days was going to happen in 1987, it was clearly going to take more than Messick, myself 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 Square.

Waves of heat blurred our sight while we looked 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, Messick’s pastor led the crowd in a brief prayer.

Among his simple petitions, he fervently prayed for rain. I remember thinking as I gazed up into the blazing, cloudless blue sky, “That’s nice, but not this weekend, OK, Lord? It’s not going to fit into the plans for the festival.”

Out of no where the next day, in the summer’s haze a clouded canopy appeared. Then, as if a towering angel began to flap her dewy wings, a sweet breeze breathed in a delightful afternoon shower that swept across the Square, bringing soothing cool relief over the entire area.

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 East Main Street, and it was apparent that the event would soon outgrow the Square. Eventually, in 1989, we moved the festival to Cannonsburgh Village on Front Street.

As it happened that would be Messick’s last Uncle Dave Macon Days. He died in the spring of 1988.

Beyond his passing, Messick left a legacy of faith in all of us who have volunteered for the past 30 years with the festival.

Throughout this time, many of our young prodigies have gone on to great things, including such talents as Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent and the Dixie Chicks. Many of our dancers are also now professionals for the Opry.

Two of those prodigies will be performing with this year’s Heritage Award winners Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White.

And still, the committee continues to face the challenges of organizing an event run primarily by volunteers.

Every year, there is a unique set of circumstances that we must address. Together, those of us who organize and operate Uncle Dave Macon Days 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.  

But after 33 years, another step of faith is being required.

Although we have operated as a free event, run exclusively by volunteers, it has become apparent in order to continue and sustain operations, we must evolve into a yearlong endeavor that requires a professional staff.

In order to meet those financial responsibilities, it was decided to charge a small admission fee – $5 per day or $8 for both Friday and Saturday. Children 12 and under are free, and of course, there is still no charge for the Sunday Gospel Showcase and Community Service Fair.

So, don’t miss this year’s activities, which will be held from Friday, July 12, through Sunday, July 14.  

For a schedule and to find out more information about Uncle Dave Macon Days, go to www.uncledavemacondays.com.
Tagged under  Concert, Event, Festival, History, Jesse Messick, Media History, Murfreesboro, Music, Uncle Dave Mason, Uncle Dave Mason Days

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