In this photo restored by Shacklett’s Photography, Uncle Dave Macon poses for a publicity shot for WSM Radio during the mid-1920s. (Photo submitted)
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.
Dave Macon, known as the, “Dixie Dewdrop,” was an established performer and recording artist before he joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1926. It was then that he became the first individual performer on the Opry, the status he maintained until his son, Dorris Macon, joined him in the early 1930s.
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 country life.
Until the 1920s, most Middle Tennessee communities 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 who 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 hilltraces. Until the highway cut through, these folk were quite isolated as the people of the Smokies, though Nashville was 30 miles away.”
But finally, the old-time traditional music played over the radio airwaves for the people who had loved the music for generations.
This formula launched the successful career of Dave Macon. 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 Dave (Macon) made his debut on WSM,” Aswell wrote. “We had read it in the paper, but we didn’t mention it in Lascassas.”
Aswell recalled that his family had one of the two head sets in the community, but they were afraid that everybody in that end of the county would “swarm our house” to hear Dave Macon perform.
“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,” Aswell wrote.
Around Middle Tennessee, Dave Macon 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 since noted that with the exception of the Carter Family, Dave Macon preserved more valuable American folklore through his recordings than any other folk or country music performer.
His performances energized the broadcasts in novel fashion, and his success was instantaneous.
His habit of a spoken introduction to his songs and lyrical novelties contrasted nicely to the then largely instrumental presentations, leaving excited audiences impressed with this showmanship.
This was picked up by the radio listeners who, in turn, attended in even larger numbers his traveling act.
Dave Macon’s hillbilly preeminence culminated in the movie “Grand Ole Opry” in 1940, filmed when he was 70 years old.
Sam McGee, who had once played the guitar with Dave Macon, recalled,
“I will never forget what Uncle Dave (Macon) had on his instrument case—‘Uncle Dave Macon, the World’s Greatest Banjo Player.”
His musical magic continued until his death on March 22, 1952.
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.
The musical heritage continues to be celebrated every year at Uncle Dave Macon Days at Cannonsburgh Village in Murfreesboro.
This 36rd annual celebration starts Friday at 10 a.m. and continues through Saturday with the Gospel Showcase and Community Service Fair. Uncle Dave Macon Days is a nationally recognized festival that is solely designed to not only honor the man who popularized America’s roots music but to preserve and perpetuate the history and culture a special time in music.