Friday, March 4, 2016
Uncle Dave Macon
Uncle Dave Macon (October 7, 1870 – March 22, 1952), born David Harrison Macon—also known as "The Dixie Dewdrop"—was an 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 was the grandfather of country music.
Macon was born in Smartt Station, Tennessee, the son of Confederate Army Captain. In 1884, when Macon was 13 years old, his family moved to Nashville, Tennessee to run the Old Broadway Hotel, which they had purchased. The hotel became a center for Macon and was frequented by artists and troupers traveling along vaudeville circuit and circus acts. In 1885, he learned to play the banjo from a circus comedian. Macon's father was murdered outside the hotel in 1886 and his mother sold the hotel and the family moved to Readyville, Tennessee where his mother ran a stagecoach inn.
Macon began entertaining passengers at the rest stop, playing a banjo on a homemade stage. In 1889, Macon married Matilda Richardson and moved to a farm near Kittrell, Tennessee, where they raised six sons and around 1900 Macon opened a freight line between Murfreesboro and Woodbury, Tennessee. It was called The Macon Midway Mule and Mitchell Wagon Transportation Company. When Macon was driving his mules he would entertain people by singing and playing the banjo at various stops along the way. In time, his sons became part of the company as they grew up. But the arrival of an automobile-based competitor forced him to close down in 1920.
His first professional performance was in 1921 in Morrison, Tennessee during a Methodist church benefit. In 1923, during a performance for the Shriners in Nashville, Macon was seen by Marcus Loew of Loews Theatres, who offered him fifteen dollars if he would perform at a theater in Alabama. Macon accepted the offer and went to Alabama. After the show he was approached by the manager of Loews Theatres in Birmingham, who wanted to hire him to perform there. Macon's salary was several hundred dollars a week. This led to offers from other theaters in the Loew's Vaudeville circuit. At age fifty Macon was suddenly a professional entertainer.
In 1923 he began a tour of the southeastern United States, joined by a fiddler and five other acts. A record distributor noticed Macon and realized his potential as a recording artist. On July 8, 1924, Macon and the fiddle player, Sid Harkreader, made their first recordings and in 1925 they added "Dancing Bob" Bradford, a buck dancer to their act, Their tours included comedy, buck dancing and old time music. In late 1925, Macon and Harkreader performed at the Ryman Auditorium, the future home of the Grand Ole Opry in a benefit for the Nashville police force just three weeks before the WSM Grand Ole Opry was founded.
Macon was one of the first performers at the new WSM radio station. His career with WSM lasted twenty-six years, but as he continued touring, he wasn't a regular performer in the years of the Grand Ole Opry. In 1927, Macon formed the Fruit Jar Drinkers who performed traditional songs and fiddle numbers, but they occasionally recorded Gospel songs under the name of the Dixie Sacred Singers
Between 1930 and 1952 Macon was often accompanied by his son Dorris who played the guitar. In 1940 Macon together with Opry founder George D. Hay, Roy Acuff, and Dorris received an invitation to take part in the Republic Pictures movie Grand Ole Opry. The film contains rare footage of Macon performing, including a memorable duet of "Take Me Back to My Carolina Home" with Dorris in which the 69-year-old Macon jumped out of his seat and danced throughout the second half of the song. While playing, Macon often kicked and stomped, whoop and holler. Macon delivered showmanship, humor, not always “politically correct” political commentary and a lot of energy.
Although Macon toured with Bill Monroe in the late 1940s, he was neither impressed by the new bluegrass style nor by the banjo picking of Earl Scruggs. Contemporary musicians didn't consider Macon a particularly skillful banjo player, but modern musicologists have identified at least 19 picking styles on his recordings.
Macon continued to perform until March 1, 1952. He died three weeks later on March 22, 1952 at Rutherford County Hospital in Murfreesboro. He was buried at Coleman Cemetery near Murfreesboro and his funeral was visited by more than five thousand people. He was inducted posthumously into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1966. A monument was erected near Woodbury.
His son Dorris and several band members made occasional appearances on the Grand Ole Opry as the Fruit Jar Drinkers until the early 1980s. During the second full weekend in July the city of Murfreesboro celebrates "Uncle Dave Macon Days" which hosts the national competitions for clogging, buck dancing and old time banjo picking.