Uncle David Macon
Birth: 10-07-1870 - Death: 03-22-1952 | Birthplace: Smart Station, Warren County, Tennessee
Nicknamed the Dixie Dewdrop by Grand Ole Opry founder Judge George D. Hay, David Harrison Macon, with his chin whiskers, gold teeth, gates-ajar collar, and open-backed Gibson banjo, was the first real star of the Grand Ole Opry and one of the most colorful personalities in the history of the music. He was an influential bridge between the folk and vaudeville music of the nineteenth century and the more modern music of the phonograph record, the radio, and motion pictures. He was a supremely skilled banjo player (modern historians have identified at least nineteen different picking styles on his records), a strong and clear singer, a skilled songwriter, an outrageous comedian, and a dedicated preserver of old songs and styles. Most of all, though, he was a master showman, bringing to the newly emerging country music a professionalism and polish sorely needed to establish it as a viable commercial art form.
Born into a well-to-do family in Warren County, in hilly central Tennessee, Macon began learning folk songs from the area by the time he was nine. In l884, following financial reversals after the Civil War, the Macon family moved to Nashville, where they ran a hotel on Broadway. By coincidence, the hotel was headquarters for many of the vaudeville performers who came through town, and the teenager Dave Macon watched them as they rehearsed in the basement. He was especially entranced with the various trick banjo players then in vogue, especially one called Joel Davidson. Soon he had talked his mother into buying him a banjo, and he began to absorb as much as he could from the vaudeville entertainers. This was all interrupted, however, when his father was stabbed and killed in front of the hotel, and the family broke up and returned to the country. Dave stayed with his mother, who ran a stagecoach rest stop at Readyville. In charge of watering the horses, young Macon built a stage over the barn and would also entertain the passengers with his banjo.
Growing up away from Nashville, Macon abandoned any hope he had for a professional career. He married a local girl, inherited a large farm, and opened a freight line between Murfreesboro and Woodbury, Tennessee. But in the l920s, when a rival company began to compete with trucks, Macon abandoned his faithful mules and thought about retiring (he was over fifty). Then one day when Macon was performing for customers in a Nashville barber shop, he was spotted by a talent scout for the Loew’s theater chain.. Vastly impressed, he offered Macon a job on the vaudeville circuit, and, accompanied by local fiddler Sid Harkreader, he opened in Birmingham and was a sensation. The tour soon extended as far north as Boston, and in a short time Macon had a national reputation. In July l924 Macon went to New York to record for Vocalion. The results were several best-sellers, including “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” (a Macon favorite throughout his career), “Chewing Gum,” and “Hill Billie Blues.”
Macon soon joined the cast of the WSM Barn Dance in l925 - he was one of its earliest members - and at the outset was the only member of the cast with any kind of a national reputation. Throughout the l920s, though, he appeared only occasionally, finding more money in touring and making records.
From l924 through l938 he recorded over l80 songs for almost every major label. He also recorded and performed often with Sam McGee, the remarkable flat-top guitarist, his brother Kirk, and Macon’s own son Dorris. In the l930s Macon worked for a time with the Delmore Brothers as well as with young Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe. Macon was a highlight of the l940 Republic film Grand Ole Opry, in which he sang and danced around his banjo to “Take Me Back to My Carolina Home.” Other popular Macon favorites that he routinely performed or recorded include “Bully of the Town,” “Late Last Night When Willie Came Home,” “Rock About My Saro Jane” (which he had learned from black stevedores on the Cumberland River in the l880s), “From Jerusalem to Jericho,” “Buddy, Won’t You Roll Down the Line,” “Sail Away, Ladies,” “When the Train Comes Along,” and “Cumberland Mountain Deer Chase.” His signature hymn was “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be,” which was carved on his monument near Woodbury, Tennessee.
Though his banjo playing began to suffer in the l940s, Macon’s comedy and singing helped carry him through Opry shows and tours. He was still on the show when he was over eighty, in l952, and became ill. He died in Rutherford County hospital, and was buried near the Woodbury–Murfreesboro pike, where he had spent so many years hauling freight. - Charles Wolfe
- Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.