Uncle Dave Macon was the first superstar of the Grand Ole Opry and an immortal in the annals of old time and country music. In a continuously active entertainment career which spanned more than thirty years, “The Dixie Dewdrop” recorded nearly two hundred records and appeared at venues nationwide. In his time, Uncle Dave was the most popular country music star of the day, and his importance within the American entertainment industry cannot be overstated. Uncle Dave’s most significant and enduring legacy is the preservation of a huge collection of traditional and old time music from a bygone era, ever preserved in his many recordings. He was also vital to the development and maturation of the Grand Ole Opry and the country music industry.
David Harrison Macon was born on October 7, 1870, in Smartt Station, Tennessee. He came from a long line of successful politicians and entrepreneurs with roots in North Carolina which predated the American Revolution. His father, John Macon, had migrated to Tennessee from North Carolina and married a Tennessee girl, Martha Ann Ramsey. After gaining success as a farmer and business owner, John Macon had served during the American Civil War as an officer in the Confederate Army.
Young Dave had a pleasant childhood, and his parents encouraged him to develop his love for music. As a youngster, he received piano lessons and learned to play the guitar. Economic hardship eventually prompted the Macons to abandon their homestead in rural Middle Tennessee and to move to Nashville, where they purchased and operated the Broadway House hotel. Located in the heart of downtown, the Broadway House was a favorite stopover for traveling minstrels and entertainers. Dave was fascinated with the musicians, and at age thirteen, begged his mother to buy him a banjo, which he quickly mastered. Dave’s attendance at the many carnivals and vaudeville acts which frequented Nashville instilled in him an appreciation for the art of public performing and a hunger for the satisfaction of pleasing a crowd.
Tragedy struck in 1886 when John Macon died suddenly. The following year, Martha Macon sold the hotel and left Nashville, settling in nearby Rutherford County where she owned and operated a country inn. Dave eventually worked for his mother as a liveryman. He developed a passion for old, traditional music, including sacred and black genres. At the same time, he began to perform in public, putting on shows for overnight guests at his mother’s establishment.
In 1899, Dave married Mary Matilda Richardson of nearby Kittrell, where the couple soon settled and started a family. For the next two decades, the couple successfully farmed and raised a family of seven sons. Dave also operated a thriving freight line. But Dave and his banjo were inseparable, and as he started playing at local events, his popularity grew by leaps and bounds. By 1920 trucks were replacing mules and horses, and instead of upgrading his freight line to trucks, Dave decided to close the business and try to make a go as an entertainer.
Dave Macon initially entertained at venues throughout Middle Tennessee, northern Alabama and southern Kentucky. Adorned in his plug hat, gates-ajar collar and gold teeth, Dave picked his banjo and sang of the people and country he loved, gathering much of his song material from personal experiences and local lore. His natural talent as a musician, singer, comedian and social commentator captivated audiences. He soon adopted the stage name “Uncle Dave Macon”, a title meant to endear him to fans as though he were a familiar, family member. Appearances at theaters in Nashville soon led to a major contract with Lowe’s Theaters, a national chain. By 1923 Uncle Dave was playing in theaters across the South and in the Northeast. The following year he traveled to New York City for his first recording session, and his increased popularity led to repeated recording sessions throughout the 1920s and 30s. Uncle Dave eventually recorded nearly two hundred songs. Among his most popular were: “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy All the Time”; “Chewing Gum”; “Eleven Cent Cotton, Forty Cent Meat”; and “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be”.
WSM began broadcasting in the summer of 1925, and before the end of that year, the Grand Ole Opry took to the airwaves. Uncle Dave had played previously on WSM, but his debut on the Grand Ole Opry came in April 1926. For the next fifteen years, he was the undisputed headline act of the Opry and eventually played on the show continuously for twenty-six years. He was deeply loved and respected by his peers and earned a reputation as one willing to mentor younger performers who struggled to manage their music careers. His three-finger playing style and overall performance manner changed little during his long career. Uncle Dave was primarily a banjoist and vocalist, but hilarious jokes, physical antics, country philosophy, and biting commentaries on politics, religion, economics and the battle between the sexes always put big smiles and laughter on the faces of live audiences and radio listeners.
By 1940 new changes in music styles, including the rise of singing cowboys and bluegrass, caused Uncle Dave’s career to fade somewhat. He remained very popular on the Opry, but while touring he became an opening act for new talent. He continued touring throughout the 1940s, but age and infirmity finally took their toll. On March 2, 1952, Uncle Dave made his last appearance on the Opry, and he died from cancer three weeks later at age 81. His funeral on March 23, 1952, was perhaps the largest ever in the state of Tennessee, unmistakable evidence of the number of people he had touched during a music career of over three decades.
Uncle Dave’s music legacy still lives on. In 1966 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The Uncle Dave Macon Days music festival, held in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, each July and now in its 37th year, still honors his memory. Even today, his recordings garner respectable sales, testimony to the fact that no one aided the transformation of the folk music of the nineteenth century into modern country music more than Uncle Dave Macon.