Uncle Dave Macon is a country music icon and the first major superstar of the Grand Ole Opry. He was the first country music star to become an Opry member while successful on tour and in the recording studio. He recorded over 200 songs, which still inspire and entertain music fans worldwide. With his great humor, boundless energy and passion for performing, Uncle Dave remained an Opry mainstay for twenty-six years. As Stringbean once said of the “Dixie Dewdrop”: “He’s not the best player, and he’s not the best singer, but he is the best something.”
Michael D. Doubler is a recognized public speaker, historian, and award-winning author. His next major book, Dixie Dewdrop: The Uncle Dave Macon Story, will be released in July 2018 and published by the University Press of Illinois. Mike is the great-grandson of Uncle Dave and lives in Murfreesboro, TN. He prepared this list of lesser-known facts about Macon.
1. The first instrument young Dave Macon learned to play was the guitar, not the banjo. The first song he learned was the little tune Greenback. He went on to learn the piano as well, playing alongside his sisters at Macon Manor, an early family home near McMinnville, Tennessee.
2. Uncle Dave lost his father at an early age, after the Macons moved to Nashville in 1883. John Macon was killed in a street scuffle with a federal revenue agent in October 1886, after having survived three major battles in the Civil War. Dave was only 16 at the time.
3. Dave Macon married Mary Matilda Richardson, and they had seven sons. Tildy Macon was a strong woman who kept the farm and family going while Dave was away on tour. Uncle Dave’s greatest personal trial came in February 1939 when Tildy passed away unexpectedly. He never forgot her and never remarried.
4. Uncle Dave’s music career nearly ended even before it began. His first public show as an aspiring professional entertainer occurred in 1919 in Liberty, Tennessee. It was a disaster, almost resulting in his arrest. What was his response? Keep on trying and don’t let people know too much about the debacle in Liberty.
5. Uncle Dave Macon did not begin his professional entertainment career until age 50. He played locally as a part-time musician for nearly thirty years, holding a daytime job as the owner of a freight hauling business in Rutherford County. Instead of converting to modern trucks in 1920, Dave refused to abandon his faithful wagons and mules and closed the business. That’s when he set out to become a full-time entertainer. His freight hauling days are recalled in his hit, From Earth to Heaven.
6. Uncle Dave was among the very first successful recording artists in country music. When the renowned Bristol recording session occurred in 1927, resulting in the discovery of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, Uncle Dave had already cut 115 songs.
7. Based on his early recording sessions and appearances on the Opry, the Loew’s Theater chain offered Uncle Dave a national touring contract in 1926. He refused the offer, concerned that extensive touring would take him too far from his wife and children. Loew’s countered with a more modest tour of southern cities, which Uncle Dave accepted. It was during this tour that he was given the nickname “Dixie Dewdrop.”
8. Perhaps the greatest unknown force in Dave Macon’s musical life was his sister, Annie Macon Walling-Youree. Annie was a trained piano teacher from the Gilded Age, helping Dave to write new songs and to improve or make new arrangements for others. They both enjoyed music and laughter, and their loud, boisterous practice sessions became legendary in the local community.
9. Uncle Dave was a faithful church member and regular tither. Before he became famous, he taught Sunday school, preached whenever the pastor was absent, and helped with the music. He twice paid the full amount to have the roof replaced on the church he attended, Haynes Chapel Methodist Church in Kittrell, Tennessee. (It’s still there and open for worship.)
10. The Dixie Dewdrop toured with three banjos. Each was tuned to a different key (C, F and G) and decorated with a colored ribbon to identify the tuning, so he could quickly switch between instruments for various songs. Uncle Dave believed the best way to tune the banjo was with a piano.
11. The Dixie Dewdrop wrote as many as one hundred original songs and recorded many of them. His famous sideman, guitar legend Sam McGee, believed that Uncle Dave knew as many as 400 songs by heart.
12. Uncle Dave always included Gospel tunes as part of his shows, but hesitated to perform them on the Opry. In the early 1930s, his oldest son challenged him on this point. The Dixie Dewdrop finally decided to take the plunge, finishing his set on the Opry one night with Shall We Gather at the River. The response was overwhelming, and Gospel songs soon became part of his regular Opry performances.
13. A national star, Uncle Dave was hired as an endorser for several product brands and participated in national advertising campaigns. Starting in 1928, he was a spokesman for Gibson instruments, appearing in many ads and the company’s catalog. He also did promotional work for Duck Head clothing, and Prince Albert Tobacco, among others.
14. Uncle Dave never learned to drive a car. When asked “Why not?” he replied that he had seven sons, and it was up to them to drive him around. (They didn’t.) Uncle Dave did not buy a car until he turned 59-years-old, when he purchased a classic 1929 Ford Model A sedan. Others still had to drive it.
15. Uncle Dave was not immune from life’s challenges. When banks failures hit Tennessee during the Great Depression, he lost a significant portion of his life’s savings. During World War II, three of his sons were drafted, serving in the Army in combat in the European Theater. He worried about his boys until they all returned home safely.
16. Uncle Dave went flying! He was wary of new technology in general and rebuffed Roy Acuff’s first offer to go on tour with him by travelling in Roy’s airplane, The Great Speckled Bird. Other band members and musicians coaxed Uncle Dave along, even taking him to the airport to inspect the plane while it sat on the tarmac. Eventually, Uncle Dave flew with Roy to Baltimore for a show, and he loved flying! Before it was all over, he took a number of other trips on the airplane.
17. Uncle Dave’s last performance was at center stage at Ryman Auditorium during a live broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night, March 1, 1952. When he finished his musical set, he was too exhausted to stand, and other entertainers had to carry him from the stage. It was the last time he ever sang or played. He was soon hospitalized and finally passed away on March 22, 1952, at age 81.
18. Uncle Dave’s funeral, held in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, was one of the largest memorial events in the state’s history. After the service, he was buried at Coleman Cemetery, five miles east of Murfreesboro. His simple headstone epitaph reads “The World’s Most Outstanding Banjoist,” a promo line which had been displayed on his banjo cases early in his career. Musicians today still go to Uncle Dave’s gravesite to “share a tune.”
19. A tall, beautiful granite monument to the memory of Uncle Dave stands along Route 70S five miles east of Woodbury, Tennessee. It was erected in 1955, funded by members of the Grand Ole Opry. It’s a “must see” for Uncle Dave and Opry fans.
20. Uncle Dave Macon was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1966, among some of the first to receive the honor. The recognition helped to cement his reputation as a founder of the Grand Ole Opry, an historical Tennessee icon, and a country music immortal.
Pre-orders for Dixie Dewdrop: The Uncle Dave Macon Story can be placed online.