Uncle Dave Macon, first superstar of the Grand Ole Opry, died in 1952, but each summer, a celebration in his memory attracts 50,000 people to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, bringing in $2 million to benefit the local economy.
Old-time music and dance fans arrive in Middle Tennessee from every state and several foreign countries to attend Uncle Dave Macon Days, a three-day festival of entertainment and competitions in Old-Time Banjo, Old-Time Clogging and Old-Time Buckdancing National Championships.
The site of the festival is Cannonsburgh, a reconstructed pioneer village featuring a working blacksmith shop, gristmill, chapel, country store and one-room schoolhouse. On the front porches of log cabins and under the shade trees of the pioneer village, in the shadow of the Witch’s Bridge at Town Creek, where children wade to diffuse the July heat, thousands of people of all ages will assemble in impromptu jam sessions, some in Uncle Dave Macon garb.
Many folks will set up folding chairs, picnic coolers and musical instruments beneath trees on the Greenway, a paved system of walking and biking trails that weaves for miles around the city and into Cannonsburgh. Musicians from 5 years old to 95 years old will be picking and grinning with banjos, fiddles, guitars, mandolins, bass fiddles and even washboards and spoons. They are music lovers who arrive as strangers but quickly find a group with which to play.
About “Uncle Dave”
David Harrison Macon, a banjo-playing farmer and freight hauler, was born in 1870. When he gave his mules their head on trips between Murfreesboro and Woodbury, he pulled his banjo out from under the wagon seat, leaned back and in a loud, raucous voice entertained himself and everyone he passed along the two-lane unpaved roadway with his picking and singing. Dogs barked, children ran behind the wagon, and farmers waved from the fields. He was a local character, a one-man circus.
In the early part of the century, after conceding that his four-wheeled, eight-legged freight business could not compete with motorized transport, the amateur banjo player and musical comic began touring the South, performing in concerts at square dances, rural schoolhouses, theaters and on vaudeville stages in the 1920s and ’30s. He first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in 1925 at the age of 55 and rapidly achieved fame for his flamboyant personality, clawhammer-style playing, boisterous, rowdy singing and exaggerated musical antics. He became known as the “Dixie Dewdrop.”
A showoff as well as a showman, Uncle Dave Macon laughed, brayed, yodeled, joked, talked to the audience, picked, plucked and sang. He was part vaudevillian, part hillbilly, part Appalachian folk musician and songwriter. He enjoyed swinging his banjo, flipping it into the air without missing a beat, twirling it, rapping it, fanning it with his black felt hat to indicate how hot his playing was, and standing up and dancing around it.
Macon died in 1952 at the age of 82. In 1966 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Of Historic Interest
- In the middle of the Murfreesboro Square stands the Rutherford County Courthouse, one of only six antebellum courthouses in the state of Tennessee and the site of a skirmish between the Blue and the Gray. The conflict on July 13, 1862, has become known as the Nathan Bedford Forrest Birthday Raid. It was on the courthouse square that the first Uncle Dave Macon Festival started as a banjo-picking contest 33 years ago.
- Murfreesboro is home of the Stones River National Battlefield and Cemetery, where one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War was fought December 31, 1862 – January 2, 1863; it is also the site of the historic Oaklands Mansion, a former 1,500-acre cotton plantation that played a major role in occupied Murfreesboro. Nearby is the home of Sam Davis, known as the Boyhood Hero of the Confederacy.
- There is a free self-guided Uncle Dave Macon Driving Tour for those who can tear themselves away from the festivities. Admission per day on Friday and Saturday for this family-friendly weekend is $5 per person with children under 12 admitted free. There is no charge on Sunday.
- For more information, visit the festival’s Web site at www.uncledavemacondays.com.
Judy Lee Green, Tennessee-bred and cornbread-fed, is an award-winning writer and speaker whose spirit and roots reach deep into the Appalachian Mountains. She has been published hundreds of times and received dozens of awards for her work.