Ken Beck, the Murfreesboro Post, December 26, 2018
“And now friends we present Uncle Dave Macon, the Dixie Dewdrop, with his plug hat, gold teeth, chin whiskers, gates-ajar color and that million-dollar Tennessee smile. Let her go Uncle Dave!”
To his sons and grandchildren he was known as “Pap,” but to the rest of the world, when it came to authentic country music, he was millions of radio listeners’ favorite uncle.
Long-time Rutherford County resident and Country Music Hall of Famer Uncle Dave Macon was a whirling dervish, a great ball of energy once he got on stage or in front of a microphone and began plunking his banjo and singing his wide-ranging repertoire of songs. Tossing in his jokes while grinning from ear to ear, he became a superstar of his era. This complex man, nicknamed “the Dixie Dewdrop,” could generate cheer to all, and yet, he quietly struggled periodically with his own demons at home.
Macon’s great-grandson-turned his biographer, Michael Doubler, who recently released “Dixie Dewdrop: The Uncle Dave Macon Story”, nails it on the head when he says the entertainer’s legacy is “so big.”
“He accomplished so many things, but there are two main things. He preserved a whole body of music from the earliest American roots music, and then the second aspect, he is the personification of the beginnings of the ‘Grand Ole Opry,’ ” said Doubler, the son of Mary Macon Doubler and grandson of Archie Macon, the oldest of Uncle Dave’s seven sons.
While he routinely performed with a sidekick playing fiddle or guitar, Macon, who sported chin whiskers, a plug hat and a gates-ajar collar and had gold teeth, could take an audience by storm all alone as his one-man act pretty much followed a vaudeville format.
Doubler said that he performed “a mix of all types of music: ballads, comedy songs and he could sit and tell jokes and then do a romance song and then go to one of his biggest hit songs.”
No slouch as a businessman, farmer or creative spirit, Macon wrote about 100 original songs, recorded 217 songs and released 177 of them on a variety of record labels.
Doubler, born and raised in Murfreesboro and a member of the first class to graduate from Riverdale High School, served 23 years in the U.S. Army and returned to his roots in 2010. At the time he had no thoughts of writing a book about his famous great-grandpa.
“People asked me about it. They said, ‘When are you gonna write a book?’ Finally, a close friend of the family, a big Uncle Dave fan, came to me and said, ‘If you don’t write this, it’s not gonna happen,’ and I said, ‘Come on. Surely somebody will do it,’ and I realized it was a story that needed to be told.”
In mid-2013 he launched into four years of researching and writing with the result a 288-page, detailed book that proves a fascinating study of a man whose life was dominated by his love of music, his family, struggles with alcohol and depression and his faith.
“Uncle Dave was a complex man, and his personality was on both sides of the coin. He was energetic and thoughtful and well educated for his time, whether in business or his music.
But he was the most energetic when he was having fun. When he did something, he went all the way,” Doubler said.
Macon was influenced by a diverse group of performers from his formative years. Those would include a professional vaudeville entertainer who twirled his banjo (a move that became an Uncle Dave trademark) to black laborers who sang religious songs, tunes he later would record.
One of his biggest hits, “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy,” a novelty song he learned from Tom Davis, a black mill hand at the Readyville Mill in Cannon County.
Early life in Middle Tennessee
Born David Harrison Macon on Oct. 7, 1870, in the Smartt Station community near McMinnville, he lived in the Rutherford County community of Kittrell for the last 50 years of his life. In his early teens, he and his family moved to Nashville where his parents operated the Broadway House hotel.
The boy attended Hume-Fogg High School and would have hobnobbed with steamboat and train passengers, including a host of entertainers. At 16 he purchased a five-string Buckbee banjo, a transaction that would change his life.
A year later, after the tragic death of his father, Macon and his siblings moved to Readyville, where his mother had bought The Corners, an antebellum mansion, which she transformed into a stagecoach inn. Here the youth labored as livery man and farmhand. While not working, he played in a local string band, the Readyville Roosters, and also entertained overnight guests in the barn where he had built a small stage.
After settling down with his wife, Tildy, he started Macon Midway Mule & Mitchell Transportation Company in late 1900 and began hauling dry goods and other materials from Murfreesboro to Woodbury. His wagons also carried the mail and Jack Daniel’s whiskey in barrels. Beneath his driver’s seat he stowed his banjo, which he often would pull out and play and sing, his music carrying a mile away.
He began his professional career playing close to home with early performances in Smyrna, Lascassas and Walter Hill. But July 8, 1924, found him and cohort Fiddlin’ Sid Harkreader in New York recording five songs for Vocalion Records. Those tunes were “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy”, “Hill Billie Blues”, “Old Maid’s Last Hope”, “All I’ve Got’s Gone” and “The Fox Chase”. The duo recorded 18 songs over four days.
Back in Nashville, on April 17, 1926, he made his initial formal appearance on WSM’s
“Grand Ole Opry”. Later that year, his son, Dorris, age 16, joined him as his guitar player. Over the years ahead Macon would also perform and tour with such “Opry” stalwarts as Sam and Kirk McGee, the Delmore Brothers, Roy Acuff & the Smokey Mountain Boys and Bill Monroe.
After the death of his wife, he lived for most of the 1940s at Merchant’s Hotel on Broadway in Nashville but moved back to his home in Kittrell in 1949 after having prostate surgery. He died in Rutherford Hospital on March 22, 1952, at the age of 81 from a malignant tumor in the abdomen.
The “Grand Ole Man of the ‘Grand Ole Opry’” was buried the next day in Coleman Cemetery as his funeral drew thousands to Murfreesboro, including such country music royalty as Minnie Pearl, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Monroe and Acuff.
Stardom with ‘Grand Ole Opry’
The “Grand Ole Opry” was good to Macon, but he returned the favor.
“The ‘Opry’ hired Uncle Dave to add more prestige to their early programs. He was more popular than the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ at that time,” Doubler said. “It was his home base, and WSM grew to have prestige, and he considered that the best way to keep in contact with the broadest base of fans.
“One thing unique about his career, in his personal life he was kind of slow to adapt to technology, but he was very quick to adapt to entertainment technology: records, radio, theater, riding trains to shows and that eventually led to him flying to several shows. Think about it. He started out taking a buggy to a local show and winds up flying on planes to some of the biggest venues in the Northeast, quite a change.”
As for Macon’s melancholy moods and spells of depression, Doubler said, “I think it may have been buried in the family DNA somewhere. I say that because his sister also suffered from it, more than Uncle Dave, and he had at least two siblings that took their own lives: big evidence that indicates something wrong there in their ability to cope with certain things. Uncle Dave managed it somehow, even though it would get pretty dark sometimes.”
About the entertainer’s fondness for alcohol, he said, “I think what happened with his drinking, prior to becoming an entertainer he was a binge drinker. He would get drunk for two or three days. When he became an entertainer, nothing turned him on more than being on stage and entertaining and putting a laugh on people’s faces, and I think he his drug of choice was entertaining, no question about it. One thing unique about his story in terms of alcohol, lots of entertainers struggle with it. He never let his drinking get in way of a show — never.”
And while it may seem an inconsistency, Macon, who came to religion late in middle age, had a strong faith in God that sustained him and guided his life. Twice he paid for a new roof to be put on the Haynes Chapel Methodist Church, which he attended.
As for Macon’s musical legacy, his great-grandson sees it getting stronger every year.
“I think the old-time music is coming back. People are now looking for something different, not packaged so much, and Uncle Dave’s music fits the bill still. Downloads on Uncle Dave’s music has gone up about 10 percent a year the last five years. It’s as high as 20,000 downloads a year,” Doubler said.
“I think Uncle Dave is a very important historical figure here in Rutherford County and something that we want to honor and take ownership of — that he was the biggest entertainer to ever come out of Murfreesboro and Rutherford County, and I think his legacy not only needs to be remembered but promoted.”
Doubler shares that famed documentary maker Ken Burns is polishing off his latest project, “Country Music”, coming to PBS in September, and that its two-hour premiere episode will feature the Dixie Dewdrop.
“We should all anticipate seeing our local hero, and this will get national and international exposure,” Macon’s biographer said.
Macon left five of his seven banjos to fellow “Opry” stars Roy Acuff, Brother Oswald, Stringbean, Earl Scruggs and June Carter. As for his original Buckbee banjo, Doubler said that “it seems to have vanished. No one knows where it is.”
GET THE BOOK
“Dixie Dewdrop: The Uncle Dave Macon Story”, written by Michael D. Doubler, is priced at $20. The book has 288 pages and 36 photographs and is available for sale on both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites, or by request at local bookstores.
PICK AND GRIN
To hear and see the only existing film segment of an Uncle Dave Macon performance, go to: countrythangdaily.com/meet-dixie-dewdrop-uncle-dave-macon/
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
Uncle Dave Macon’s descendants still receive royalties from his record sales. The funds are used to maintain his gravesite. Among the memorials that mark his life and music are:
· A tall stone monument erected by his “Opry” friends along Highway 70 South in Kittrell is inscribed with Macon’s profile along with a banjo.
· His Kittrell home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
· The Uncle Dave Macon Bridge over Cripple Creek in Kittrell was dedicated in 2014.
· Murfreesboro’s annual Uncle Dave Macon Days festival, held in mid-July, keeps his music flourishing.