Banjo icon has roots in Rutherford County

Susan Harber, The Daily News Journal, July 2, 2018

David Harrison Macon, October 7, 1870 – March 22, 1952

Uncle Dave Macon is a symbol of Rutherford County.  The material on Dave’s life is unending, but we will explore some highlights of his fascinating journey and stellar career.

David Harrison Macon was born in 1870 in Smartt Station on a large farm near McMinnville as one of 12 children.  His father John Macon (1829-1886) was a Confederate Army captain and fought in Shiloh and Stones River.

Dave’s father also owned a Nashville Hotel (Broadway House) and moved the family there when Dave was 13 years old in 1881.  Dave was fascinated by the musicians and minstrels who frequented the hotel.

Dave attended Hume-Fogg School nearby and enjoyed his youth in Nashville that was brimming with new life and excitement following the Civil War.  All would change when Dave was 16 years old.

His father was tragically murdered in 1885 in front of Dave during a street brawl at the hotel.  The assailant was declared not guilty but clearly initiated the fatal encounter.

While mourning for his dad and facing an uncertain future, Dave followed his mother Martha Ramsey (1838-1906) and nine siblings to Readyville.  Martha operated a stagecoach inn, and Dave entertained guests with a banjo.  He later performed at area schools and parties and passed the hat for gratuity.

Dave first learned to play the piano and was a musical prodigy.  By age 13, his mother bought him a banjo that was life changing.

Dave married Matilda Richardson in 1889 at age 19.  Matilda, a renowned quilter from Kittrell, led a simple life and would bear seven sons: John, Archie, Dorris, Henry, Samuel, Esten Gray and Paul. She was also a tremendous cook, whose feasts Dave proclaimed were not for sale anywhere in the United States.

The Macon family had a religious core and held strongly to their faith.  Dave read a chapter from the Bible every day and was deeply spiritual.  Matilda was a devout member of the Church of Christ, while Dave was a member of Haynes Chapel Methodist.  He purchased an organ for his congregation on Woodbury Pike.  His son Esten Gray studied law but became a longtime Church of Christ minister.

Dave was a vaudeville performer all his life, but he also had a hard-labor job in Rutherford County.  He opened a freight line in 1900 to haul goods from Woodbury to Murfreesboro.  The Macon Midway Mule and Mitchell Wagon was an intensely physical job that Dave pursued with great vigor.  With transportation evolving and the introduction of the automobile, his business closed in 1920.

Dave was soon working for Marcus Loew of Loew’s Theater, who offered him $15 to perform shows in Alabama.  Dave was a sensation with his superb skills on the banjo, as well as comedy and buck dancing included in his act.  Dave joined the Loew’s vaudeville circuit and continued with it for seven years.

In Rutherford County, his first performances were at Smyrna, Lascassas and Walter Hill.  At age 50, he was a successful entertainer and exalted folklore to new heights with his trademark plug felt hat and Gibson banjo.

In 1918, Dave was paid to entertain full time and continued his quest for 34 years.  The Delmore Brothers and Curly Fox were a couple of his talented, early touring partners.

In 1923, he performed a few tunes in a Nashville barbershop with fiddler and Gladeville native Sid Harkreader, an agent from Loew’s Theater.  They toured together in New England with comedy and buck dancing, cut songs on Vocalion Records and had an early following of fans.

By 1924, Dave recorded 18 songs in New York.  He also made early recordings with an unknown Bill Monroe and young Roy Acuff.

In all, he recorded 180 songs from 1924-1938.  Dave’s real break was with George D. Hay, who 

founded the Opry and believed in Dave’s expertise and showmanship.

Dave was a charter member on the new WSM Radio Show (formerly WSM Barn Dance) launched on Dec. 26, 1925. His stirring debut was April 1926. He sojourned for 25 years with WSM and the Opry.  Dave was identified as the Grand Ole Man and Dixie Dewdrop of the Opry by Judge George Hay.  He was known to kick, stomp and shout during electrifying performances.

Dave took great pride in being a character.  His signature banjo move was tossing the instrument into the air while playing and singing and then retrieving it in firm form without a break in the song.  His bandmate Kirk McGee described Macon’s personality as a never ending performance and said, “All day long, from morning til midnight, it was a show.”

In reality, Dave was tickled pink to be a shining country star at an older age.

Dave traveled with the Fruit Jar Drinkers in 1927.  When the group sang religious hymns, Dave changed their name to Dixie Sacred Singers.

In 1940, Dave traveled by car to Hollywood with Roy Acuff for the “Grand Ole Opry” movie when he was 70 years old.  Dave was afraid of planes and preferred the car with his friend Roy Boy Acuff. Dave brought a large country ham along on the road trip and saved the wood box to use for a hen’s nest when he returned home.

In 1952, Dave performed just three weeks before his passing at age 82.  At the end of his life, he requested Romans 8 be read on his deathbed at his home in Rutherford County.  He then stated, “I am ready.”

Dave’s funeral numbered 5,000 in attendance.  His favorite hymn “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be” is on his monument in Woodbury in the Coleman Cemetery where he lies at rest with Matilda.  She died in 1939 at 61 years old, while Dave remained a widower for 13 years.

The Macon’s log home in Kittrell is listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Woodbury Pike. Dave’s parents John and Martha are buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Murfreesboro.

Dave’s son Dorris played guitar and banjo with his father since the 1930s and continued to perform after Dave’s passing.  Dave’s great-grandson John Doubler is a master banjo player today and has performed at the namesake event Uncle Dave Macon Days in Murfreesboro that began in 1977.  The family talent continues to flow freely.

In 1966, Dave was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as a banjo sensation of 19 picking styles.  His Gibson banjo allowed him to showcase his three-finger playing style.  Some hits included “A Soldier’s Joy,” “Bully of the Town,” “The Arkansas Traveler,” “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy All the Time,” “Chewing Gum,” “Eleven Cent Cotton, Forty Cent Meat” and ‘Sail Away, Ladies.”  My favorite is “Take Me Back to My Old Carolina Home.”  From 1971-1997, he had 11 albums released.

With the 41st Uncle Dave Macon Day Festival approaching in Murfreesboro, his memory lives on with local residents.  David Harrison Macon was a grand man and self-made, displaying a grand talent and a grand life so admired today.

Contact Susan Harber at

Uncle Dave Macon Days Festival is set for July 13-14 at Cannonsburgh Pioneer Village. For more information visit uncledavemacondays. org.

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