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Macon, “Uncle” Dave (actually, David Harrison)

Macon, “Uncle” Dave (actually, David Harrison)

Macon, “Uncle” Dave (actually, David Harrison), one of the most colorful and often-recorded of all the stars of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry; b. Smart Station, Tenn., Oct. 7, 1870; d. Nashville, Term., March 22, 1952. Uncle Dave Macon appeared on the Grand Ole Opry’s stage from its opening days into the early 1950s, when he was in his early 80s, performing a combination of traditional banjo songs, sentimental songs, and his own compositions, often commenting on contemporary trends.

Macon was born outside of Nashville, but the family soon relocated to the big city, where his father operated a hotel located on downtown Nashville’s main street. The rooming house was popular with vaudeville performers, and the young Macon was particularly impressed by the stunt banjo playing of one traveling star, Joel Davidson. He began to learn the instrument, and to play locally, mostly in informal settings. When Macon was a teenager, his father was stabbed in a brawl outside of the hotel, and the family moved once again. Macon’s mother opened a rest stop for stage coaches in rural Readyville, and he took on the task of providing water for the horses.

As a young man, Macon established his own freight-carting business, powered by teams of mule-drawn wagons. He was an established businessman working mostly between Murfreesboro in the Northeast of the state and Woodbury. However, the coming of engine-driven trucks began to threaten Macon’s business. In his 50s, he decided he could not adapt to new times, and let his business go.

Throughout this period, Macon had continued to play the banjo, mostly to amuse his customers and family. In the early 1920s, while visiting a Nashville barbershop, Macon was playing for customers when he was heard by a scout for Loew’s vaudeville houses. Macon was soon performing on stage, and in early 1924 made his first recordings. A year later, he was invited to be the second member of WSM’s “Barn Dance” program in Nashville, which would soon be renamed the “Grand Ole Opry.”

Macon played both clawhammer and two-finger banjo styles. He was an exceptionally talented musician, but it was his ability to perform stunts like playing the banjo while swinging the instrument between his legs and other tricks that really won over his audiences. Macon’s hearty vocals, good humor, and energetic banjo playing influenced an entire generation of musicians, including Stringbean and Grandpa Jones. He recorded hundreds of 78s, often accompanied by the talented McGee brothers and fiddler Sid Harkreader, going under the name The Fruit Jar Drinkers (illegal moonshine liquor was often dispensed in used fruit jars, hence the name). In the 1940s and early 1950s, he was often accompanied by his son, Dorris, in Opry appearances.

Macon’s repertoire, like other early country performers, was made up of a mix of traditional songs and dance tunes, sentimental and popular songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and his own off-beat adaptations of these songs along with original compositions. Macon’s presentation of his material showed the influence of years of performing on the tent show circuit; his recordings often began and ended with a lusty shout of “Hot dog!” Macon’s biting social commentary is illustrated in songs like “In and Around Nashville,” in which he criticizes, among other things, women who chew gum and wear “knee-high” skirts. One of his popular songs, “The Cumberland Mountain Deer Chase,” describes a deer hunt in the mountains; it was transformed in the 1950s by Pete Seeger into a long story-song for children that he called “The Cumberland Mountain Bear Hunt.”


Go Along Mule and Country (reissues of 1920s and 1930s recordings).

—Richard Carlin

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