Personalities | Uncle Dave Macon | Early Years of Hillbilly | Country

Uncle Dave Macon (1870–1952) was the first star of country music. Other artists got on disc first: men like Eck Robertson, Henry Whitter, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett. Uncle Dave didn’t enter a recording studio until July 1924 – whereupon he proved to be quite productive – but he had another route to the affections of the country music audience: radio.

An Old-Timer On The Opry

Georgia boys like Carson and Puckett might show up at the studios of WSB in Atlanta from time to time, but Macon had a weekly spot on the Grand Ole Opry, which was heard practically all the way across the USA. Sitting on a chair on the Opry stage, he didn’t just sing a few songs. He had the time to create a character – that of a rambunctious old fellow, brimming with songs and jokes. It was a veritable one-man show.

He probably got a lot of the songs and jokes from older entertainers, since his parents ran a Nashville hotel that catered to show people. He played banjo as a young man, but if he entertained any hopes of entering the music profession he subdued them, making his living as a farmer. As he approached 50, however, he began to venture on to the stages of the southern vaudeville circuit. In 1926, he joined the Opry roster, even then one of its older members. They called him ‘The Dixie Dewdrop’. He was sometimes accompanied by the fiddler Sid Harkreader (1898–1988), and often by the guitarist and banjoist Sam McGee, with whom he would make some particularly exuberant records. On other records he would have a whole string band behind him, consisting of Sam and Kirk McGee and fiddler Mazy Todd. Some 50 years later, their vibrant playing of ‘Sail Away Ladies’ would be one of the ingredients of skiffle, the homemade, folksy roots music that came just before rock’n’roll.

Not So Much A Record, More A Revue

A notable feature of Macon’s records is that they are often not simply a song or a tune but a whole routine: first a comic introduction, a flourish on the banjo, a joke, a short banjo tune, then some verses of a song, or even two or three songs. Remarkably for a man in his fifties, conservative in many of his views, Macon looked at this new technology, the recording medium, and not only embraced it, but actually found a new way to use it. Take the sequence of songs and comic storytelling that were issued on discs such as ‘Uncle Dave’s Travels, Parts I–IV’. Macon sings about Nashville, stops off in Louisville, tells a story about Arkansas and concludes with a vignette called ‘Visit At The Old Maid’s’, where he impersonates a plummy-voiced spinster taking a leaf out of some faded Victorian folio – ‘Come, deeearest, the daylight is faaalling…’. As the final note of his cruel parody dies away, Macon cackles...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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