One of the earliest performers on WSM in Nashville, Uncle Dave Macon became the Grand Ole Opry's first superstar. His old-time music and energetic stage shows made him a national sensation and fueled a thirty-year run as one of America's most beloved entertainers. Michael D. Doubler tells the amazing story of the Dixie Dewdrop, a country music icon. Born in 1870, David Harrison Macon learned the banjo from musicians passing through his parents' Nashville hotel. After playing local shows in Middle Tennessee for decades, a big break led Macon to Vaudeville, the earliest of his two hundred-plus recordings and eventually to national stardom. Uncle Dave--clad in his trademark plug hat and gates-ajar collar--soon became the face of the Opry itself with his spirited singing, humor, and array of banjo picking styles. For the rest of his life, he defied age to tour and record prolifically, manage his business affairs, mentor up-and-comers like David "Stringbean" Akeman, and play with the Delmore Brothers, Roy Acuff, and Bill Monroe.
About the Author
Michael D. Doubler is the great grandson of Uncle Dave Macon. His books include Closing with the Enemy: How GIs Fought the War in Europe, 1944-1945 and Civilian in Peace, Soldier in War: The Army National Guard, 1636-2000.
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"Rock About My Sara Jane"
A young John Macon stood with his mother, brothers, and sisters in the midst of the vast Appalachian wilderness at daybreak, anticipating another difficult day's journey. Around them towered the high, humped peaks of distant mountains, all blanketed in lush, undulating green forests. The threat from Native Americans had passed, but marauders, thieves, bears, and mountain lions still posed real dangers. A s ingle, rough and rutted track pointed the way westward. The ten members of the Macon family had left their home in Warrenton, North Carolina, weeks earlier, traveling west with a small group of wagons and livestock. The ascent into the Great Smoky Mountains had been most punishing, but now there was cause for optimism. The new day's journey would carry them across the state line from North Carolina into Tennessee, where a new home awaited them in Warren County. John's father, Harrison Macon, had finally sent word in the summer of 1840 for his wife and children to make the hazardous trek to join him near McMinnville, Tennessee.
The Macons left behind them a colorful and distinguished legacy in North Carolina. The family traced its earliest known roots to central France in the fourteenth century. The Macons had become Huguenots under the new, spiritual teachings of John Calvin, and due to religious persecution, many had fled France to seek refuge in England. The first to immigrate to America was apparently Gideon Macon, who by 1674 was established in Kent County, Virginia, just east of Richmond. A man of some ambition and education, Gideon served in the Virginia House of Burgesses and as the sub-sheriff of New Kent. He earned a law degree and worked at various times as an attorney, secretary to the governor of Virginia, and commanding officer of the Kent County militia. A brass tablet memorial still on display in the Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, identifies Gideon Macon as one of the church's first vestrymen. Gideon's life demonstrated that he was a man unafraid to meet head-on the often controversial topics of politics and religion, and many of his descendants would do likewise.
By the time of the American Revolution, some of the Macons had migrated south from Virginia to north-central North Carolina. The most renowned of these was Nathaniel Macon who rose to national and political prominence. Born in Warren County in 1758, he was enrolled in the North Carolina militia at the outbreak of the American Revolution. In the early days of the Revolution, Nathaniel and three of his brothers were patriots who served either in the militia or in the Continental Army.
Nathaniel's first elected office in 1780 was as a state senator. A firm believer in individual responsibility and rights, he opposed North Carolina's ratification of the U.S. C onstitution. Starting in 1791, Nathaniel Macon served continuously in t he U.S. Congress for twenty-four years, a p eriod that covered the administrations of the first seven U.S. presidents. His congressional tenure included eighteen years in the House of Representatives and six years in the Senate. During 1801–1807 he served as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and during the last half of his six-year Senate term, he served as President Pro Tem of America's greatest deliberative body. Because of his great, national prominence, a number of counties and towns throughout the eastern half of the United States were named in his honor, including Macon, Georgia.
The Macons who were bound for Tennessee were the direct descendants of Nathaniel's brother, John Macon, whose life was both exceptional and troubled. A young patriot, he had accepted an officer's commission in the North Carolina regiment of the Continental Army. John rose to the rank of captain while fighting in a number of battles against the British and enduring the bitter winter encampment at Valley Forge. In 1780, he took leave from the Continental Army to serve in the North Carolina Commons and then in the state senate until 1795. The new nation was already broke and, unable to provide pensions for Revolutionary War veterans, the U.S. Congress compensated them with land grants in the nation's expanding, western regions. In 1787, John Macon received rights to 1,097 acres of land in Warren County, Tennessee, for his war service. John apparently made an impression wherever he went; a contemporary referred to him as "yet unmarried and something of a drinking, dashing blade."
John Macon eventually married and had seven children with his first wife, Johanna. Her death in 1795 at age thirty began a downward spiral in John's life, which became marred by family feuds, legal battles, and chronic alcoholism. A second wife stayed with him for little more than a year. John made plans to move to Tennessee for a fresh start. Meanwhile, afraid that their father might squander all of his money and possessions, some of his children took John to court in an effort to obtain early inheritance payments. He finally moved to Maury County, Tennessee, and died there in 1829. It would not be the last time a Macon was adversely affected by alcoholism.
Put off by family turmoil, John's son, Harrison Macon, devised a plan to steer clear of family conflicts while gaining a valuable asset. Instead of going to court to fight for an inheritance, Harrison decided to leave the family's ancestral home in Warrenton, North Carolina, and to lay claim to his father's land grant near McMinnville, Tennessee. He apparently told his own family to stay in North Carolina until he sent word for them to come to Middle Tennessee. He managed to carve out a new homestead in the Tennessee wilderness and sent for his family in 1840.
Not willing to waste precious hours of daylight, the Macons were soon packed up and plodding their way westward. A f ew more days of travel would carry them beyond the Great Smoky Mountains and into the lower foothills of East Tennessee. Only eleven years old at the time, young John Macon would one day return to his native North Carolina for one of the saddest and most humiliating events of his entire life.
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Harrison Macon and his family settled a large spread centered on the small community of Smartt Station, just a few miles west of McMinnville. Imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit and not afraid to work hard, the Macons soon established a number of new businesses and purchased existing ones. When Harrison Macon died in 1851, public records indicate that the family owned and operated activities as diverse as a g rist mill, cotton gin, sawmill, dry goods store, and even a small distillery. In addition, the land holdings supported orchards, farming, and livestock. An undetermined number of slaves provided much of the labor necessary to keep all the enterprises moving. The details of John Macon's early life are few, but he was certainly very central to the operating of the family's businesses. The Macons put an emphasis on receiving a good education, and John attended and graduated from Irving College in McMinnville. Upon Harrison Macon's death in 1851, John was appointed executor of his father's estate over his older brother — testimony to John's administrative abilities and trustworthiness.
A few short years following his father's death, a young, local girl caught John's fancy. Martha Ann Ramsey was nine years his junior and originally from Viola, Tennessee, a few miles south of McMinnville. When John asked for Martha's hand in marriage, it was one of the best decisions he ever made. They were wed on December 9, 1855, and soon built a new home together. A large house was constructed near Smartt Station and dubbed "Macon Manor" in honor of an ancestral home by the same name back in North Carolina. Their first child, Eugene LaVanderbilt Macon, was born in 1857, followed by daughters Lou and Bettie in 1859 and 1861, respectively. (For a complete listing of the members of the John and Martha Macon family see Appendix A.)
The onset of the American Civil War brought dramatic and devastating change to the South and the Macon family. Four Macon brothers had fought together previously in the American Revolution, and now four brothers from a new generation of Macons joined to fight for the Confederacy. In their eyes, the brothers were participants in a second revolution of sorts to retain their lands and property and to preserve the Southern way of life. While two of his brothers enlisted in Confederate cavalry units, John decided to recruit his own infantry company. He formed Company D, 35th Tennessee Infantry and was elected as its captain. John's younger brother, Romulus, served as a private in Company D. Over the next fifteen months, John Macon and his company saw action at the battles of Shiloh, Perryville, and Murfreesboro. Confederate war records indicate that he was still in command of Company D as late as July 1863. However, the specific nature of his duties for the remainder of the conflict remains unknown.
Throughout the war, Martha spent as much time as she could with her husband. Leaving her three children in the care of relatives and family servants, Martha joined her husband at faraway Confederate winter encampments in Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. As a result, the Macons had two more children born during the Civil War.
The Yankee invader finally made it to Macon Manor in June 1863. Only a day or so earlier, Martha had given birth to her fourth child, a boy named Emory John Macon. Martha's mother, Polly Stroud Ramsey, had come to Macon Manor to act as midwife for the delivery and to run the household and care for her grandchildren until Martha was back on her feet. A sudden disturbance outdoors caught Polly's attention, and upon looking outside, she was terrified to see a group of northern soldiers with rifles and bayonets rummaging through the barn and other outbuildings. The Union army was advancing southward from Murfreesboro to Chattanooga, and an infantry squad had paused at Smartt Station to search for food or anything else of value. At first not sure what to do, Polly Ramsey decided to confront the invaders. She went to the kitchen, found the longest, sharpest paring knife available, and gripping the handle tightly, thrust the knife into the front pocket of her apron.
Polly squared her shoulders, stepped out onto the front porch and called to the soldiers, all the while keeping a c lenched fist around the handle of her concealed weapon. Surprised by the sudden interruption, the bluecoats stopped their rummaging to focus their attention on the lady of the house. Polly announced that her daughter had just given birth and that mother and child needed calm and rest, not the distress of an unexpected intrusion. With all the courtesy she could muster, Polly asked the soldiers to please leave her family alone and to move along. To her great relief, the sergeant in charge tipped his hat, apologized for the disturbance, wished her well and ordered his men from the farm. Polly Stroud stayed on the porch until the soldiers were out of sight, all the while keeping her paring knife concealed and at the ready.
The end of the war found John Macon back in his native North Carolina in the spring of 1865. Having given their all for the Confederate cause, John and the surviving members of the 35th Tennessee decided to call it quits, surrendering to Union forces at Greensboro, North Carolina, on May 1, 1865. Shortly thereafter, John made the long trek home back over the mountains to Warren County. By the early summer of 1865, he was reunited with his wife and children at Macon Manor. In honor of his war service, the Macon family referred to their father as "Captain John" for the rest of his life.
Reconstruction was an especially trying time for Southerners as they grappled with social dislocation, political upheaval, and economic hardships. The Macons were no exception. Macon Manor was in disrepair, with all the slaves freed, livestock gone, no crops planted, and the family's businesses in shambles. Undaunted and clinging to optimism, Captain John managed to reopen a store at Smartt Station and to place the grist mill and distillery back into operation. By 1868, John and Martha Macon shared seven children, three boys and four girls. The couple worked hard to provide for their growing family, but life was a constant struggle.
Apparently, Martha had a great love for music, and she managed to purchase an ornate, square piano for the household. It was a time when the parlor piano had become a desired status symbol of middle-class propriety. Martha believed that a woman needed "a song in her heart" to make her more attractive to a suitor. All of her daughters received piano lessons, and two of them, Lou and Annie, would become piano teachers, part of the growing social practice of families making their own music in t he home. Martha's love for music suggests that the innate, musical genius that would one day propel her son Dave to national fame came from the Ramseys, rather than from the Macons.
The grinding poverty that afflicted the South following the Civil War eventually took its toll on the Macons. With little cash available, Southerners struggled to buy and sell even the most basic needs, and money was necessary to feed and clothe families, maintain property, and pay taxes. The economic recovery that people hoped and prayed for never really materialized. Captain John had no choice but to take on more and more debt to keep his family afloat.
It was into this deteriorating financial situation that John and Martha welcomed their eighth child. David Harrison Macon was born at Smartt Station on October 7, 1870, named in honor of his paternal grandfather. Little is known of Dave's early childhood. The earliest known photograph, taken of him at around age five, portrays a robust youngster dressed in a round hat and knee britches standing before Macon Manor. Dave exhibited musical talent at an early age, likely playing on the family's square piano alongside his sisters. The first musical instrument he learned to play was the guitar, not the banjo. The first song he learned was a comic tune named "Greenback," and he soon mastered a growing repertoire of other songs.
The first of a string of family tragedies struck the Macons in 1875. Two years earlier, Martha had given birth to another son, George M. Macon. The Macons organized a large family social at Macon Manor, and at one point, the children and younger relatives played enthusiastically in the front yard. Some of them chased after little George, and in his excitement, the two-year-old dashed toward the front steps hoping to elude his pursuers. The youngster suddenly tripped at the base of the steps and fell forward hard, cracking his head violently on one of the higher, stone steps. The blow knocked George unconscious, and he fell into a c oma, dying later that night. The accident cast a pall over Macon Manor, and large family gatherings were never held there again.
Meanwhile, the Macons' financial situation had only worsened. Captain John made the difficult decision to sell portions of the family's hard assets in order to raise required cash. Beginning in 1877, he started selling portions of the family's lands and businesses. While the temporary tactic did raise cash and buy additional time, it did not alter their fundamental economic condition.
Compounding the stressful situation was a running feud with J. C. Fowler, a U.S. Internal Revenue collector, who was responsible for the inspection of distilleries in Warren County. At the time, revenue agents concerned themselves not only with financials but with quality control in bottling and packaging operations. Captain John's two sons, John and Sam, had reopened the family's distillery. Fowler found several irregularities during one visit, imposing a considerable fine, which placed another financial burden on the family. Subsequent inspections only engendered further acrimony. Captain John finally petitioned a local judge who imposed a restraining order forbidding Fowler to conduct further examinations.
A few years later, the Macons finally hit rock bottom. With all the family businesses already closed, Captain John and Martha made the difficult decision to sell their home and the last of their land. In December 1883, Macon Manor and a last 600-acre tract of land were sold. The Macons packed their belongings and headed north for Nashville, hoping for a better future.
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John and Martha's oldest son, Eugene LaVanderbilt Macon, who everyone knew as "Van," had moved to Nashville in advance of his parents and siblings. Economic conditions were indeed better in the state capital, and Van made a good living as a livery stable operator in the heart of downtown Nashville. No doubt Van acted as a type of scout for the family's move. Captain John wanted to own and operate his own business once more, and Van soon located a good opportunity near the Nashville riverfront.
The Broadway House hotel was up for sale. Using the last of their savings and the proceeds from the sale of their home and land in McMinnville, the Macons purchased the Broadway House. In order to avoid any possible liens or tax issues from past financial circumstances, the property was deeded in Martha Macon's name under the business designation "M. A. Macon & Co." To minimize living expenses and to ease their management burdens, the family took up residence in the hotel. Located at 166 Broadway, the structure stood near the present-day site of the Hard Rock Café in downtown Nashville.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dixie Dewdrop"
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Table of Contents
Introduction "Rock of Ages" 1
Chapter 1 "Rock About My Sara Jane" 13
Chapter 2 "From Earth to Heaven" 34
Chapter 3 "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy" 87
Chapter 4 "Take It Away, Uncle Dave!" 123
Chapter 5 "Eleven-cent Cotton, Forty-cent Meat" 148
Chapter 6 "Poor Sinners, Fare Thee Well" 182
Chapter 7 The Macon Music Legacy 209
Appendix A The John and Martha Macon Family 229
Appendix B The Dave and Tildy Macon Family 231
General Index 251
Song Index 259