Uncle Dave Macon Days—an Ethnomusicology Report
A mere twenty-minute bike ride from MTSU’s campus exists a quaint historic center called Cannonsbugh Village. During the month of June, Cannonsburgh (“a historic area established as a 1976 U.S. Bicentennial project“) doubles as the location for the internationally known Uncle Dave Macon Days Old Time Music and Dance festival (Owen and Weiler). According to the official website for the festival, Uncle Dave Macon Days began in July of 1978 and was organized by “the late pharmacist Jesse Messick and David ‘Ramsey’ Macon, a grandson of Uncle Dave” as a “banjo pickin’ contest” on the side of the Rutherford County Courthouse. The idea was that it would be a fun way to pay homage to the man who essentially created the genre of county music. Since its conception, the small banjo contest has blossomed into “one of the premier traditional music and dance festivals,” is home to three national championship competitions, and has over $10,000 in prize money to award annually.
At the invitation of banjo player Daniel Rothwell’s Mom, Deana, I attended a press conference for the festival. At Dr. Shearon’s recommendation I had contacted Deana previously asking to be told if there were any upcoming events and she gave me a 24 hour notice of this “small, semi-private event in Cannonsburgh.” So the next day I grabbed my bike helmet and proceeded to navigate the rather dangerous maze of roads to get to Cannonsburgh. Due to not being able to cross Broad Street, I ended up arriving twenty minutes after the official start.
By the time I had walked up to the gazebo, Daniel Rothwell was already playing banjo and singing with a couple other, older, men. The band, which had never rehearsed together or played as a unit before, consisted of a bassist, a violinist who doubled on vocals occasionally, and a guitarist. There was no percussion other than the clogging/buck dancers. The dancers would run on when they wanted to and leave when they were finished.
The ages of the dancers ranged from eighteen to Thomas Maupin (mid-70s). Thomas Maupin, a famous buck dancer, is Daniel Rothwell’s grandfather and mentor who believes that the best way to be taught to dance or play is self-teach. This way, a unique style is developed and the musician or dancer internally feels the music. The youngest dancer, Greer Kimbell is senior at the local Blackman High School. Greer, primarily an ”excellent” competitive fiddle player (according to Thomas Maupin), joined Thomas Maupin frequently, and occasionally soloed. Her style of dance, unlike Thomas Maupin, was more trained—“clogging” as Thomas Maupin described it when I interviewed him later that afternoon. In addition to dancing and being a competitive fiddler, she also “jams” with Daniel and other musicians during various festivals. Outside of arranged events, she also is a “musician on call” at the VA hospital. While music will always be a part of her life—and “an integral part of the community—and the Old Country Time scene is a community in and of itself”—Greer plans on pursuing nursing at a technical school in Tennessee. This seems to be a common theme among the people I met here. Of all the prominent people of the Old Country Time scene, only Daniel Rothwell and Thomas Maupin—and later, guests Ricky Skaggs and his wife Sharon White—were professional musicians as far as I could tell. I think this speaks to a large degree about how Old Country Time and Bluegrass remains a true folk music; these genres, descended from Europe when the country was being formed, are still used meaningfully by the local culture to bond the community together.
Instead of having a particular set of music, Daniel would take audience suggestions and call out what key, and play the melody as the band improvised around him. As a member of Seattle’s jazz scene, I was amazed at the similarities of a jazz combo and this jam session. Both genres included with musicians collaborating with musicians they hadn’t necessarily worked with before, improvising off the key and melody, and playing in a community-centered way. The primary difference, in my opinion, was that this had no pretentious “class” vibes to it, but rather a “good ol’ family friendly” feel. While jazz has lost it’s roots as a working-class music, Old Country Time and Bluegrass has embraced their history and striven to keep the tradition alive in the community.
Some of the traditional songs that Daniel and the band played included: “Ida Red,” “Chereokee Shuffle,” “Hand Me Down my Walking Cane” (played by Uncle David at the Grand ol’ Opry with his son), “Pretty Paulie” (a ballad from England that occasionally addressed the audience directly (“ladies and gentlemen, I bid you farewell”), “Johnny Don’t Get Drunk” (with cloggers), “Rattler” (included percussive shouts and yells that seemed to emulate animals), and “Run, Jimmy, Run.” Deana Rothwell told me to shout out the latter song, and proceeded to fall into a giggle fit when I did. Daniel then, with a look, introduced the song by saying that “it used to be very popular in this neck of the woods,” prompting more laughter. Seeing I was confused, Deana leaned over and told me that this song used to be called “Run, Nigger, Run.” “Run, Jimmy, Run” was performed with the violinist echoing key phrases for effect. What I found particularly interesting about this name change is that it shows societal change can affect even traditional songs, and conversely, traditional songs can take new meanings in new social lights.
After the songs wrapped up, the emcees introduced various people in attendance—ranging from people on the city council to award winners to families that are simply historically a major part of the community. Throughout each presentation, the Christian background of the festival was either implied and explicitly stated. To paraphrase, the community member who offered the benediction prayer for the festival said that it was through music that people’s souls can be touched in a way no pastor could—this festival is a way to use God’s gifts to inspire others to be saved. I found this surprising, since public, governmental officials were making very pro-Christian-centered statements. Perhaps it is because I’m from the overly politically-correct Pacific Northwest, but this ruffled my feathers a bit because this publically-supported event seemed almost exclusive of anyone who was not Christian. However, when I enquired if this was the norm, Deana Rothwell and Greer Kimbell both were very quick to tell me that this event is the most open about it, and, probably because of Ricky Skaggs’s attendance, more so this time then ever before. I think Daniel Rothwell did a good job explaining the atmosphere at this particular festival by saying that “this is more a family friendly, good morals and no alcohol—not necessarily religious. That just happens to be that a lot more people are here because we live in the Bible Belt.”
So, perhaps at the root level, Uncle Dave Macon Days is an evangelical Christian event, but on a “practical” level, it is a way to bring the community together. If one didn’t know better, one would think that this press conference for the Uncle Dave Macon Days was a family reunion… and in a way it was. People throughout the generations meet up through this music scene to find friends and loved ones, pass the time, and learn from each other. Just as much as society has changed Old Country Time music to Dolly Parton, so has Country music changed the members of the community as they grew up musicking with it.
Owen, Teresa, and Patsy B. Weiler. “History.” Uncle Dave Macon Days. Uncle Dave Macon Days, 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.
Rothwell, Deana, Daniel Rothwell, Thomas Maupin, and Greer Kimbell. “Uncle Dave Macon Days Press Conference.” Personal interview. 10 Apr. 2013