Greetings from Asheville, where the good music is always on the turntable. Our Classic Album Review, today, remembers a compilation from Uncle Dave Macon. Uncle Dave was one of country music’s most important stars in its infancy. Yet, for many years, Uncle Dave’s work was woefully underrepresented on record. In 1979, Rounder Records contributed to reversing that with the release of Laugh Your Blues Away.
I’m guessing that if you were to poll most current country music listeners, about 95% of them would have no idea who Uncle Dave was. Yet, in the early days of country music, he was one of the genre’s most exciting performers. Born in 1870, he didn’t become a professional musician until the early 20’s, after being forced to close his delivery business; a business that relied on mules and wagons and was driven out by cars and trucks. He was one of the first major stars of the Grand Ole Opry, as well, appearing from the 1920’s until shortly before his death in 1951.
Today’s album is a historical collection. Though it doesn’t contain any of his bestselling records, it contains some interesting unreleased music, and several live performances. My first Uncle Dave Macon recording, having purchased this from The Ernest Tubb Record Shop, in the early 1980’s.
The album starts with a 1930 recording titled “Go on Nora Lee”. One of the best recordings I’ve heard of Uncle Dave’s often underrated banjo abilities.
Also, recorded in 1930, is the next track, “Mysteries of The World”. According to the notes with the album, both cuts were never previously released. Also, on both cuts, Uncle Dave’s accompanied by Sam McGee, another early country music great. I like this track; it has more great banjo work, along with some stellar vocal work by Uncle Dave.
“Come on Buddie, Don’t You Want to Go”, also from those sessions, is another track that illustrates Uncle Dave’s banjo playing. A completely different style than later made famous by Earl Scruggs. But Uncle Dave was quite a picker, nonetheless. He’s really working the instrument on this track. Then, on “Oh Lovin’ Babe”, he plays in a completely different style, and does so flawlessly. This is one of the album’s best tracks. Another great vocal.
Next is a track Uncle Dave recorded in 1945, “Come Dearest the Daylight Is Dawning/Nobody’s Darling but Mine”. The banjo is almost secondary, and the vocals aren’t there. It sounds as though he was trying to perform with some kind of accent.
The vocals are much like the Uncle Dave of old on “Don’t You Look for Trouble”, as is the banjo playing. At the end, though, it sounds like the banjo gets off-key. According to the liner notes, these two tracks, along with the last two and two tracks on side two, were Uncle Dave’s last actual recordings. He was accompanied by his son, Dorris.
Among the better works of these 1945 works, would be “I’m Free, I’ve Broken the Chains”. Good vocal work for a then 74-year-old voice.
Side one’s final cut, “Laugh Your Blues Away”, also finds the vocals in good form, as well. These 1945 recordings were not his best works, though a couple are pretty good. Likely, had they been released, they would have not been great sellers, as even by 1945 standards. Uncle Dave’s style was sounding somewhat dated, having not changed in twenty years. Country music was changing, with the likes of Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Al Dexter, and a young Eddy Arnold.
Side two opens with “Take Me Back to My Old Carolina Home”, a recording from the 1940 film, “The Grand Ole Opry”. The introduction is by longtime Opry head (and creator of the Opry) George D. Hay. Despite the less-than-stellar sound quality of the track, the performance, is as good as any on the disc.
“Travellin’ On My Mind” is another from those 1945 sessions. Uncle Dave does some acceptable yodeling, reminiscent of Jimmie Rodgers, on this track. In fact, the last stanza is word-for-word from Rodgers’ classic “T for Texas” (I can’t get more women than a passenger train can haul).
One final cut from those 1945 sessions, and probably the best of the group, “I’m Drifting Farther from You”. Again, for a 74-year-old voice, the performance is quite good; another highlight of the album.
“Over the Mountain” dates from a 1946 broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry and includes an intro from Roy Acuff. Uncle Dave’s banjo playing is a minor part of this track. Dorris’ guitar playing is the featured instrument. Uncle Dave’s vocals are in fine form on this track. One can just imagine a hot summer night, radio on, hearing this performance over the air. It must have been quite an experience.
The liner notes do not make it quite clear, but “The Death of John Henry” may be another live Opry performance. Dorris is replaced, on this track, by the picking of the McGee Brothers. Some hot picking, here, by the McGee’s.
Next up, a song that was an Uncle Dave favorite, “Eleven Cent Cotton”. According to the album notes, this is the only recording of Uncle Dave Macon singing this song. Despite the dated sound, the lyrics are appropriate, even today. Ask any farmer. Also, worth noting, Uncle Dave breaks into a plug for one of his longtime Opry sponsors, American Ace Coffee.
“Chewing Gum” is another Opry recording from the November 1950 25th Anniversary special. This is a good example of Uncle Dave’s ability with novelty songs, which were a big part of his repertoire. I’m not sure who the announcer introducing Uncle Dave Macon is, maybe George D. Hay? At the end, though, as the track fades, you can hear Red Foley talking.
An even bigger part of Uncle Dave’s catalog were inspirational songs, of which two wrap up this album. Both are live recordings from 1946, I’m guessing likely from the Opry. “From Jerusalem To Jericho” is a great song, in and of itself, and “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be” also rates highly. Uncle Dave’s performance on both tracks, again, very good. Given his old-time style and the limitations of that era’s recording technology, both tracks are true artistic beauty.
When I first wrote this post on my old Ultimate Twang Blog back in 2010, I commented, “Good luck finding a copy of this album. I found several references to it, online, but I didn’t find one copy for sale, anywhere I looked.” It’s still scarce, compared to other albums, but I did find some copies for sale on both Amazon and eBay. They are selling in the $5 to $15 range, though one poor soul on Amazon was trying to sell a copy at $49. Even though it wasn’t a huge selling album, Goldmine doesn’t even list it in their book. That means near-mint copies are generally worth less than $15.
Overall, Laugh Your Blues Away is an interesting overview of Uncle Dave Macon’s work, from the 1930’s to near the end of his career. I like his music, though, it’s not something I want to listen to all the time. But what an important part of country music’s infancy and heritage. The highlights of this album are the live performances, which even in his seventies, had an excitement about them that energized audiences, despite the somewhat dated style. Though this album does not contain his best recorded work, there are still some very good gems. Plus, the historical importance of this collection is significant. A well-crafted work from forty years ago. Thoughts?
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike the Country Musicologist is a lifelong music and radio fanatic, model railroader, lover of vintage agriculture, and big sports fan, including the Colts, Reds, Hurricanes, Pacers, Purdue & Butler Universities. He has collected records since childhood, focusing on classic country and top 40 oldies music. He convinced Vincennes University to give him an Associate’s Degree in broadcasting. He’s worked for several stations in Indiana and North Carolina. Be sure to follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.