SEPTEMBER’S NOONDAY sun showed no mercy as the field hands repeatedly ripped the corn from its stalk, dropping it into long burlap sacks draped across their bodies. Clothes and bulging harvest bags clung to their bodies, glued by sweat. Lost in rows that stood taller than their heads, the workers rushed to fill their bags, dump them into the nearest wagon, and return to their spot to begin again.
The Middle Tennessee air was filled with humidity, birdsong, and the occasional braying from the wagon team until the faintest melody of a clawhammer banjo, song, and laughter joined in. As the music grew louder, the workers dropped their sacks, marking their spots, and rushed to the side of the rutted road. Uncle Dave Macon and his mules were passing through on their way to market, loaded with tobacco, soybeans, sorghum, and other crops that provided for the families dotting the rural countryside.
The corn could wait. Macon’s music lifted spirits and energized tired bodies as he played and sang songs reflecting the struggles and joys of everyday people whose lives were connected to the ground they worked and each other. Better together, music and mules teamed up to pull Middle Tennesseeans through season after season.
Music and mules are teaming up again this fall, dedicated to connecting our present and future to our past.
In 2021, Marty Ray Gordon turned off the news. He tuned into a way to effect change for our community, longing to offer people a chance to be part of something that changes lives while entertaining and educating us about the resilience and strength of previous generations. Gordon’s first step in that direction was to organize the American Mule & Bluegrass Festival (AMBF).
“The mule has pulled people out of the Great Depression. The mule pulled us out of war, as mules participated in every war we had. There’s no reason mules can’t help to provide funds for charities and help them get back on their feet. What the mules will be pulling for now is charity,” Gordon said when the festival began.
So the mules pulled to benefit local charities and now pull to assist our veterans. In 2023, the mules are adding more to the wagons. The festival will partner with Uncle Dave Macon Days (UDMD), an annual old-time music festival held for 42 years in Rutherford County that has outgrown its past locations. But the mules will pull UDMD into more than a larger venue.
According to uncledavemacondays.com, the nonprofit is dedicated to ensuring our communities stay connected to the history and spirit of our country by building bridges in education through the cultural heritage experience in arts and music. It preserves the past, enriches the present, and inspires the future — our legacy to the next generation — what we collect, what we create, and ultimately what we treasure.
The event takes place September 28-October 1 at Shelbyville’s Cooper Steel Arena, and the two events expect the combination to connect us to the lives and values of timeless tools and traditions steeped in music and mules. The music that accompanied the hard work in the fields and provided the soundtrack to life’s celebrations and hardships still resonates. Although motorized equipment revolutionized agricultural work, mules remind us to slow down and let them work for us while enjoying their companionship and the beauty in nature around us. Their brays harmonize with the strings of music that tell the highs and lows of our stories.
About the new partnership, Gordon said, “Making Music & Mules provides education, entertainment, competition, and activities to give back to the community and others. Because of that agreement and handshake, we could become a regional festival because the more than 40-year history of Uncle Dave Macon Days is an incredible experience for American Mules & Bluegrass to lean on.”
We are not so far removed from the past that we can’t reconnect with timeless elements of the early rural agrarian lifestyle. The least we can do is develop an appreciation for the God-given ways that the earth and those that work it sustain us. At best, we can learn the skills for homesteading, an appreciation of our roots, an entertaining break from life in the digital age, and fellowship with and support for our neighbors.
Gordon and Uncle Dave Macon Days President Gloria Christy agree that this year’s festival works to erase the boundaries between neighbors, including the boundaries between Bedford and Rutherford Counties.
Christy said, “We want to show that Bedford County and Rutherford County don’t have to be separate entities. We have seen this work in other parts of the country and even in our own state, with events and festivals merging together even in two different states like Bristol, Virginia, and Bristol, Tennessee, with the Carter fold and what’s going on up in East Tennessee. They don’t really pay attention to the political boundaries of counties or states. They make it work. What if we can make it work? This not only benefits us [the missions of UDMD and AMBF] financially, but the tourism possibilities are incredible. It really is a regional initiative.”
It’s an initiative celebrating Middle Tennessee as the home of the first Grand Ole Opry star and the gaited mule.
“We need to get the word out that Middle Tennessee is the home of the Grand Ole Opry star, Uncle Dave Macon, and where the gaited mule became recognized because of the Tennessee walking horse connection. It takes a gaited horse to help bring the gait into the mule. A gaited mule is a four-beat bilateral gait. We are one of the biggest mule shows in the United States with more than 100 classes,” said Gordon.
This year’s festival benefits the United Veterans Council of Bedford County. The components that allow the event to contribute to the council are the junior mule skinner program for all of Bedford County’s fourth graders to learn about the mules and the music, homesteading and songwriting workshops, mule communication clinics, chuckwagon cooking, blacksmithing, and a petting zoo. There’s a chance to win a mule. Keep it or donate it for an auction to benefit veterans.
It’s an invitation to slow down, unplug, celebrate, and reconnect with the music and traditions that make us better together. GN