Mac Wiseman – ‘Tis sweet to be remembered – accurately
His bluegrass recordings from the 1950s often comes to mind first. For some historians, and even hard-core fans, that’s all that comes to mind. For a lauded, unforgettable American singer whose key songs were more than once about memory itself, there’s a lot about what Mac Wiseman has done, and what he can do, that has not so simply been forgotten.
“I remember hearing Mac Wiseman back in my high school days, at probably 14 or 15,” southern rocker Charlie Daniels recalled. “He was one of my idols and one of my earliest influences. There’s something unique about his voice; when Mac sings, there’s absolutely no doubt about who it is. You can try to pronounce your words in a certain way, put a certain timbre in your voice, pick up his guitar runs, try to phrase like he does, but there’s no imitating him. It’s not going to sound like Mac.
“I can, to this day, pick up an acoustic guitar and sing one of his songs, and still hear him singing them. It’s a funny thing, really, that I’d remember lyrics to songs that he sang well more than 40 years ago, and how they went. I mean, I’ve got songs of mine that go back a few years that I don’t remember!”
Talk to people about Mac Wiseman and that’s what you tend to hear — how that sound of his stays with you, how the special warmth and sweetness in his voice got him pegged, years ago, as The Voice With A Heart, the way he caresses those old, sentimental ballads such as “Dreaming Of A Little Cabin” and “I Sill Write Your Name In The Sand”. Sometimes they bring up his inventive, yet still unobtrusive guitar fills between lines, the unforgettable phrasing that sometimes has him lingering over one syllable and then suddenly swooping up, speeding up and biting off the next. How he actually sings that title-ending word “Reee-MEM…burred,” for instance, in the hit version of his signature tune, “‘Tis Sweet To Be…”
Daniels was taken aback by the continuing strength of Mac’s voice when they got together last year for Charlie’s Songs From The Longleaf Pines gospel CD. (The two also can be seen singing together at the Country Music Hall of Fame on the new CDB Live DVD.)
One lamentable legacy of more than a hundred years of music recording — now acknowledged in a good many artist biographies — is that the sum of an act’s recordings may not reflect anything like the totality of that artist’s musical involvements and abilities, forever distorting the picture.
Performers may simply not have been very interested in documenting tunes and tones they’d thought of as a sideline or sidestep, however appealing we might now find them. Or, at least as often, recording entrepreneurs pigeonholed artists. We don’t have recordings of Muddy Waters singing “Deep In The Heart Of Texas” or “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”, or of Robert Johnson singing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” or “Yes, Sir — That’s My Baby” to contend with, because the record labels weren’t interested in presenting “blues singers” those ways. Yet we know — from earwitness testimony in Johnson’s case, and personal recollections in Waters’ — that early on, they sang such stuff, a lot.
But that’s not the problem encountered in grasping and appreciating the hundreds of varied recordings Mac Wiseman has made. On the contrary. Mac Wiseman made the records that he wanted to make. All it takes to get a fuller picture of his varied recording career, and the pleasures associated with it, is hearing the records.
But for a very long time, it was far from easy to know that many of his most adventurous records even existed, let alone that many of those undeservedly obscure releases are simply terrific. Bear Family Records brought first light through that haze with the 1993 one-disc reissue Teenage Hangout, a collection of startling singles Wiseman recorded for Dot Records in the latter half of the 1950s, including distinctive, charming, workable town and country turns on such R&B standards as “I Hear You Knockin'” and “One Mint Julep”, pop-folkish hits such as “Sixteen Tons”, “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett” and “Tom Dooley” — and even a bit of rockabilly.
A lot of bluegrass fans had never heard those Wiseman singles, back in the day, so these reappeared very much as a surprise, for many. Comments from a review of the ’93 disc as it appeared in one grasser newsletter are instructive:
“This whole CD serves to remind us all that even our dearest idols are only human, and rare indeed is the artist who is not at some time or other drawn by the almighty dollar into an association with totally inappropriate material….What is amazing is that there are no less than 30 cuts assembled on this one CD that could well have been titled ‘The Worst of Mac Wiseman.’…Most of this material just doesn’t fit Wiseman, and even that which does is ruined by vocal choruses and hokey pop-country arrangements. There are a few cuts that contain some bluegrass instrumentation…totally fouled with crude backup voices.”
Not all reviewers responded in such Bluegrass Police style, not even all hardcore bluegrass reviewers. But the assumptions are revealing — assumptions about what single sort of material is “appropriate” for this voice, and, in particular, assumptions that divergence from such expectations must just be “for the bucks” — which traditional bluegrass cuts, naturally, would not be.
Presumably, what’s “amazing” about encountering 30 tracks like those is how many times Mac was led by the nose down this primrose path. It’s also unclear what sort of “pop-country” would not be unacceptably “hokey,” whether any backup vocals but traditional bluegrass harmonies would not be “crude.”
The 2004 release of a multi-disc Bear Family Mac Wiseman box set, which brought together over 160 of his recordings from 1950-1964, showed how very often Mac really had gone off the reservation, sonically and in content. Only a minority of his recordings through all of those years proved taggable as classic, traditional bluegrass.
As for Mac’s motivation, perhaps it would be worthwhile to hear what the man himself has to say about that, more than a little gleefully, during the lengthy interviews for this article:
“They were things I’d wanted to do, ever since back when I was a kid listening to Crosby and people like that.”
Mac Wiseman is an effusive, lively, often salty talker. He’s as likely to toss in references, in passing, to the current promo strategies of a Kanye West (yes, he knows about Kanye West) as he is to mention what Don Gibson once said to him on tour in the ’50s. He’ll leap from metaphors straight outta the hills directly into analytical discussions of modern audience reactions.