Mac Wiseman – ‘Tis sweet to be remembered – accurately
He’s only recently started a new chapter in his own life in a new house in Nashville, and has been working on getting his vast memorabilia collection in order again, but its currenet inaccessbility is no matter. He’s got an an iron-trap memory for stories of his 80-plus years and of the music business, as strong as he has for the hundreds of songs he can pull out and perform at will.
He talks with that very nearly melodic born-for-radio speaking voice he was given, the tone that made him the natural narrator for the famed High Lonesome story-of-bluegrass film. And when Wiseman laughs, it’s a loud, large, full-body-shaking laugh. You sense that, for all his good nature, when peeved he probably could go there just as whole-hog.
The man who toured with both Hank Williams and Andy Williams (yes; that Andy Williams) continued, recalling a 50-year friendship:
“Sure; Johnny Cash and I both did some things that were pop; that was part of our pattern. Dot, since it was a small label, would release singles every six weeks; it didn’t seem to get in the way of the one ahead of it. Sometimes I would have two or three out at a time! It’s when we didn’t have good, strong new material, we would just drop back and do an old pop standard. That’s why we infiltrated!”
An official Mac Wiseman story has been very well locked-in over time by a variety of shortcutters and gatekeepers — music historians, reissue houses, some tunnel-visioned and overprotective promoters of classic traditional bluegrass (the genre for which Mac is essentially, almost entirely, known).
That narrative, the conventional one, tells us that Malcolm B. Wiseman was born May 23, 1925, in Virginia’s traditional music-rich Shenandoah Valley, in the tiny hamlet of Crimora, and was stricken by polio as an infant, quietly dealing with its effects ever after. In the late 1940s, he played bass with hillbilly heroine Molly O’Day as she recorded “Tramp On The Street” and then-unknown Hank Williams songs, all in preparation for his first-generation bluegrass contribution.
Wiseman was a Foggy Mountain Boy on the first Flatt & Scruggs sessions, dueting with Lester on the classic “We’ll Meet Again, Sweetheart”, then was recruited for Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, with whom he sang lead vocal on more classics, including “Can’t You Hear Me Calling” and “Travelin’ This Lonesome Road”. Monroe is on record as having called Mac his strongest lead singer — amongst incredibly tough competition that would also include Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin and Del McCoury.
After briefly fronting his own band, the Country Boys, Wiseman went on to become a popular fixture on the bluegrass circuit — though, unusually enough, primarily as a successful solo singer.
That’s all true, as far as it goes; you can find summaries of that sort in books, catalogues, web pages and liner notes. But that narrative would leave you surprised to hear Mac Wiseman say, pointedly:
“Not to sound too critical, but the ‘bluegrass’ classification was the worst damned thing ever happened to me! I’ll tell you why: Up until then, I was getting as much airplay as Marty Robbins or Ray Price, and I toured with all of those package shows. And I could do 20-30 day tours with Slim Whitman all over the country, with our own groups.”
And even this:
“I’ll have to be honest with you, franker than I’ve been — I didn’t give a damn about working with Bill Monroe! I wanted to go on the Opry; part of my deal with him was that I got a solo on there every Saturday night at 10:15.”
Mac’s sensibility, fundamentally, is that of an extraordinarily flexible, country-raised American pop singer who happens also to be a “record man” — an industry guy who likes to make records that people will want to hear, who understands the music business and finds almost as much pleasure in adapting smartly to a continuously changing situation as he does in performing.
As attuned to pop music and mainstream country as to hardcore bluegrass and those old (and often not so old) sentimental ballads, Wiseman would indeed be influential, not only in the wider musical world but within bluegrass a well — in underrecognized and often surprisingly subversive ways.
Eddie Adcock, co-founder of the bluegrass content-expanding Country Gentlemen, was Mac’s banjo player before that, in the early ’50s, from the age of 16, a learning gig he still calls “the best job I’ve ever had.” He says of Mac’s impact, “All of the bluegrass people who didn’t have to have it just like Bill Monroe — and that’s a lot of them — musicians and singers, he influenced a lot. Everybody who didn’t want to hear Bill Monroe style, wanted to hear Mac!”
Adcock also — and he’s not alone — characterizes Wiseman this way: “I always think of Mac, because of the nature of the way he sings, as jazz, a jazz singer. He’s a bluegrass jazz singer.”
Dobro king Uncle Josh Graves, who played that fluid instrument with Wiseman before taking a similar, better-known role for many years in the classic Flatt & Scruggs band, can say with equal conviction, “Well, I always considered Mac a mountain ballad singer — which I love. I come from East Tennessee, and I know that old singin’, you know.”
Somewhere very near the place those two descriptions meet, and where the gifted pop record businessman meets the gifted song interpreter, is the source of the wide variety of strong music Mac Wiseman has made.