Mac Wiseman – ‘Tis sweet to be remembered – accurately
In his startlingly prescient way, that’s something Mac himself began to have a handle on early, even as he entered high school, when other kids on a local on-air talent contest would appeal for audience votes with the same songs and sorts of songs over and over, and he would score with an already deliberately varied repertoire.
“The greatest fulfillment and exhilaration of the whole thing,” he reckons, looking back, “was that I could do anything I wanted to. Some things got more response than others, but I didn’t get a negative for it. I could do anything.”
What “anything” included even then — what it would come to take in, and how all of that came together, adding up to some music that is marvelous, singular, outside-the-pigeonholes, and still works — is, inevitably, a different Mac Wiseman narrative than the familiar one.
It’s 1938, depth of the Depression years, a house with no electricity, no running water, a house that has belonged to Mac’s mother’s people for a century already. Mac’s dad, Howard, is a miller, so if they’re hardly wealthy, they’re doing a bit better than a lot of people, and they’ve got one of the first radio sets around. People come to hear the Opry here on Saturdays.
And Dad’s inventive; he keeps the battery from running out during the show by adding a windmill-style fan to some buggy axles, fastening them to a car generator, and letting a second battery charge while the first powers the sound of the Delmore Brothers.
Picture now Mac’s mother, Neva, huddled over that big battery-operated, tough-to-tune Freed-Eismann radio — a brand name that would stick with her eldest of four children, Mac, for the similarity to the family name, and maybe for its punning promise that the tunes it emitted might someday have “freed Wiseman.”
She’s jotting down lyrics of old rural songs played by local bands, best she can. The acts reappear regularly with the same tunes, so she can go back and fill in the lines and verses she’s missed. She’s saving these songs, systematically — eventually, twelve spiral binders full of them — all for Mac, who at 13 gets himself a $3.95 Sears Roebuck guitar. (A traveling preacher finally tunes the thing for him; no one else could.) Mac likes to strum it and sing these familiar tunes, old-time songs rarely referred to as “hillbilly,” let alone “country” yet. He’d sit by a kerosene light at night and sing from the books.
But the old songs of home and hearth were not the only ones attracting him. He was ordering 78 RPM records by mail — the Delmores, Roy Acuff, Gene Autry, Gid Tanner, Charlie Poole, the Carter Family, Vernon Dalhart. His father would provide them as rewards for chores done. And he’d been listening to that radio for years.
“I liked all kinds of music,” Mac emphasizes. “I liked Bing Crosby and Montana Slim, and the reason I mention those two is that they both had network radio shows, two fifteen-minute programs on in the morning, back to back, out of New York, when I was about 8-9 years old — and it just struck me that I liked one as well as the other.”
Crosby was already mixing his versions of cowboy songs such as “Take Me Back To My Boots And Saddle” with his crooner hits; Mac compares Bing’s pop-to-roots move to the much later excursion into country by Ray Charles. (Mac was such a Bing fan that he was at first a bit resentful of the attention this new Sinatra kid was getting.)
Montana Slim — Canada’s Wilf Carter — is an even more revealing choice of radio listening, in terms of what young Mac could have learned from him. A straight-ahead balladeer, he took Jimmie Rodgers-influenced cowboy songs contemporary with tales of cowhands riding in airplanes and dude ranch wannabes. He also freely mixed eastern country story-songs with the western material.
More telling was young Mac’s devotion to the regular national radio broadcasts of singer Bradley Kincaid, whose clear diction and careful, evocative intonation of old melancholy ballads and parlor songs from “Barbara Allen” to “A Letter Edged In Black” would have the clearest single influence on Mac’s singing approach.
North Carolinian Kincaid called himself a “singer of mountain songs.” His singing was twang-free, his guitar strumming rudimentary, but his clean lyric readings meant the stories could always be followed. He held the audience with changes of tempos within a line and sliding rise-and-falls within syllables that, on records such as “The Fatal Wedding”, certainly are precursors of a part of Wiseman’s vocal attack.
Kincaid was also a decidedly middle-class singer, careful to avoid any hillbilly tones or affectations, even when his immensely popular radio show came to directly precede the Grand Ole Opry in the ’40s. In key respects, he was setting a pattern not for future country music, but for future commercial, urban folksingers.
“I didn’t realize, till many years later, the affect that Bradley Kincaid had on me,” Mac says, “because he did the old ballads and story-songs, but he was an educated guy; he had a college education. Also, he was a businessman. I guess I’d have to say that I patterned myself after that.”
Mac was also a teenager, as interested in the cool material of the day as the next kid, and this was the swing era. If Wiseman had won those amateur radio contests with Kincaid-like material, his first real continuing gig would be of a different order — as lead singer for an aggregation that would not be specializing in singing and playing Appalachian music.
They were called the Hungry Five, and as well as these young gents (mainly seniors at the high school in New Hope, Virginia) were playing, they lacked a vocalist who could keep up with their accomplished turns on flowing Hawaiian steel guitar, accordion, fiddle, guitar and bass. They found one in freshman Mac. They would perform current mega-hits such as “Stardust”, the swing-influenced western songs that marked the spot where Gene Autry, Bob Wills and Bing Crosby met — “South Of The Border, Down Mexico Way” and “San Antonio Rose” — and Sons Of The Pioneers’ modern cowboy numbers. Classmates would jitterbug to the music.