It’s hard to peg a double Hall Of Famer as underappreciated, but when taking in the whole of Mac Wiseman’s accomplishments within the context of his remarkable life story, words such as “legend,” “pioneer,” and “trailblazer” seem accurate but lacking. A leading figure in the early days of both country and bluegrass genres, he was a founding member of both the CMA and IBMA and is an inductee of their respective Halls Of Fame. His music has also stretched to such realms as folk, rockabilly, and even hip-hop (remember groovegrass?). But Wiseman is so much more than a transcendent musical figure. In addition to his successes on and off stage, Mac Wiseman’s story is purely American. The circumstances framing his accomplishments make the picture of his life even more remarkable and beautiful. The album I Sang The Song: Life Of The Voice With A Heart does just that. It paints a musical portrait of Mac Wiseman through songs based on his life, and the voices of those whose own lives were changed by hearing the Voice With A Heart.
The concept of telling Mac’s story through song grew as natural as the wheat at the Wiseman family farm when Mac was a child. “I don’t know who had the basic idea,” says Mac. “I thought it was very practical when I heard it, and very unique.” Nashville mainstay and Wiseman confidante Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz (a German-born guitar phenom) began spending Sundays with their hero and friend, Mac Wiseman. “It started by us coming by on Sunday afternoons and hanging out,” says Cooper. What began as social visits filled with precious stories from Wiseman ended up taking a unique turn. Peter and Thomm noticed that everything about these tales were special; from what Mac had to say to how he said it, this was something to be treasured.
“Mac was telling a story, ‘Oh, I’d have to run the cows out, and I’d stand there where they’d been a layin’. We’d be barefoot until after the frost. Oh, I’d stand there, and my feet would be just as red as a gobbler’s snout,’” remembers Peter. He was blown away by the thought of standing on the grass where a cow had been lying in order to warm one’s feet—a depiction of a level of poverty incomprehensible to today’s generations. This, matched with phrases as colorful as “red as a gobbler’s snout,” appealed to Peter and Thomm, both songwriters but, more importantly, Mac Wiseman disciples. “I think around then was when we started thinking, ‘This is something to capture,’” Peter says. By using Mac’s own words, Peter and Thomm began constructing songs based off of these Sunday visits with Mac. Songs filled with lessons and imagery drawn from Mac’s life and own words. Songs that were purely Mac Wiseman. The aforementioned story became a song called ‘Barefoot ’Til After The Frost’ (performed on the new album by Jim Lauderdale), complete with the “gobbler’s snout” reference and all!
While working on this project, Thomm Jutz recalls words that Mac’s friend, John Prine, shared. “He said, ‘Ya know, usually when you write something that’s true, it’ll rhyme.’ That’s very true.” Thomm explains, “It’s easier when it’s a story that actually happened, because it takes you into the realm of your own experiences.” Not only did these songs actually happened, but they were written in nearly the same manner that Mac would tell them to you if you were in his living room. I learned this first-hand as I joined Mac, Peter, and Thomm on a Sunday evening to discuss both I Sang The Song and the legacy of the man with the heartfelt voice who sang the song.
As I ask Mac about his first guitar, his verbiage is filled with actual lines from the new album’s opening song “The Guitar” (by Sierra Hull and Justin Moses). As he tells me about his $3.95 guitar that he ordered from Sears-Roebuck, delivered in a cardboard box with a “neck like a wagon tongue” and about the kind preacher who tuned it up for him, I find myself subconsciously placing imaginary checkmarks along the side of a “lyrics inventory” list of the song which I had just heard in the car. Nearly point for point and line for line, he was retelling the song in his natural prose, and the two were nearly identical. “This was exactly how we wrote the song,” comments Thomm, perhaps after seeing the smile on my face as Mac tells me the tale. “Neck like a wagon tongue. You normally wouldn’t think about writing about a guitar and using the term ‘wagon tongue,’” says Thomm. Peter adds, “It was so easy. It really is just like we’re sitting here: the picture of the church behind him, or there’s his first recording session from 1946,” motioning to just two of the many pictures covering the walls. These two images were also inspiration behind songs on the album: “Crimora Church Of The Brethren” (from Ronnie Bowman and Junior Sisk) and “Simple Math” (from Jim Lauderdale, Peter Cooper, and Thomm Jutz).
Other country stars may have rags-to-riches stories (such as Dolly Parton’s and Loretta Lynn’s well-known tales), but no one’s journey is as intriguing as Mac Wiseman’s. The Great Depression hit the Wiseman family hard in 1929, when Mac was around four years old. “We lived in a tenant house up at a big farm up until then,” remembers Mac. His father had owned a nice Ford truck in 1928 and was getting paid $9 a day to help build the highway. “The next year, he couldn’t afford to buy a tag, and it sat behind the damn barn and rusted to the ground.” The family resorted to running a “scratch farm,” growing everything from wheat to timber, in order to make ends meet. “My mother and I, in the early years, ran the ole farm so to speak and Dad tried to stand on the highway and get a day’s work.”
Hearing about the hardships of running a smalltime wheat farm when the family was dependent on borrowing a thresher for the harvest makes “The Wheat Crop” (by Junior Sisk and The Isaacs) such an emotional depiction on just how hard The Depression was on the average American worker. As a child, Mac would wake up every morning around five o’clock and plow the field until it was time for school. After the wagon ride home from class, he would immediately change back into work clothes and get right back to plowing and doing farm chores: milking the cows, cleaning the stables, feeding the horses, and getting wood in. As he put it in “Three Cows And Two Horses” (Buddy Melton, Milan Miller, and Andrea Zonn), that was just life when you’re poor and you know. Even as a youngster, Mac knew that this was the way things were. “I knew immediately that we was poor. Poor as turkey, but didn’t feel awful ’cause everyone else was in the same position.”
However, that didn’t mean that Mac was content with his situation. As he grew older, he began to realize that there was a world outside Crimora, Va., and it fascinated him. Every night while he was doing his chores, he anxiously awaited for the passenger train to roll by. “I remember exactly where I stood to see that passenger train come down. It was about a good half-mile from my home. You could see those people sitting in those lighted cars—see the silhouettes.” Other than an occasional trip to Buena Vista, Mac had never been outside of Crimora, but from watching those trains, he knew that he wanted to be “Somewhere Bound” (Buddy Melton, Milan Miller, and Andrea Zonn) one day. “I was eaten up with curiosity seeing those people silhouetted in those passenger trains going down. Where did they come from, and where are they going? I had the itch to climb aboard.” Little did he know, he already had his ticket out of Crimora.
In addition to being raised a poor farmer, Mac was diagnosed with polio when he was merely six months old. “It took me a couple of years to learn how to walk. It was new to them at the time.” The polio caused Mac to walk on his toes, resulting in his ankles being extremely weak. “Every step I took, it would fall over. I didn’t wear my shoes out on the sole; I wore it out on the side.” Regardless, Mac wouldn’t let it intimidate him while he was growing up. “I didn’t know any different until I got to school and wanted to play baseball.” Mac had to wait until he was about 13 years old before he was able to have surgery on his legs. Although, in a strange way, if not for his polio, the world may never have heard of Mac Wiseman. “That’s how I learned to play the guitar! I was laid up all summer and couldn’t work the fields or nothin’.” Mac passed the time with his $3.95 guitar from Sears-Roebuck. Providing him the opportunity to learn to play “The Guitar” would not be the only time that his polio impacted his impending musical legacy.
When Mac graduated high school, he sought to be a businessman and work a desk job. “I wanted to be a bookkeeper or something of that nature.” He ended up landing a job with the manganese mine. “Manganese Mine” (Shawn Camp) had been around since World War I. Mac’s grandfather had worked in the mine during that era, while his father got a job in the tunnels during World War II. The operation had changed to open-pit mining by the time Mac arrived. Due to his intelligence, Mac received a job in the mine’s laboratory, running tests on ore samples: a solid, high-paying job for anyone at the time, let alone for a young man just out of high school. It seemed that there was more in store for Mac though. “When I came out from work late in the fall, one fella there said he wanted to give me a lift, and I told him I had a ride. He said, ‘No, I got something I wanna talk to you about.’ So, I got in. He said that the Infantile Paralysis Association told him that they would match funds if I wanted to go to college.” This proved to be one of the defining moments of Mac’s life.
“I saved my money, and that’s what I did, and majored in radio. I went from there to a radio station.” After working behind the scenes in the radio business for a spell, Mac decided it was time he started taking a piece of the spotlight. “I got to looking around and saw that the manager and program director were driving Fords and Chevrolets, and the “hillbillies” [the musicians] were driving Cadillacs, so I decided to change goals.” Ironically, the polio which ailed him as a child ended up being a defining factor in his success as an entertainer and music professional.
Mac quickly proved himself as a more than capable broadcaster, businessman, and performer, establishing himself as one of the most potent multi-faceted figures in the early days of country music. His knack for good business proved to be one of his secret weapons. He had learned the value of hard work and developed his business acumen through watching his mother as a child. “My dad only had a fourth-grade education. He was honest as the day is long and worked hard all of the time, but he didn’t want to be fooled with the budget or nothing. He would just make the money and give it to my mom to use on groceries or whatever.” She kept strict records of all of the money coming in and out of the Wiseman household. “At the end of the year, she had a record of every dozen eggs she had sold, every gallon of cream she had sold, and wrote down anything she had money on and sat down and totaled that up. Didn’t mean a damn thing other than her personal satisfaction.” Mac took these qualities to heart and applied them to his own sense of business. “I always admired that in her. She could’ve done excellent. She had a seventh-grade education, and she could have easily been an executive of some kind.” This simple bookkeeping sensibility, matched with a work ethic hardened by growing up during The Great Depression and a college education, allowed Mac to succeed at everything from selling baby chicks and ladies’ hose on the radio to making records. “I wanted something to get out of the damn fields with.” As is expressed in “Simple Math”: Can’t spend the money you don’t have. That’s how it works. It’s simple math.
His business acumen made him a valuable asset to any radio station or band. Mac worked at radio stations in Harrisonburg, Va., Knoxville, Tenn., Wheeling, W.Va., and others, but it was his time on the radio in Bristol where Mac really began to make a name for himself. After a brief time with Molly O’Day (with whom he recorded his first records in 1946), he found a home on Bristol’s airwaves. “They had a two-hour noon-time show called Farm And Fun Time. It ran from noon to two. The Stanley Brothers, myself and my band, a Louisville guy named Curly King who sang like Eddy Arnold all the time—that was the first three acts that was on that show.” Mac got to Bristol for the first time in 1947, and the city and station were always a welcome home for the Voice With A Heart. He took a break from working at the station that winter, and it was during this time that two gentlemen approached Mac about joining them in a band they were forming. Their names were Lester and Earl, and the band they asked Mac to join was Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Shortly after the band got off the ground, Mac had the band “Going Back To Bristol” (Shawn Camp) to be on the Farm And Fun Time Show in 1948. Mac would leave Flatt & Scruggs at the end of the year, but would remain great friends with the duo. After stints on the radio in Atlanta, time as an historic member of Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys, and even a run on Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride, Mac seemed to always find his way back to Bristol. “Anytime I would give them a call, they would take me back.”
Mac’s abilities on and off the stage led him to great heights. He found Top Ten country success with “Jimmy Brown, The Newsboy” and “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett.” He traveled the roads with the likes of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and more, and even ran a record label for a time. He was with Bill Monroe when he cut “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’” and with Flatt & Scruggs when they cut “We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart.” He was friends with Mother Maybelle and A.P. Carter. Seeking to raise the levels of professionalism in the music business, Mac helped found music associations for two musical genres: the Country Music Association and the International Bluegrass Music Association. When the Folk Revival hit, his powerful voice and simple arrangements endeared him to folk audiences, including a young man named Gordon Lightfoot. Mac has collaborated with Merle Haggard, the Osborne Brothers, John Prine, Woody Herman, and more. He has performed at the Newport Folk Festival, the Hollywood Bowl, and Carnegie Hall. He has released over fifty albums, not even counting his numerous greatest hits collections. A member of both the Country Music Hall Of Fame and Bluegrass Music Hall Of Fame, he is an icon of American music. As the title track to “I Sang The Song” (John Prine) says, It ain’t bragging if you’ve done it, and Mac has truly done it all. Own their own, Mac’s accomplishments are impressive, but within the context of his journey, they are downright staggering.
Now, after more than seven decades of making music and at age 91, Mac Wiseman is releasing his first album filled with all original material. “We thought about it for a good long while, what we are going to do with those songs,” says Peter Cooper. “We figured, ‘Well, maybe we should turn this into a tribute to record to Mac,’ cause that’s more interesting in a way.” That’s exactly what they did. I Sang The Song: Life Of The Voice With A Heart is a groundbreaking concept album, which provided artists who grew up listening to Mac Wiseman the opportunity to come together to tell his story to the world through song.
“People would do well to meet Mac Wiseman,” says Cooper. “I’m hoping this serves as an introduction to some people, to who this man is and what his life has been like beyond the stage. What an incredible American story he has lived. A kid stricken with polio on a farm so far from anywhere, to taking the one thing he had early on, which was an acoustic guitar with a ‘neck like a wagon tongue,’ and finding in that, at first, a window to the world and a ticket to the world. That’s an amazing thing. While we can all find some commonalities in the emotions that life has spurred, nobody is going to live that life again, and I’m hoping we can illuminate that.”
“’Tis Sweet To Be Remembered” (Mac Wiseman and Alison Krauss) serves as a fitting close to an album, which remembers Mac’s life and what he has meant to so many generations of music lovers. “That’s a real dream, that you will leave a legacy, that people will enjoy listening to you long after you’re gone,” Mac says humbly. “I’m me. I’m just me. If you like me, I’m there forever. If you don’t, well forget it, because I ain’t gonna change to suit you,” he says with a smile.
Still, at the end of the day, after all of the changes in music and in life that Mac has seen over the past 91 years, and after all of the parades and fanfares and accolades are finished, Mac still views himself as simply a man who sang his song. “If you take it all away, I’m just standing there singing. That’s just me, and that’s all I’ll ever be. If they accept it, fine. If not? Well, I don’t give a damn.”