A Wise Man of Music

Mac WisemanMac Wiseman. (Photo: 62190639@N04 flickr CC)

Recently, the Country Music Hall of Fame held its “Medallion Ceremony,” an evening set aside to honor its annual inductees. This year, the recipients included Hank Cochran, a songwriter whose hits for Patsy Cline (“She’s Got You”) and Eddy Arnold (“Make the World Go Away”), among many others, helped bridge the gap between country and pop audiences; and Ronnie Milsap, whose forty #1 country hits often crossed over to the pop charts and reflected the influence of rock and roll and rhythm and blues.

The third inductee seemed like the most traditional of the group, but may have been the least traditional and most important of all: Malcolm B. “Mac” Wiseman, who has a new CD that has won him attention from media as diverse as the Grand Ole Opry, Rolling Stone, and National Public Radio. That’s appropriate because, at age 89, he’s one of the last living links between several pioneering forms of media and music.

Wiseman grew up in the Shenandoah Valley. Before he was a year old, he suffered from polio, which gave him lifelong physical problems but didn’t stop him from playing baseball in school. It did prompt him to stay home more and sing with his mother as she played the pump organ. The lyrics she wrote in a notebook as she listened to the radio prompted his new CD, “Songs From My Mother’s Hand,” which also has prompted interviews and performances with Americana groups like Old Crow Medicine Show.

But Wiseman has been through it all before. He attended a music conservatory and became a radio announcer before starting to sing on his own, first with country singer Molly O’Day, then with his own band in 1947 on WCYB in Bristol, Tennessee, where Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family recorded the sessions that many consider the beginning of commercially successful country music. Then, in 1948, Wiseman became the tenor singer for a band that had just started on the station, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Flatt had been the lead singer for Bill Monroe and Scruggs had revolutionized banjo playing with his three-finger picking style. The collaboration between Monroe, Flatt, and Scruggs is so important to musical history that a “Birth of Bluegrass” plaque adorns the Ryman Auditorium, then the home of the Grand Ole Opry, where they began working together.

Already part of the formative period of bluegrass music, Wiseman moved to the top. As a guest on the show that Flatt and Scruggs did, Bill Monroe said to Wiseman on the air, “If you ever need a job, come to Nashville.” Wiseman did, and spent most of 1949 as Monroe’s lead singer. Toward the end of his sixty-year career in music, asked to name his greatest lead singer, Monroe replied, “Oh, Mac,” in such a way as to suggest the question need not be asked. In that capacity, Wiseman recorded with Monroe and was at the Grand Ole Opry on the night of June 11, 1949—indeed, on the same segment, the 9:30 p.m. Warren Paint portion, when an exciting young singer named Hank Williams made his debut, sang “Lovesick Blues,” and reportedly received six encores; apparently, Wiseman and Little Jimmy Dickens, who is 93, are the only performers from that night’s Opry broadcast who are still alive.

While Wiseman worked well with Monroe, he wanted to go out on his own, and he did. He spent the early 1950s touring, recording, and appearing on the “Old Dominion Barn Dance” on WRVA in Richmond, Virginia. As Neil Rosenberg pointed out in his Bluegrass: A History, “Wiseman’s instrumental sound was subordinated to his vocals,” which distinguished him from Monroe’s mandolin and reliance on the fiddle and five-string banjo, and Scruggs’s banjo playing. But Wiseman ran into a problem by 1956: the nascent, exciting sound of rock and roll was hurting country and bluegrass.

Thus began Wiseman’s odyssey into different musical areas. He went into the administrative side with his recording company, becoming the Artists & Repertoire manager for Dot Records in Hollywood. The label continued to record country singers, including Wiseman, who had his two top 10 country records with Dot (“The Ballad of Davy Crockett” and “Jimmie Brown the Newsboy”), and Jimmy C. Newman, but it also issued soundtrack albums and pop recordings.

By the time Wiseman returned to being a full-time singer in the early 1960s, country had adapted with the “Nashville Sound” of more pop-oriented recordings, and bluegrass was becoming part of the folk music revival. Besides stops at the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall, Wiseman performed at the Newport Folk Festival. He ended up in all-night jam sessions in his hotel room with Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot. That helped lead to Wiseman’s role in diversifying bluegrass or, as the newer genre was called, newgrass. While some acts added electrical instruments, Wiseman joined in reaching out to other forms of music, recording an album of Gordon Lightfoot songs. But he also remained traditional, recording a series of duet albums with Lester Flatt, who had broken up with Scruggs in part over the latter’s desire to record more diverse forms of music.

Wiseman kept recording albums and later CD’s into the early 2000’s, and his latest has led to an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, more than 65 years after his debut and his first recordings; unannounced, Vince Gill, one of the current superstars he has influenced, came out to sing with him. The CD and his return to the Opry followed the announcement of his election to the Country Music Hall of Fame, prompting him to express his gratitude and point out, “I was one of the founding members of the association, and I’m the only living member of the original board.” Meanwhile, he has finished a duet album with Merle Haggard, who is only 77 and, like Wiseman, has influenced and been influenced by several forms of music—a reminder of the diversity of their art form and the people, like Wiseman, who make it.

About the Author

Michael Green

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV. In 2015, the University of Nevada Press will publish his Nevada: A History of the Silver State. He also is the author of Lincoln and the Election of 1860 (Southern Illinois University Press) and other works on the nineteenth century and the American West.

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