Mac Wiseman’s career in music is unprecedented, unparalleled and boundless.
He first recorded in 1946, and continues recording in 2014, the year he’s entering the Country Music Hall of Fame. Wiseman has the longest recording career of any American singing star alive. Known in roots music circles as “The Voice with a Heart,” Wiseman was a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and an original member of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys. Merle Haggard cites him as one of music’s great voices. Kris Kristofferson and Chris Isaak call him “a hero.” He’s a Bluegrass Hall of Famer and a National Heritage Arts fellow and a charming, chuckling presence, vital even now, at age 89.
None of us are supposed to make it to 89. Mac Wiseman wasn’t supposed to make it to 19. He was crippled by polio as a child, and the disease took him out of the farming fields of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and into the house, where he learned to play the guitar. The Wisemans had the first radio in their valley, and Mac and his mother, Ruth, would listen to radio in the 1930s. Ruth wrote down the words to songs they heard – they were the hits of the day at the time; now they’re old folk songs – in composition books. Mac pored through those books, and sat at the kitchen table, singing. Today, he calls the books “the beginning of my life.” If you correct him and say, “You mean your musical life,” he will say, “Yes, that’s my life: music.”
And his life in music goes beyond the recording of more than 60 albums. He helped form the Country Music Association, the organization that effectively saved country music from rock ‘n’ roll’s Elvis Presley-led onslaught in the late 1950s. He ran Dot Records in Los Angeles releasing records on Pat Boone and others.
He toured with Hank Williams, helping the troubadour to complete his greatest song, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and he was at the Grand Ole Opry the night Williams debuted and received five encores. He starred on the “Dean Martin Show.” He was managed by Col. Tom Parker, firing Parker after the infamous manager insisted that he go onstage dressed like the subject of one of Wiseman’s hits, Davy Crockett. He recorded with big band leader Woody Herman. He became one of country music’s first international stars. He outshone Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden, and played the Newport Folk Festival with Joan Baez and her then-unknown discovery, Bob Dylan.
Today, Mac Wiseman brings his life full-circle, releasing Songs From My Mother’s Hand, an album that finds him revisiting the songs his mother wrote down in her notebooks. He brought those notebooks – aged, worn and well loved – into the recording studio and sang from their pages. The books may soon be under glass at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, but for now they are wellsprings, soulful postcards from a long-gone America. His mother gifted them to him, and now he has gifted their words and their spirit to us.
In Mac Wiseman, we have the opportunity to tell a uniquely captivating story. It is the story of a musical life, but it is also the story of a changed nation and culture. Nearly everything Mac Wiseman knew as a child is now antiquated. Nearly everything he knew is useless in the new century. But those songs – the ones his mother wrote down, before the Internet, before people had televisions, before the Second World War, before the Civil Rights Movement – remain powerful, evocative and, somehow, contemporary.