Looking Back with Mac Wiseman, Part 2

Looking Back with Mac Wiseman, Part 2

May 23, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn (RFD-TV) Today is Mac Wiseman’s 92nd birthday! It also happens to be the 66th anniversary of his first solo recording session, back in 1951, at which he recorded his signature hit, “Sweet to Be Remembered.” In Part One of our interview with Mac, published yesterday, he recalled his youth in rural Virginia and the circumstances that first led him into the music business. In this second and final installment, we learn via Mac’s own firsthand remembrances what it was like making a living as a professional musician back during the days of days of barn dances and winding two-lane highways – when live radio was still king, but recorded music was rapidly gaining preeminence.

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RFD-TV: So, what happened after that first radio job [in Dayton, Virginia]?

MW: In the spring of ’45, I went to Frederick, Maryland, with my first little band. I had an accordion player, a guitar player who sang like Gene Autry, and I played bass – and then I played guitar when I’d do my solos. We did really well in the summertime, ‘cause every little ‘ole town up there had a fireman’s carnival as a fundraiser. But, boy, when the weather got to where they couldn’t have those, we was pickin’ with the chickens, y’know! We’d come in off those shows at night, where we hadn’t done a bit of good – wouldn’t have any money – and we ate at White Castle. The waitresses in there got acquainted with us. They’d give us a cup of coffee and a bowl of hot water, and we’d put ketchup in it and make tomato soup! [Laughs.]

Then I worked with Molly O’Day in ’46. She was part of the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round that was broadcast out of Knoxville. Then we went to Chicago, and I played bass on the first 16 sides she recorded for Columbia. Then in ’47, the Farm and Fun Time started in Bristol, a two-hour show at noon. The regional acts were a local fellow, Curly King, who sang like Eddy Arnold, The Stanley Brothers, and myself. We’d do two quarter-hours, rotating in a two-hour period, at noontime. So, ‘long in the fall, again, there were trees across the roads back in the mountains, and it was cold, and people couldn’t get through – all we had to work with back through there was the mining camps, you see. So I had turned in my notice to go back up to Virginia and sell produce for the winter, just to make a living. And I walked into the studio after giving my notice, and this young man got up, came over and introduced himself – it was Earl Scruggs. He was wanting a job – he and Chubby Wise. And I just had to level with him, I told him “I can’t  pay you any salary, and it’s gonna be slim pickins.” So I went ahead and went up to Virginia, and along in the spring, Lester [Flatt] and Earl [Scruggs] and Cedric [Rainwater], the bass player and comedian, all quit Bill [Monroe] at the same time. He [Lester Flatt] called me from Hickory, North Carolina, and I went down there and joined them [Flatt & Scruggs] – I was one of the original Foggy Mountain Boys. They had a 500 watt station down there – it didn’t get off of the roof tops in town – and we went around playing for twenty or thirty dollar houses. And I told ‘em, “I can get us all on in Bristol if you guys are interested.” So we went over there and they hired us immediately. I did all the booking and played in the band.

. . . this young man got up, came over and introduced himself – it was Earl Scruggs. He was wanting a job – he and Chubby Wise.

RFD-TV: How many years were you with Flatt & Scruggs?

MW: Well, not quite a year, because it was all on a split, and I did all of the booking. We did extremely well; we really, really did. But, along late in the fall, Earl came to me and said rather hesitantly, “Lester wants to put the boys on salary.” And I said, “Well, I think it’s the wrong time of year, ‘cause things get pretty slim around here in the winter.” And he said, “Well, that means you too.” And I said, “No it don’t!” And I gave my notice right there! So, I went from there to work for WSB in Atlanta, on their barn dance down there. Now, during the time when I was still with Flatt & Scruggs, [Bill] Monroe had come through and played the theatre in Bristol, and he came over to promote his show on our radio program. Right on the air he said, “Mac, if you ever want a job on the Grand Ole Opry, give me a call.” Ha! Lester got some kind of ticked at that! So, when that barn dance closed in the spring of ’49, I called Bill and asked if that offer still stood. He said, “Meet me in Huntsville, Alabama Friday night!”

RFD-TV: So you were with Bill Monroe for how long?

MW: Oh, ‘bout a year is all.

RFD-TV: Seems like you didn’t have much job security!

MW: Well, I got ‘em all started. [Laughs.] I guess I was always quite a loner, y’know, even though I’ve had a number of people who wanted to be partners through the years.

Watch Mac Wiseman and Bill Monroe re-united on an old episode of “Austin City Limits” to perform “Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road,” which they originally recorded in 1949.

RFD-TV: So, where did you turn to next?

MW: Well, I went back to Bristol, for the winter. Then, in the spring of ’51, I went to Shreveport, Louisiana, to be part of the Louisiana Hay Ride. That’s also when I first recorded for Dot, in 1951. I knew that being on record was the difference between being successful and just jumping from one town to another y’know, where you were limited by the coverage of the radio stations. So I first recorded [as a solo act] on my birthday, in 1951.

RFD-TV: What was the very first song you recorded at that first solo session?

MW: “Sweet to Be Remembered.” I had been using that as a theme song, and I was scared to death that somebody else was going to record it ahead of me.

RFD-TV: Who wrote it?

MW: Well, y’know, we never could find out. I own it – publishing and songwriting credits. A lady gave me the sheet music to it in Knoxville, in ’46. A fiddle player (who was also a violinist) taught me the melody. I started using it for a theme song on my radio show. When I wanted to record it in Shreveport, the guy that owned Dot records said, “Oh, no. It’s got a tempo change in it. We’ll never get it on juke boxes.” (A big part of the business then was juke boxes.) I don’t know why I was that brave, but I told him, “Well, if that can’t be the first release, then just forget the deal.” And he said, “Well, go ahead and do it if you feel that strongly about it.” And when it was released, it hadn’t been out but about a month and he called me and said, “From now on, you pick the material.” [Laughs.] So, my record was a hit. Flatt & Scruggs recorded it. Jimmy Skinner recorded it. Cowboy Copas recorded it. But I owned the song. And the way that came about: we didn’t claim it, but we couldn’t find out who it belonged to. So they put my name on it, copyrighted it, and kept the royalties back in case somebody claimed it – then we’d pay ‘em. We weren’t trying to cheat anybody. But nobody to this day has ever claimed it!

RFD-TV: But you still did a lot of performing and touring during those days, correct?

MW: Yeah, I had five or six of the most productive years of my career in Richmond, on the Old Dominion Barn Dance, from ’52 to ’57. But after that, man, I was just worn out. So I worked briefly after that for another radio station, until I went to Hollwood to produce for Dot records, as an A&R man.

RFD-TV: Did you have a backup band during those years, in the mid-50s?

MW: Yeah, The Country Boys – Mac Wiseman and The Country Boys. There was a lot of turnover during that time, though, because we travelled so much. Man, we were on the road seven days a week! We played theatres for weeks at a time. I’d go into Norfolk, Richmond, or Washington, and I’d book six to eight weeks at a time. We’d play one after another: four or five shows a day. We’d check in long enough to shave and shower, and that’s all we’d see of that motel. We’d play, then get in the car and go to the next town. But after I did the Dot thing in ’57 I disbanded and haven’t carried a band since then. I just put it in my contracts that they had to furnish me a backup band.

There was another time, in ’54 or ’55, I drove 10,000 miles in 28 days, and worked 66 performances in those 28 days.

RFD-TV: What was it like being out on the road for so long back in those days?

MW: Well, there are two particular instances that really stick out. There was one week, this was in ’54, I played in Tampa, Florida on one Friday night, came into Richmond on Saturday, played the barn dance, got in the car, and Monday night I was in Bismark, North Dakota – 1,750 miles. And we worked through North and South Dakota, wound up Friday night in Columbia, Missouri, then had to be back in Richmond for Saturday. And this was a two-lane road period. I had three guys workin’ with me, but none of them drove! I drove a thousand miles from Columbia, Missouri to Richmond in twenty hours through those mountains and everything. We didn’t even have an eat stop – we stopped to gas up and they’d get snacks at the service station. If we had stopped to eat we’d have missed the show! Then there was another time, in ’54 or ’55, I drove 10,000 miles in 28 days, and worked 66 performances in those 28 days. And how that happened: Slim Whitman and I played a theatre in Toronto, Ontario – five shows a day. And up there, at that time, you didn’t play shows on Sunday. So we went down to Niagra Falls, did a show Sunday afternoon and evening, then went back to Toronto and played a midnight show at that theatre. Then we came down into the States after that week, picked up Marty Robbins, and went out and played Montana, and Idaho, and every other day was back and forth into Canada. I can document all that!

RFD-TV: Wow, that’s pretty grueling. Any other interesting places, geographically speaking, that your career has taken you?

MW: I did 10 countries in Europe with Johnny Cash, Don Gibson, Brenda Lee, and Tammy Wynette. I did Carnegie Hall twice. The Hollywood Bowl. . . .

RFD-TV: Looking back over your entire career, is there anything you would have done differently?

MW: Yeah, I never really liked the 5-string banjo. It’s too harsh for the stuff I do. I made my first records with a banjo on ‘em, and, well, you don’t get off of a winnin’ horse, y’know! So I stuck with that banjo a long time, till I could phase it out, ‘cause that was my sound, y‘know. But I would have preferred very little if any banjo in those early recordings. It tends to drown out the singing. I think, because of the radio experience, my diction and ability to sustain notes was really my trademark. So many of ‘em mumble the words that you can’t tell what they’re saying, but you could understand what I was sayin’. I don’t like the banjo for two reasons: it’s so harsh on my ballads, and secondly, most of ‘em play the same melody you’re singing, and if you don’t really watch it they’ll pull you off. They become too dominant. And they play everything too fast. You have to think of the listener when you’re preparing this stuff. And I also wish that I had learned to read music. All through the years I’d get songs submitted, and I’d have to get somebody else to play ‘em so I’d have the melody.

I’ve recorded 800 songs, and I’ve got 200 more to do. Got ‘em picked out – I really do!

RFD-TV: Well, over the years, you’ve recorded not only a lot of material but also a fairly wide variety of material, haven’t you?

MW: I’ve recorded 800 songs, and I’ve got 200 more to do. Got ‘em picked out – I really do! I did an album with strings and everything. Dot called me after I had left them (I was with Capitol) and asked me to do three albums: a bluegrass, a folk, and one with modern strings and stuff. I knew the bluegrass and the folk would sell well, but it would take a while to pay off the pop one, so I set it up on three separate contracts. In May of ’65 I recorded 56 songs. I did three albums of 12 each for Dot, and went up to Acron, Ohio and recorded 20 songs in one day and evening for Rural Rhythm – and it’s still in issue! I also recorded a song with Woody Herman, the big band leader, which did quite well. I’ve done some rock-and-roll, like “I Hear You Knockin’,” and “One Mint Julep.” I did an album with Bob Wills’ original band in Dallas – did 24 sides with that. I did a whole album of Gordon Lightfoot songs. But I guess the old ballads are still the favorites of mine: story-type songs.

RFD-TV: Any other career accomplishments that give you particular satisfaction?

MW: Well, I’m the only living member among the original board of directors for the CMA; all the rest of ‘em are gone. And I went down recently to the Country Music Hall of Fame and just sat in there, and I really had chills to know that I had a hand in building that thing. [Mac Wiseman was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014.] In ’59, all the radio stations went Top 40 format and they were only playing the popular country music. (Some of ‘em though were playing country music and just didn’t know that it was.) I mean, the top booking agencies and the record people in this town were hurting! That’s the reason we formed the Country Music Association – Jim Denny, Jack Stapp, and Connie B. Gay. And fights over royalties and old records continue. They’ve got a deal goin’ right now that I’m really in favor of: anything that was recorded before 1970 reverts to the artist. My biggest success was in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.

RFD-TV: Well, when all is said and done, in one or two sentences, how would you like to be remembered?

MW: I did the best I could. I want that put on my tombstone.

Special thanks to Jackie Charlton for helping to arrange and conduct the interview.

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