Looking Back with Mac Wiseman, Part 1
At 92, this elder statesman of country and bluegrass music still has plenty of songs to sing and stories to tell.
May 22, 2017
NASHVILLE, Tenn (RFD-TV) The first time Alison Krauss met Mac Wiseman in person a number of years ago, she exclaimed, “My God, he talks just like he sings!” That reaction is typical. The kindly elder statesman of country and bluegrass music, arguably one of the last living links to its foundational era, is possessed of a voice like no other. One is struck by its warm tone and uniquely musical quality, even in normal conversation, and those familiar with early country and bluegrass recordings, such as “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’,” by Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys, will recognize it as one and the same with that which is heard on those long ago classics. For although Father Time may have done his customary work on the rest of Mac Wiseman over the course of seven intervening decades, the voice remains virtually unmarred.
Mac tells that story of Alison Krauss’ first encounter with him with a wry smile, a gleaming eye, and a chuckle suffused with far more gratitude than pride. At 92, he understandably doesn’t get out and about much at all anymore. Those who desire to write with him, to record with him, or to simply sit at his feet must make the pilgrimage to his unassuming home in a quiet suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, where the patriarch sits in his den on any given day, surrounded by memorabilia from his storied past. Bill Monroe (in cardboard standup form) gazes over Mac’s shoulder as he sits in his big easy chair. Other mementoes feature Mac alongside the likes of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Molly O’ Day, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash.
Alison Krauss herself made the trip just a few months ago, to record a song with Mac: the final track – the “benediction,” as it is called in the liner notes – on his 2017 album release “I Sang the Song.” The song they sang together, “‘Tis Sweet to be Remembered,” was Mac’s first solo recording way back in 1951 – and he notes with satisfaction that he sang it in the same key on both recordings. “If it feels uncomfortable, I’ll lower ‘em – I’m not too proud to lower ‘em,” he explains, “but most of those old songs I still do in the same key as I did back then.”
The latest album, which is subtitled “Life of the Voice with a Heart,” in reference to Mac’s official nickname, features ten new songs written by Mac in collaboration with Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz. Guest solo artists, in addition to Alison Krauss, include Sierra Hull, Sonya and Becky Isaacs, and John Prine. The songs are a series of biographical vignettes of Mac’s past: from his hardscrabble youth, spent on a rural Virginia farm, pausing between chores to watch in wondering wanderlust at passenger trains rolling past on the nearby tracks, to his later (but still long ago) days and nights when he would drive as many as 10,000 miles along winding two lane highways in less than a month’s time, criss-crossing the nation to perform shows with other luminaries from country and bluegrass music’s first generation.
In anticipation of his approaching 92nd birthday, which is tomorrow, May 23, we sat down with Mac Wiseman just a short while ago to reminisce and to reflect upon his life and storied career. In the process, he shared more details about the stories which inspired the songs on his latest album, along with assorted other captivating recollections. Part One of that interview is published here below; Part Two will be published tomorrow.
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RFD-TV: To start off, just review for us the basic facts of your early life, where you were born and raised, and so forth.
MW: I was raised up in the Shenandoah Valley, up in Virginia — right in the heart of the valley, around Waynesboro. During the Depression, we just had an old 65 acre farm that was my mother’s home place. I guess maybe 30 acres of it was tillable, and we plowed it with horses. I did everything from the time I was 8 or 9 years old. Pulled a crosscut saw in the wintertime in the woods with my dad, and he’d have to kneel down (I’d be so much shorter) so the saw would run right, y’know. I plowed the fields and cultivated ‘em. We had a four year rotation of corn, wheat, and two years of hay, then back over to the corn again. Back during the Depression, the only thing we bought at the little old grocery store was coffee and sugar. My mother canned – 100 cans of green beans, 100 cans of tomatoes, we raised sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, she canned corn – everything we ate! And the only meat we had was – we raised hogs – and she canned tenderloins, and sausage, and we’d cure the hams and the sides. We had well water. Sixty-six foot deep. Hand dug.
RFD-TV: Like more than a few folks from your era, you suffered from polio as a child, didn’t you?
MW: I was only about six months old. “Infantile paralysis” they called it back then. I didn’t walk at all until I was about two-and-a-half years old. Then it was a weak thing in the ankles. I started off walking on my toes, and every step I made I’d flop over. They waited until I was about 13 to do corrective surgery on it.
RFD-TV: How did you get started as a singer and as a performer?
MW: Well, there was two or three of us in the community – a fiddle player, a mandolin player, myself – and we’d get together and try to figure out things that we didn’t know anything about. I was about 13 or 14 at the time. We played at local little things – up at church, and lawn parties. They paid us really well for the lawn parties: they gave us somethin’ to eat! [Laughs]
RFD-TV: I understand your mother was a big musical influence?
MW: Yeah, she had taken – Stamps-Baxter, the publishing company out of Texas, came through various communities and taught a two week class – she attended that and could play quite well. She played the organ at church. [Points to the large photo of the Church of the Brethren from his home town, on the wall immediately behind his chair.] And she had an old pump organ at the house, and she’d play it and we’d all gather around and sing.
RFD-TV: When do you first recall hearing music on the radio?
MW: Oh, I couldn’t have been over four or five years old. My dad had one of the first radios and the first phonographs in our community. At that time they had a lot of Saturday night shows – Jacksonville, and Hopkinsville (Kentucky), and Cincinnati, and Chicago – so we’d just sit up and go from one to the other.
RFD-TV: Who were some of the other big influences on you, in addition to your mother?
MW: In retrospect, I think Bradley Kincaid was the most important influence on me, with the old ballads and stories. Grandpa Jones worked for him, in fact, that’s where Grandpa got that nickname. He did the old-time, story-type things, I think that’s what really attracted me to him – “Barbara Allen,” “The Old Grey Goose” – folks songs, more or less.
RFD-TV: So how did you make the transition from subsistence farming to the music business? I understand that getting turned down by the military (because of your polio) had something to do with it?
MW: I tried every [military] branch in the world. . . . In high school I had majored in typing, shorthand, bookkeeping – thinkin’ I’d be a CPA and get off ‘a those rocky fields, y’know. I had my application in at Merck & Co., which was just right there in Grottoes, Virginia – still there, very big pharmaceuticals place – but right after I graduated, they turned me down based on the physical. They were afraid I’d get hurt in the factory, y’know. So, I was lower than a feller in a top hat tryin’ to crawl under a snake – the world had just dropped out. So, I went to work at a manganese mine, working as an assistant in the laboratory, analyzing the samples and stuff like that. Worked there about six months or so. Then, I came out from work one evenin’, and this feller was sittin’ there and said “Let me give you a lift home.” I said, “No, I have a ride,” and he said, “Well, I’ve got something I need to talk to you about.” So, I got in with him and started down the road. He said, “I’ve been instructed by the Infantile Paralysis Foundation to match you dollar-for-dollar if you want to go to college.” So, I enrolled at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music in Dayton, Virginia, just outside of Harrisonburg. I had to take a few commercial courses to qualify for the school. I took bookkeeping and piano, which didn’t hurt me, and also annunciation — and that has helped me with singing and speaking as well. But the Program Director from the local radio station taught the class in radio. It was during the war, he already had a skeleton crew and then one of his lead men was drafted. He came to me and said “If you show enough aptitude, I’ll give you a full time job on the radio station.” Well, that’s what I was in for, so for ‘bout two years I did everything. I worked about 60, 70 hours a week – playin’ pop records, news, commercials, the old soap shows, the preachers on Sunday. That was ’44.
RFD-TV: Were you still doing a little picking and grinning on the side?
MW: Oh yeah, Buddy Starcher was there on the station, with his band. He had me come out of the control room and sing a song on his program. And occasionally, if it was within driving distance where I could get back by six o’clock the next morning, he’d take me out on shows, and paid me five dollars.
RFD-TV: Before we move on, let’s return to your childhood for just a minute. Thinking about the way life was lived by most folks when you were young – things like steam locomotives, farm life, and so on were just a part of everyday experience – a lot of people are tempted to say that it was easier to find musical inspiration then as opposed to now. Would you agree or disagree with that statement?
MW: Oh, I’d agree a hundred percent. In fact, I’ve got some new collections coming out in a few weeks full of songs like you mentioned – “Old Rocking Chair,” “Silver Haired Daddy,” and things of that vintage. Kids are really pickin’ up on that stuff! There was a Norfolk & Western Railway about a half mile from where I was raised. In the late afternoon, when I’d be doin’ the chores – milkin’, gettin’ wood in, an’ stuff – a passenger train would pass, goin’ north from Roanoke, and it just fascinated me to death. I could see the silhouettes of people in those cars. I wasn’t unhappy at all, but I had a wanderlust like you wouldn’t believe. Where they goin’? Where’d they come from? Where’re they goin’ to? And I wound up doin’ that – I’ve worked every state except Hawaii!
Check back at rfdtv.com tomorrow, Tuesday, May 23 – Mac Wiseman’s 92nd birthday – for his recollections about how life led him from the farm, to Carnegie Hall, and many other fascinating destinations between and beyond, in the company of many other well-know personalities from the earliest days of country and bluegrass music. (Part Two of this interview is now available HERE.)
Special thanks to Jackie Charlton for helping to arrange and conduct the interview.