Mac Wiseman--An appreciation
Mac Wiseman sings "Tis Sweet to Be Remembered"
He was hailed as “the Voice With a Heart,” and that voice carried Mac Wiseman into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 1993, and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014.
The affable Wiseman, who died Sunday (Feb. 24) at 93, was the last surviving member of Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs’ seminal Foggy Mountain Boys, having performed with them in 1948. He had previously played bass on country singer Molly O’Day’s classic “mountain-style” recordings including “The Tramp on the Street,” and later joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, singing on such classics as “Can’t You Hear Me Calling” and “Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road.”
After signing with Dot Records, he released his signature song “’Tis Sweet to Be Remembered” in 1951. Other major Wiseman recordings include his No. 5 hit “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy,” “Love Letters in the Sand,” “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” “I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home,” “I’ll Still Write Your Name in the Sand,” “Goin’ Like Wildfire,” “We Live in Two Different Worlds,” “Shackles and Chains” and “Your Best Friend and Me.”
Wiseman also recorded with varied artists including John Hartford, Merle Haggard, Woody Herman, Bootsy Collins, Charlie Daniels, The Osborne Brothers, Johnny Cash, Doc Watson, Del McCoury and John Prine. He served as a record company executive and radio host, and was a founder of the Country Music Association in 1958, and was its first secretary.
“This is the end of an important era in bluegrass music,” said dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas in a Facebook post. “He leaves behind a legacy rich in important landmarks and his knowledge of all related musics was unrivaled. His rich, reedy tenor voice was as memorable as Bill Monroe's keen, edgy tone or Lester Flatt's crooning baritone. He set a high standard to be followed by bluegrass singers from now on.”
“He was a musical treasure, prolific storyteller, and instant friend to all who met him,” noted the International Bluegrass Music Association, also via Facebook, where Ricky Skaggs offered: “It’s hard to say the name Mac Wiseman and not hear his voice in your head. It was one of the most unique voices in bluegrass and country music. Mac never considered himself any one kind of singer, he sang in and out of those genres with total ease. I loved his voice and his ease of singing, but the one thing I will remember most about Mac, was his kindness toward everyone. He was a blessed man, with a blessed voice. I’m thankful that I got to meet him back in the early 70’s while I worked with Ralph Stanley. We were friends from then on.”
Over at Twitter, Country Music Hall of Fame CEO Kyle Young lauded Wiseman’s 70-plus years of “splendid and often groundbreaking” recordings, as well as his roles in founding the CMA and heading Dot Records’ country division. “He was a titan of bluegrass music’s first generation [and his] was an inspirational and important life,” said Young.
Also at Twitter, Charlie Daniels, who performed “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” at Wiseman’s CMA induction, said he “was one of the gentlest people I knew [who] had a one in a million voice and left us a legacy of unique music that stretched across seven decades.” Young bluegrass star Sierra Hull tweeted: “I’m so grateful to have had a chance to record with him and visit with him at his home a few times in recent years to hear his stories. He was always sharp as a tack and so gracious to me.”
Kris Kristofferson told The Tennessean in 2012 that Wiseman was one of his heroes, and that “having Mac cut ‘Bobby McGee’ was one of the highlights of my life.” Guitarist/vocalist Boo Reiners of New York's acclaimed progressive country/bluegrass band Demolition String Band recalled how “as a kid growing up in North Carolina and learning how to pick banjo and guitar, Mac Wiseman had an instantly recognizable beacon-like voice to my impressionable ears. He was truly unique with a vocal style all his own that transcended genre.”
“There was no microphone that did not love the timbre of his voice,” continued Reiners, “though his singing and guitar accompaniment had so much boom, there was hardly a need for a mic. Yet with so much power, his rhythmic phrasing was catchy and elegant and any song he chose to perform or record effortlessly became his own. He was such a natural but always seemed humbly aware of his God-given gift for melody and lending voice to the characters and stories in his songs.”
Douglas also singled out Wiseman’s voice in his Facebook post.
“When Flatt and Scruggs left Bill Monroe, they enlisted Mac to sing the tenor parts and play a second guitar at the same time as they brought in Chubby Wise and Jody Rainwater--in my opinion, one of the most important steps in the bluegrass band formations,” said Douglas.
“I loved just sitting and [hearing] Mac expound on ‘what really happened’ during the important decision-making days that eventually formed our opinions of what matters in bluegrass music,” Douglas continued. “As well as being one of the great singers and movers and shakers in country music, he held lofty positions in the business end, such as heading up Dot Records at an important time in Nashville. He was responsible for signing and directing the careers of some household names of the time. Besides his own wonderful records, he recorded and set genre-definitive markers with everyone from F&S, amazing duets with Bill Monroe, the Osborne Brothers--I was part of a record he recorded with them in 1979 on label CMH--even with the Texas Playboys.”
“One of the most important things Mac Wiseman did was to make himself available to all of us who wanted to know the true story of how the music we love evolved,” Douglas concluded. “He imparted some wisdom no one else could have, and I will forever be indebted to him.”
Noted Reiners: “He will ‘be remembered’ sweetly for this great musical talent, but also for the class he brought to his stage,” concluded Reiners. “He was always smiling and made everyone around him smile even bigger.”