Mac Wiseman came to a fork in the road of history where country music and bluegrass parted ways, and he took both. The singer known as “The Voice With A Heart” died Sunday at age 93, leaving a wide-ranging body of acclaimed recorded work and a legacy in the business as well, having been a co-founder of both the Country Music Association and the International Bluegrass Music Association. He sang with Bill Monroe, but he also landed on the country charts between 1959 and 1979. He joined the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014.
Wiseman might have been more famous had he stuck to a single genre, but like many great figures in American roots music, he transcended style, fashion and time. His repertoire spanned early folk, popular songs and up-to-date material, including Kris Kristofferson’s “Me And Bobby McGee” and an entire album of Gordon Lightfoot songs.
Even in an industry known for its neighborliness, Wiseman stood out for his avuncular charm and kindness. His final side as a singer, a 2017 rendition of “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered,” wasn’t intended as foreshadowing or instructions, but across the old time country music universe, sweet memories are being conjured and shared about an artist and a gentleman with few if any known character flaws or adversaries.
“Mac was approachable and easy to talk with, and I have such admiration for him for this remarkable catalog of great American music,” said Country Music Hall of Fame historian Peter Cooper in a 2017 interview with WMOT. Cooper also produced two records with Wiseman at the end of his life, in an attempt to secure his legacy. “It wasn’t just bluegrass,” Cooper said. “He was recording with Woody Herman and he was doing all sorts of material – rockabilly sometimes – things from the American songbook. He really is Mr. Americana. And there’s just a delightful spirit. Any time he sings it’s just infectious. And he talks that way as well."
Raised on a farm in tiny Crimora, VA during the Great Depression, Malcom B. Wiseman countered a life of deprivation and a paralyzing illness with a passion for music. Through his mother, who avidly transcribed songs off the radio, Wiseman formed a lifelong musical point of view around the foundational works and artists of country music, including the Carter Family, Bradley Kinkaid, Charley Poole and the Bailes Brothers. He never tired of such material.
“So as long as I can remember I was fascinated with those story type songs. And I’ve done many many of them. Tried to revive and perpetuate them as well,” Wiseman told WMOT’s The String. “I tried to live the incident that was described in the song and could visualize it. “When the Work’s All Done This Fall,” or a train wreck. If there was any believability to it, that was my approach. It just came natural.”
Some broadcasting courses led Wiseman to his first job in music as an announcer at WSVA in Harrisonburg, VA, but proximity to performers tempted him into making music professionally. His first break was as a sideman and opening act for Molly O’Day and the Cumberland Mountain Folks. Then in the late 40s, in an unmatched historic twofer, he sang consecutively for the two most important groups at the dawn of a strain of country music that would later be called bluegrass. After about a year with Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, he was hired by Bill Monroe. With the Father of Bluegrass, Mac sang lead on the iconic recording “Can’t You Hear Me Calling.”
As a solo artist, Wiseman couldn’t initially get called up to the major league of the Grand Ole Opry, but he became a fixture on its prominent counterpart the Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport, LA. Then Dot Records, a new label, signed him and let him release a string of signature records, including “Love Letters In The Sand,” “Little White Church” and “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home.”
In the mid 1950s, when rock and roll was depressing the market for country music, Wiseman stepped into the business side as an A&R man for Dot Records in California, where his song suggestions helped make Pat Boone a big star. For a time, Wiseman shunned the bluegrass typecasting that he felt limited his audience and his options. But the folk revival gave him a platform to be what he was – a sensitive and nimble vocalist and interpreter of American song. He kept his business pursuits going with management of a bluegrass festival and a mail-order record business. He collaborated widely, with the Osborne Brothers, Doc Watson and Del McCoury, and even the far-out GrooveGrass Boyz, which included bass player Bootsy Collins.
In his later years, Peter Cooper worked with his production partner Thomm Jutz on a pair of recordings that helped seal the Wiseman legend and end his career on a high note. Songs From My Mother’s Hand, released in 2014, covered those old songs straight from his mother’s 1930s notebooks, which he’d preserved. Then on 2017’s I Sang The Song, Wiseman by and large let others take the vocal leads, but the songs were originals, co-written as memoirs of his early years in story-telling sessions with Cooper and Jutz. Artists including John Prine, Alison Krauss, Jim Lauderdale and Sierra Hull showed that Wiseman’s spirit and way with a phrase have resounded down through the generations.