Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mac Whiseman Loves His Mama

Growing up, my dad listened to a healthy dose of traditional and cutting edge country artists such as Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, Charlie Pride, Tanya Tucker, Buck Owens, The Statler Brothers, Ray Stevens, Ronnie Milsap, Johnny Horton, Freddy Fender, Jim Reeves, etc.

College life introduced me to Bochephus, Merle and The Hag. I was also introduced to bluegrass a bit by my dorm floor brethren with the likes of Seldom Scene, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe and Tony Rice.

So when I heard Robert Earl Keen's Bluegrass Widow for the first time in the early 90s, I was at least familiar with many of the names he rattled off during the funny - yet reflective - spoken word part of the song. It was in that song I heard the name Mac Wiseman for the first time.

I don't ever recall Wiseman's name or music ever surfacing at home or during those dorm floor Rook games and Jim Beam tasting sessions. Truthfully and perhaps regrettably I haven't listened to much of Wiseman's music - yet I've heard so many talk ABOUT his greatness as a person, an artist and a contributor to the music industry.

Six or seven years ago, I did get and listen to Mac's duet record with John Prine - Standard Songs for Average People. And I loved Wiseman's contribution's on Eric Brace and Peter Cooper's cover of Tom T. Hall's Mad. So slowly I'm beginning to introduce myself to his fine voice.

Several weeks ago, I learned Wiseman was releasing a new album on Wrinkled Records ... at age 89!

Many of my musical interests today have been substantially shaped by the types of music my folks had. I think this is the case for many. For Wiseman's new album, he chose songs based on what he heard on the radio as a child.

Specifically, the songs represent favorites of his mother - Ruth Wiseman - as she heard them on the radio in the 1920s. She listened intently and neatly journaled the lyrics of her favorite ones in composition notebooks. Seldom could she document all the lyrics during one listen. She wrote what she could, put the pen and paper down, and waited for another day when the song would again be played. Remarkably, Wiseman still has his mother's notebooks - all 13 of them.

Produced by Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz, the album is truly a wonderful collection of songs. Even at his advanced age, Wiseman's tenor voice is strong. Also, the choice of songs - first chosen by his mother as her favorites about eight decades ago - sound contemporary as traditional country songs.

The album is best experienced rather than described song-by-song by me. I will say, however, one song in particular that grabbed me at first listen was I Heard My Mother Call My Name In Prayer. Though recorded my many, Wiseman's steady, articulate voice on his version really resonated - particularly so since my mother also has been very open about praying for her children - often and individually.

After years of being ignorant to Mac's music, I was excited to see him live for the first - and likely my final - time at Franklin Theater on October 21. Wiseman noted he stopped touring regularly age 82. He performed a few songs a week or two earlier at Music City Roots in Franklin. The concert at the theater billed as Songs And Stories, however, was apparently his first full one in about seven years.

Over the course of about 90 minutes, Wiseman played many songs from the new release as well as a couple of staples from his seven decades as a performing artist. Though he seems to be most often associated with bluegrass, the songs he performed fit more in a country, gospel or a simple ballad genre.

Cooper gave a brief bio and introduction of Mac's varied accomplishments over his life. Growing up in rural Virginia in the 1920s and 30s, he eventually made his way to college and a brief stint in radio. After learning guitar, he eventually found himself performing with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and as an original member of Bill Monroe's band The Bluegrass Boys.

Jutz sat near Wiseman to play guitar and to give him the lyrics sheet for each song. As Mac made sure he had the right sheet, he quipped "Give me just a moment. I went to night school in the day time."

One song he played to my delight was Old Rattler about an ol' blind dog who seemingly got his sight back 'round dinner time - one of my favorites from the new album. Of course, I'm a sucker for any good song about a dog.

After each round of five or six songs, Peter Cooper took a few moments to interview Mac and have him share some memories from over the years.Though the polio he suffered as a child has now forced Wiseman to a wheelchair, his voice, wit and memory has seemingly been untouched. He used lyric sheets to sing the songs, but all of his stories were told free-form, with detail and full of laughter.

He chuckled his way through a story about the Tennessee Three. Johnny Cash and his band were staying in New York City at the famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant went to the train station to pick up a package they were expecting. While there, they heard one of the freight guys fretting over a box of live chicks someone had failed to pick up. Perkins and Grant asked how much the guy was owed, smirked, paid the asked amount and headed back to their hotel with package and box in hand. Once at the hotel, Perkins let the chicks loose in the lobby of the Waldorf. The further into the story Mac got, the more he laughed as he recalled the scene.

The closing song on the album - Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown - was performed a bit more than halfway through his show. Wiseman not only paid tribute as a son to his mother but also touchingly acknowledged his mother's role as a daughter to her mother-in-law. He noted his grandmother often stayed with his family. As Ruth helped her mother get settled for bed at night, Mac's grandmother would often request "Ruthy, sing me my song."

Wiseman vividly described another story - one of a road trip aboard a Trailways bus. A 'package' tour of Hank Williams and Bill Monroe toured the country aboard the bus. It wasn't a customized coach - just a regular bus where the headliners and their band members all rode together. One evening as the bus rolled along a 2-lane Federal highway, the only three still awake were Mac, Bill and Luke The Drifter. Hank mentioned he had a few lines to a song he was trying to write. The other two read over the lines and pitched in a few of their own. By morning, the three of them had written I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.

He closed the memorable evening with his signature song Tis Sweet To Be Remembered. Though a only a recent fan, I was struck by the irony of the song. Recorded decades ago and not one on the new release, I got a lump to my throat hearing the 89 year-old legend sing it. And with his having recorded an album of songs favored by his mother, I couldn't help but think of her smiling each time she hears him sing it.

Mac Wiseman was a co-founder of the Country Music Association and is the last living member of the original board of directors. The Country Music Hall of Fame which was founded by the CMA inducted Wiseman as one of its newest members on Sunday, October 26, 2014.

An amazing life indeed - and one that continues to unfold.

I've heard Verlon Thompson say "Guy Clark said you won't get to heaven if you don't write a song about your mama." Though Mac Wiseman didn't write the songs on his latest album, he indeed paid sweet reverence to her with his selections and singing of them.


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