Return of the Mac: Hall of Fame Inductee Mac Wiseman Shines on Songs From My Mother’s Hand
Mac Wiseman’s new album was more than 80 years in the making. And it’s worth the wait.
But it’s not as though the 89-year-old music legend wasn’t doing anything else during those decades: he’s performed everywhere from the Old Dominion Barn Dance to Carnegie Hall, been an executive for Dot Records, helped found the Country Music Association, recorded hundreds of songs, and, most recently, been named one of this year’s inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“I was quite pleasantly surprised when they told me I’d gotten into the Hall,” says Wiseman, calling from the cell phone he keeps stashed in a Crown Royal bag tied to his wheelchair. “I had kind of given up on it.”
Several weeks before his induction, Wiseman will celebrate the release of Songs from My Mother’s Hand, his first new album since 2007’s John Prine collaboration, Standard Songs for Average People. The album consists of songs that his mother, Neva Ruth Wiseman, transcribed off the family’s radio during the 1930s. “In the wintertime, she’d sit by the radio crocheting or quilting,” Wiseman remembers. “She’d keep a notebook on top of the radio, and when the musicians would sing a song, she’d write down a few lines. A few days later, they’d sing the same song, and she’d get a couple more lines.” She filled 13 composition books this way. The songs, which included “The Eastbound Train” and “Little Rosewood Casket,” formed the bedrock of country music.
The Wisemans were a musical family. Mac’s mom played the piano at church, and his father was the first person in their rural Virginia community to buy a phonograph and radio. “People would gather at our house on the weekends to listen in. We could get clear stations from Jacksonville, Hopkinsville…everybody would listen to the barn dances overnight, Mom would fix ‘em breakfast, and then they’d go home,” Mac laughs.
For Mac, a sickly young boy who survived polio as an infant and battled pneumonia throughout his childhood, the songs in his mother’s notebooks opened up an entire world for him outside Crimora, Virginia. He taught himself guitar by figuring out how to play the songs Ruth wrote down for him, and he’d sit at the kitchen table reading the lyrics over and over again by the light of a kerosene lamp. He didn’t dream about pursuing music professionally until his polio-damaged leg kept him from more physically demanding jobs. A polio foundation paid for Wiseman to attend the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music in the early 1940s, where he studied broadcast radio and soon found a job on Harrisonburg, Virginia station WSVA, which is where he got his start in the music business, where his crystalline tenor eventually earned him the nickname “The Voice with a Heart.” Even as his career took him away from the Shenandoah Valley — to Chicago to record with Molly O’Day, Nashville (to play with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs) and, later, Los Angeles, home of Dot Records — he hung on to his mother’s yellowing notebooks for more than half a century until it became time to use them again.
“Mac had been telling us for years about these notebooks, but I had never seen them,” says Peter Cooper, who co-produced Songs from My Mother’s Hand with Thomm Jutz. “We had been talking with Mac about making a album because it seemed like the perfect time to do so, with his Hall of Fame induction coming up. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to record for it. He said, ‘Maybe I should do more modern songs, like ‘The Gambler.’’ But the next time we went over there, he had one of the notebooks out and was singing from it.”
“That was like somebody handed us not just the record, but the graphic design, the cover art, and the narrative that a project like this needs,” Jutz adds. “The only unknown was that neither Peter nor I had worked with an 89-year-old singer before, so we didn’t know what the work load was going to be.”
Turns out it was easier than either producer could have imagined: Wiseman completed all of his vocals for the 12-song album in just six hours, a task that’s nearly unheard of in the contemporary country world. Says Cooper, “I wouldn’t have asked a 30-year-old singer to do that!”
Recording the music came just as easy. Wiseman wanted some of the best pickers Nashville had to offer, including guitarist Jimmy Capps, leader of the Grand Ole Opry house band, bluegrass phenom Sierra Hull, bassist Mark Fain, multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses, harmonica player Jelly Roll Johnson, hammered dulcimer player Alisa Jones Wall, and Jutz, who played guitar.
“We didn’t want to make a bluegrass record because these songs are pre-bluegrass,” Jutz explains. “We wanted to play and record these songs in the way that somebody might have played them in 1932.” There are no electric instruments, no drums, and no reverb. It’s folk music at its purest.
Though Wiseman’s famously pure tenor is weathered now, he’s still got a strong command over it, wrenching each drop of feeling out of the lyrics. When he sings “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer” and honors his grandmother with his version of her favorite song, “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown,” it’s hard not to choke up at the emotion in his voice, and it’s impossible not to grin as he cuts loose on the playful “Ol’ Rattler,” about an ostensibly blind dog who miraculously regains his sight every evening around suppertime.
Songs from My Mother’s Hand doesn’t hit shelves for another month, but Mac’s never been too good at staying still. These days, he’s busier than ever. He’s recorded an album with Merle Haggard that will hopefully see the light of day before too long, he’s been in talks with Bear Family Records about releasing a third box set of his music, and he’s got a slew of notebook songs (“like 100”) that he still wants to record “for the younger people who aren’t familiar with them.”
Over his decades in music, Wiseman has watched country music unfold. The night Hank Williams made his Opry debut in 1949, Wiseman was there, as a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. He still pays attention to new music – he admits he “[doesn’t] particularly enjoy” a lot of what he hears, but listens to keep abreast of what’s going on. He’s had hit songs in multiple countries, sung material by everyone from The Carter Family to Fleetwood Mac, and influenced countless country and bluegrass artists.
But with everything he’s accomplished, Wiseman remains modest when discussing his achievements: “When all of this is over, I’d like the short epitaph ‘he did the best he could,’” he says. “I didn’t do it all, by any means, but I’ve done the best I could with what I had.”
He’s had a lot, and it all started with a mother who took the time to write down the music she thought her boy might like. “These notebooks are the beginning of my life,” he says, matter-of-factly. By recording Songs from My Mother’s Hand, he’s shared not just an essential piece of himself, but a priceless American music artifact with the world.
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