At Home With Mac Wiseman: Bluegrass Legend Talks Mining 91 Years of Life for His New Album

Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for CMHOF
Mac Wiseman at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Sept. 19, 2015 in Nashville, Tenn.

Step inside the home of Mac Wiseman, and the first thing you see is his plaque signifying his 2014 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. A further look on the walls will reveal his close relationship with such fellow legends as Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. At age 91, Wiseman stands as the last link to that historic past. But he’s not resting on his laurels by any means. Wiseman, also known as “The Voice With A Heart,” has just released a new project that shows that his musical legacy runs parallel to some of the top stars in Americana and bluegrass music.

I Sang The Song (Life Of The Voice With A Heart) features collaborations with such artists as Alison Krauss, Shawn Camp, and Sierra Hull. The record is full of songs that tell the story of the performer’s life. Wiseman told Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz the stories, and the pair -- who produced the album -- put his memories into musical form. Story songs have always been a major part of his repertoire, including such standards as “Jimmy Brown The Newsboy.”

“As long as I can remember, the story-type songs have treated me tremendously. I remember when I was four or five years old, there were songs like ‘Granny’s Old Arm Chair,’ which was an old English ballad,” he told Billboard of his first memories of the style. “It talked about this guy’s grandmother that was living with him, and she had this favorite old chair that she would sit in. She passed away, and left all the children a pretty good inheritance. But, she gave him that old arm chair. He kept the chair, and years later, he became quite elderly. That chair fell down, and it was full of money -- one-pound English pound notes. That’s the kind of songs that have done well for me my whole life.”

Jutz said that taking Wiseman’s memories, and putting them into musical form is something he and Cooper didn’t take lightly. “I think we figured out that it’s our job to preserve music, and the stories that Mac has told us. When you do something like that, you have the authenticity of the stories and where they come from.” Getting other artists to appear on the record was not a problem. “We didn’t approach anyone who didn’t want to be on the record. Everyone was easy to work with because they all love Mac, and are so influenced by what he has done that people want to be close to that. That’s the beauty of this genre -- that someone like Sierra Hull, who is 25 years old is on the record. Alison was her biggest influence, and Mac was one of Alison’s.”

Wiseman said that he enjoyed the Sunday afternoon writing sessions that produced songs such as “The Guitar” and “Manganese Mine.” 

“That was such a unique way of doing it. I sat right in my chair, and told them the stories about different phases of my life. They would put them to rhyme, and then add a melody to it. That’s how it wound up. Each of them are true stories.”

Cooper allowed that all it took was asking about a particular picture on the wall of Wiseman’s home to inspire one of the songs, “Crimora Church of the Brethren.”

“I’d look at the picture on the wall behind him and ask about it, he’d say ‘That’s Pleasant Hill Church, the church of the brethren.’ So that became the first line of the song.” Cooper added that hearing Wiseman reminisce about his life in his distinctive vocal approach was like hearing it in musical form already. “It was almost in real time. We just really got him to tell us about various points in his life.”

The magic of I Sang The Song is in the pure simplicity of such songs as “Barefoot Till After The Frost,” of which Wiseman had very vivid memories of living through first-hand.

“During the Depression, we only got one pair of shoes a year, out of a mail-order catalog. Most of them had cardboard soles on them. If you walked in the grass, the soles would come off. We would start going bare-footed in the spring, as soon as cold winter would permit it. We wouldn’t wear shoes until after the frost, because we saved them to go to school or to church. I used to get up early in the morning, and it was up to me to milk the cows and slop the hogs. I would run the cows to come into the barn to milk them, and I would stand where they laid to warm my feet.”

Wiseman’s Hall of Fame career includes being among the founding members of the Country Music Association, and a stint as a record executive with Dot Records. (It was Wiseman who suggested to a young Pat Boone that he record “Love Letters in The Sand.”) He has fond memories of his time behind the desk. “At that time, I was in charge of distribution across the United States, in addition to production. We had independent distributors at that time, and Dot was one of them. The distributors we had, either in Richmond, Chicago, or Boston, they would carry about eight or nine different labels. I would drop in, take them to lunch, and go to their warehouse, and see what they had. A large number of what we had was sitting there unopened. They’d send it back when the return privilege came up. After that, I got their attention. They either hid them or they distributed them,” he said with a smile. “It was an education within itself.”

The career of Mac Wiseman got its beginning with his working at WSVA in Harrisonburg, Virginia. “I went to college and majored in radio,” he recalled. “The program director from the station in Harrisburg taught the class. It was the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music, so I had to take a certain amount of typing, piano, and stuff like that, but my major was in radio. It was a daytime station, so quite often he would take the class into the station and we’d work in the studio. That was great. It was during the war, and he had one of his key men drafted, so he offered me the job there. I was working between 60 and 70 hours a week.” The experience helped to expand his musical tastes. “We might do four hours of pop music in the afternoon, I was as well versed with the music of Harry James and Artie Shaw as I was the country artist. We didn’t get that many country records back then.”

Cooper -- who is a director, producer and writer at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum -- said hearing about life in a bygone era was an inspiring experience. “Listening to stories is essentially what I do, and what I’ve done for some time. Mac’s stories can’t be replicated, and they are stories of a world that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a world that he holds dear. It’s an education for us to find some bit of understanding at what the world was like then. I understand his musical world, but I never understood how his surroundings informs his musical world. Mac is the only person we know who actually heard Jimmie Rodgers on the radio -- back in the day. He was there for the birth of bluegrass music, as well as the last living original board member of the CMA. The breadth of experiences is incredible.”

Wiseman was diagnosed with polio as a child, and while the disease robbed him of certain youthful experiences, Cooper insists he made up for it. “He’s somebody who lived in times that a lot of think of as simpler, but they were very complex, and could be very dark. He’s somebody who climbed out of that. He was marked with what people would consider to be a significant disability at an early age. That actually proved to be his ticket to his ascendance. He was laid up in bed to fix a crippled foot, as he sings on the album. That is when he learned to play guitar. Other kids were out there playing, and he could have stayed in bed crying. He was able to use that time to learn something that became so productive and wonderful.”

And that production continues. Wiseman -- who turns 92 in May -- plans to keep doing what he does best. He plans a follow-up to his 2014 release Songs From My Mother’s Hand -- a disc of classics that his mother jotted the lyrics from while listening on the radio in the 1930s.

“I’ve got 13 composition books of them -- at least two hundred more songs that I want to do. I’m still working hard. I do more from this chair than most people do from their office.”