Thursday, October 23, 2014

Rock 'n' roller, bluegrass wizard, folk singer, damn nice guy Mac Wiseman revisits his rural upbringing for wondrous album

(I am lucky enough to have a few friends in the music world who I sometimes call, just to chat. Many of them -- Chet, Vassar, Uncle Josh, Bobby Thompson, Eddy to name a few -- have taken their final bows and I miss them. I was fortunate enough to be asked by CMA Closeup online in August to do a story on Mac Wiseman's new album, "Songs From My Mother's Hand." I did that and was proud, as Mac is a friend and a damn nice guy. I then wrote a much-longer version, which I share here.)      

Mac Wiseman pushes past the bottles of potions to treat the maladies of age and rescues a yellowed notebook from stack of them on the table. Then, with a smile, he leans back in the generous recliner, lifts his voice and “reads” one page.
“When I was young and in my prime…..” he sings -- in pitch-perfect, room-filling tenor -- “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues.”

“That’s my locale and that’s where the CD begins,” he says, explaining the song choice to demonstrate what is in many ways the most important album of a storied career that was nurtured in the Shenandoah Valley by a mom who meticulously wrote down lyrics of songs that played on the radio.  Twelve of those songs make up the heart-yanking project Songs from My Mother’s Hand.
Revisiting Depression-era Appalachian folk songs, scrawled meticulously by his mother as she listened to the radio, could be mistaken by some as the bookend on a long career.  Except Mac, 89, is already diving through his mom’s 13 journals of lyrics to see which songs will make for a sequel.  

Some call Mac Wiseman a bluegrass musician, at least in part due to the company he’s kept, from Monroe to the Osbornes. But he also was a dear friend of America’s troubled country-folk troubadour, Hank Williams.  And this isn’t a bluegrass album. It’s pure American folk music.
Besides that, old Malcolm B. Wiseman doesn’t much like to be pigeonholed as a purveyor of the music form he played a hand in creating.  “I don’t like the raucous sound of a banjo,” admits the man who stood next to Scruggs as he perfected the revolutionary three-finger picking style.

When Mac had his own outfits, that voice – HIS VOICE – was the most important instrument, high-lonesome solos guiding listeners through a landscape of guitars and fiddles.   
His career in music began when he went to work as a radio announcer in Harrisonburg, Va., about 25 miles from his hometown of Crimora, Va.

“I began to notice that the program directors were driving Fords and Chevrolets while the hillbillies were driving Cadillacs,” he says.  He made a career decision right then and there. He wanted to drive a Caddy.
That decision has paid off for listeners and for Wiseman himself, as his career has had him singing all types of music, from classic bluegrass to novelty tune “If I Had Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride” and a top-10 version of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” back when every boy had a coonskin cap.    

While some might call him the “last man left” from the classic era of bluegrass, his musical palette includes rock ‘n’ roll, gospel and, especially, folk songs. It’s an eclectic repertoire shaped by his upbringing in the Shenandoah Valley, thanks to the inspiration of the woman who wrote down the lyrics to songs she heard on the radio and used them to encourage her family during the dark times. “We had long nights during the Depression when we would all gather around the organ and sing,” he says.
Other times, he “performed” solo.  “We had no running water, no plumbing, no electricity, no phone. And I would leaf through my mother’s books and sing every song.”

And that’s why this newest album Songs from My Mother’s Hand, a collection of folk songs from the era before “bluegrass” became a genre of its own, may well be the most important of his career.
“It’s going to reenact an era of my life I had almost forgotten about,” he says, noting that the songs come from a time when 11-cents-a-dozen eggs were considered expensive.

“Everybody else was poor,” he recollects of those days. “But there was always love in our close family and we never missed a meal.”
While she was intent on feeding her family, his mother also wanted to instill in them the love of music that had her sitting by the family radio and jotting down song lyrics as she heard them.  What she didn’t write down on the first listen was captured on the second, third, fourth, whatever it took.

And those are the songs, captured by a mother’s love, that make up this new album.
Some of these songs he’s recorded before. Others remained as mementoes, words on yellowed paper, put there by his mom.

While these notebooks remained as important as a family Bible, the pages are hardly “kept under glass” protected.  The songs were jotted down so they could be sung not worshiped.  And though he pages through the notebooks regularly – they are literally letters from Mom and home, after all --  he really never  thought of recording a collection of them until a few months ago when producer and guitarist Thomm Jutz and co-producer and Americana songsmith Peter Cooper visited with him.
They went out to his home in what he refers to as “L.A.” – aka Lower Antioch, for the section of Nashville that holds his cozy, memorabilia packed home – and wanted to talk to Wiseman about doing a record of folk songs.

That, in itself was a good idea for this fellow whose voice, though seasoned with the grit of age, remains among the purest instruments to produce country ballads.
Those discussions were held where Mac – hobbled by child polio – is mot at home, in the easy chair planted in a living room where a Christmas tree stays year-round – “I got one strand of lights burned out on it. But I keep it up because I don’t have to bother taking it down and putting it back up every year.”   

Wrapped presents and even an Easter bunny – again never put away when that season ends – decorate the floor next to the 90-year-old table, which came from his mother’s house, that was the writing surface used by his mom when she captured these songs.  On this day, though the volume is muted, “Family Feud” is being played on the TV crowning that important piece of furniture.
He spends a lot of time in this room, a literal museum filled with instruments, posters and other souvenirs of a life well-spent in music. In addition to being an engaging live performer, Mac’s recorded 60 albums and at least 800 songs in a long and diverse life spent mostly with guitar in hand.

Among the relics are the yellowed notebooks – sort of like the lined essay books used for written exams in college – filled with the lyrics of “You’re a Flower Blooming in the Wildwood,” “Little Rosewood Casket,” “Put My Little Shoes Away,” “East Bound Train” and “Answer to the Great Speckled Bird” and a life’s worth more.
Jutz – a German expat who has embraced his adopted home-country’s texture on his sprawling, multi-artist exploration of the Civil War, The 1861 Project  -- explains in his lightly-drawling, German accent that  while he and Cooper talked with their hero about capturing some of his favorite folk songs, Wiseman told them about the 13 yellowed notebooks filled with the scrawling from his mother’s hand.   

One of those cartoon light bulbs went off in Jutz’s head. “To me it’s really a treasure of country music. We were here and I had always wanted to do something like this.” He points to the notebooks.
“Nobody had ever asked him to do this before,” says Cooper, offering up one of the well-used song journals so a visiting journalist could page through it.  

“The timing was right. You come across something so special and you want to document it.”

He elaborates on the timing issue by noting that Wiseman, 89 and the last surviving member of the original board of directors of the Country Music Association, finally will be inducted into that hallowed hall this autumn.

“I was speechless for a little bit,” Wiseman says, remembering the call from the CMA . 
In his mind perhaps his time had passed.  Overlooked. Perhaps he wasn’t going to get into the Hall of Fame, while younger acolytes like Vince Gill and Garth Brooks – “and they are deserving,” he says, were enshrined.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” he says of the annual rite of melancholy when he’d learn his name and likeness weren’t going to be preserved on bronze in the Hall of Fame rotunda… at last not yet.
“My only consolation was these people didn’t know my track record,” he says, explaining that he took comfort in the semi-ignorance of those who didn’t know they were overlooking a folk-singing, bluegrass-playing, even rock ‘n’ rolling musical pioneer.
“I’ll hurt my hand, patting myself on the back,” he says, after rattling off a litany of great musicians with whom he has performed and venues where he has taken bows since becoming a professional artist in 1946.    

“Mac’s the longest-tenured living singer in America today,” Cooper says of that 68 years of performance.
Only Anthony Benedetto,  Tony Bennett – who began winning amateur singing contests and working as a singing waiter in the early 1940s – could challenge that claim.  And truth be told, he’d likely be proud just to be mentioned in the same sentence as Wiseman, who earned plenty of his early acclaim up north.

And that success included rock ‘n’ roll, Wiseman says, noting for a time he was appearing on Dick Clark’s (American Bandstand) shows and selling hits everywhere but in his native Southland. “In the South, they were throwing my records in the trash can. And up north, I was cutting new tracks.”
The conversation returns to the source material for this newest record, though, and why it is important to him, personally and professionally, and to anyone who has an abiding love in American music.

While he has recorded some of these songs earlier in his career, most are captured for the first time by this iconic American singer whose voice and phrasing is as unique as that much-younger singer, Willie Nelson, who is a mere 81.
Co-producers Jutz and Cooper note that while many contemporary artists take a full day to get one track, Wiseman cut all 12 tracks in a six-hour period, with the sound as live and lively as possible.

“I don’t think we played any song more than twice,” says Jutz.  “It’s perfect with its imperfections.”
The players include Musicians Hall of Famer Jimmy Capps, rising star mandolin virtuoso and beauty Sierra Hull, Grammy-winning bassist Mark Fain, multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses, harp man Jelly Roll Johnson and hammered dulcimer delight Alisa Jones Wall.

 “It’s the matter of getting the right players in the studio and letting them go,” says Jutz.
And the 89-year-old singer points out that it is folk music and certainly not bluegrass, even though it is that form for which he’s best-known.  “I don’t like the raucous sound of a banjo,” he says, smiling.

He says the songs are timeless. While perhaps “old-timey” in delivery and production technique, he says the songs are as relevant today as they were when his mom began writing them in the journals.
“The reason for the longevity is it’s slice-of-life,” he says about the collection. “People don’t change. We just get a new crop.”

It’ll be difficult to find anyone in that new crop to replace the man who sings the songs his mom wrote down.
“I asked the doctor the other day whether taking Viagra would conflict with my medicines,” says Wiseman.   “It said ‘it wouldn’t do you any conflict, but what you do after it might kill you.”  

He opens up one of the yellowed notebooks and begins to sing The Stanley Brothers’ classic “Old Rattler.”      
“Rattler was a good old dog as blind as he could be,
But every night at suppertime I believe that dog could see ….”

He puts the book down and smiles toward the ceiling as he sings.…
(P.S. from writer: If you don't buy this album or -- if a Grammy voter you do not vote for it -- you are an idiot.)

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