My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Mac Wiseman and Friends – ‘I Sang The Song: Life Of The Voice With A Heart’

If you consider Bill Monroe and those who recorded with his early bands to be Generation 1A in Bluegrass, with those immediately followed in his wake to be Generation 1B (Reno & Smiley, Flatt & Scruggs (Lester & Earl personally were 1A), Carter & Ralph Stanley, Bobby & Sunny Osborne, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Jimmy Martin), then the last surviving member of generation 1A is Mac Wiseman.

Born in 1925, Mac Wiseman is the great survivor: he survived polio, the Great Depression, Molly O’Day, Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, Dot Records (as an executive) Rock ‘n Roll, The Hootenanny Era, The WWVA Jamboree, the WSM Grand Ole Opry and The Nashville Sound. Along the way he forged a stellar career as a solo artist recording pop, country and bluegrass music. He was friends with Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Gordon Lightfoot, helped organize the CMA and has been inducted into both the Country and Bluegrass Music Halls of Fame.

This album arises from a series of interviews (or perhaps visits) Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz had with Wiseman in which they discussed his life, listened to his stories and realized that many of the stories would make good songs. All songs are credited to Wiseman, Cooper & Jutz with the exception of the last track on the album.

Mac was past ninety years old when this album was recorded, no longer is very mobile and his voice isn’t quite what it was even a few years ago. Consequently Mac does very little singing on this album, his contributions mostly limited to the beginning or the end of some of the tracks.

Instead a phalanx of his admirers and colleagues do most of the singing with Shawn Camp, Buddy Melton, Junior Sisk, and Ronnie Bowman, among the featured vocalists. Needless to say these vocal performances are terrific. From outside the field of bluegrass, several other vocalists were enlisted.

The album opens up with “The Guitar” a song about Mac’s first guitar, a mail order guitar from Sears, and his experiences in leaning the guitar. Sierra Hull and Justin Moses do the singing on this song (Mac takes a refrain at the end). Sierra (mandolin) and Justin (banjo.fiddle, dobro) team with Mark Fain (bass) and Thom Jutz (guitar) to serve as the backing band for the entire project, with Jutz and Cooper providing harmony vocals on some of the tracks.

“Somewhere Bound” is next up, a song about Mac’s childhood dreams of seeing the world, Buddy Melton, Milan Miller and Andrea Zonn provide the vocals.

“The Wheat Crop” opens and closes with Mac singing a chorus of “Bringing In the Sheaves”, followed by this song about the responsibilities and problems of managing the wheat crop. Junior Sisk, Sonya Isaacs Yeary and Becky Isaacs Bowman provide the remaining vocals.

Jim Lauderdale has always been one of my favorite singers and I firmly believe that if he had come along in the 1950s or 1960s he would have been a huge country music star. “Barefoot ‘Til After the Frost” recounts Mac’s childhood as a school boy. I can’t personally identify with the song, but my father and anyone who grew up in rural America during the Great Depression certainly could – I can remember Dad speaking of this very thing.

“Manganese Mine” is the tale of a property owner taken advantage of and conned nto selling his mineral rights too cheaply. A sad story too often repeated, especially in Kentucky and West Virginia.
The trio of Melton, Miller and Zonn return for “Three Cows and Two Horses” are Mac’s homespun story of the fortunes of many rural families.

“Simple Math,” sung by Jim Lauderdale, is one of my two favorite songs on the album. The song follows Mac’s experiences breaking in as a professional musician including his big break playing with the great Molly O’Day. Lauderdale, who can sing anything and everything is the perfect vocalist to relate the pithy truths of Mac’s observations (“You Can’t Spend The Money You Don’t Have, That’s How It Works – It’s Simple Math”.

Junior Sisk and Ronnie Bowman join up to sing the sing the religiously-themed “Crimora Church of The Brethren”. The song is about going to church during the Great Depression.

“Going Back To Bristol” is my other favorite from the album, and the song currently getting the most airplay. Sung by Shawn Camp, the song is an excellent summary or snapshot of Mac’s career. Shawn Camp was originally pushed as a country artist by Reprise around 2000, but it didn’t take (too much bluegrass in his soul) so he returned to his first love and has had great success as a bluegrass artist, In addition to his solo endeavors (song writer, Grammy winning record producer, etc.), Shawn is the vocalist for the Earls of Leicester.

I’m not really a John Prine fan, but there is no questioning that he has a great appreciation for the music of Mac Wiseman and he and Mac are friends (in 2007 they cut a terrific album together of mostly classic country songs titled Standard Songs for Average People). John was a perfect choice to sing the title cut, the gentle ballad “I Sang The Song”. Prine has the weathered voice necessary to convey the optimistic but weary lyrics.

“I Sang The Song” was originally planned as the last cut on the album, but the decision was made to reprise Mac’s first hit from 1951 (and the only song on the album written entirely by Mac himself) “”Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. Mac is joined by Alison Krauss on the choruses, a fitting end to the album.

Although these songs fit together to tell Mac’s life story, the fact is that each of the songs works as a stand-alone song, a remarkable achievement indeed, I picked out two of the songs above as my favorites, but the truth is that I love all of these songs and all of the performances. Modern day country music fans may not be too familiar with bluegrass artists but the pickers and singers on this album are an elite group paying proper homage to a truly legendary performer.

Grade: A++

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Album boxed set review: The Mac Wiseman Story

the-mac-wiseman-storyBorn in 1925, Malcolm “Mac” Wiseman is the renaissance man of county and bluegrass music – singer, songwriter, musician, A&R man, record producer, disc jockey, co-founder of the Country Music Association. Mac was an early pioneer of country music, performing with Molly O’Day, and was a very early member of Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, and later performed with Bill Monroe.

Mac survived polio, changing musical trends, changes in the structure of the recording industry, yet through it all, he has remained “the voice with a heart”, possessor of a slick Irish tenor with just enough “down home” in his voice to enable him to sing any form of music convincingly. Mac Wiseman is my absolute all-time favorite bluegrass vocalist.

Mac was elected into the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor in 1993 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014, one of only three bluegrass acts (the others are Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs) to be inducted.

Mac Wiseman has recorded for a wide variety of record labels with performers as diverse as John Prine, Lester Flatt, Merle Haggard and Doc Watson. It would be presumptuous of any box set comprised of only six CDs and 153 songs to claim to tell the Mac Wiseman story, but this set gives it an awfully good try.

The Mac Wiseman Story is comprised of all of the albums that Mac recorded for the CMH (originally County Music Heritage) label from 1976 to 1982, plus some recordings Mac obtained from minor labels.

Disc One is comprised of The Mac Wiseman Story, a collection of twenty songs recorded with the Shenandoah Cutups, the band which accompanied the late great Red Smiley after his split from Don Reno. These are amiable straight-ahead bluegrass recordings of Mac’s most famous songs such as “Love Letters In The Sand”, “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” and “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I think these are Vetco recordings from 1976-1977, but whatever the source, these are fine recordings.

I should note that in order to ensure that each disc is chock full of music, that tracks from the 1979 CMH double album The Essential Bluegrass Album (with the Osborne Brothers ) are scattered at the end of CDs 1,2,4,5 & 6.

Disc Two is comprised of Country Music Memories and Mac Wiseman Sings Gordon Lightfoot. The former is a 1976 set of classic, mostly 1950s, country music songs ably backed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and Clay Smith as well as some other acoustic instruments. The latter, released in 1977, contains Mac’s renditions of some of Canadian folk Singer Gordon Lightfoot’s classic songs as well as some lesser known songs. In addition to Arthur & Clay Smith on guitars, Eddie Adcock appears playing five string banjo.

The entirety of Disc Three is given to one of my favorite albums, The Clayton McMichen Story. Clayton McMichen (January 26, 1900 – January 4, 1970) was an American fiddler and country musician, whose band, the Georgia Wildcats, played a mix of country, pop, jazz and swing tunes. Clayton was regarded as one of the hottest fiddlers of his time. This album, in reality a tribute to Clayton and his band, finds Red Herron taking the role of Clayton McMichen, with Mac taking the role of vocalist Jack Dunnagan, Joe Maphis as tenor banjo player Jerry Wallace and Merle Travis as guitarist Slim Bryant. This album is a cohesive representation of what Clayton and his band sounded like, with an assortment of the reels, rags, blues and thirties pop tunes played.

Disc Four contains the excellent 1982 album Grassroots To Bluegrass. Some of the songs come from the early days of country music before bluegrass split off from country music. Included in this group would be “Kentucky”, “Short Life of Trouble”, and “Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler” and the rest are early bluegrass songs such as “I’m Using My Bible For A Roadmap”. Mac is accompanied by a stellar band that includes Eddie Adcock (banjo, guitar), Kenny Baker and Jim Campbell (fiddle), Martha Adcock (rhythm guitar), Josh Graves (dobro), Jesse McReynolds (mandolin) and Missy Raines (bass)

Disc Five finds Mac in the role of hard country/western swing artist on the 1980 album Songs That Make The Jukebox Play. The musicians with Mac on this album include a bunch of guys that played with Bob Wills or with Merle Haggard during his big band days – Johnny Gimble (fiddle & co-producer) , Jim Belken (fiddle), Dick Gimble (bass), Will Briggs (sax), Curley Hollingsworth (piano) , Herb Remington (steel guitar), Eldon Shamblin (lead guitar) and Bill Stone (trumpet). If you ever wondered how Mac does with western swing, wonder no more. Other than Hank Thompson and Tommy Duncan, I can’t think of any better swing vocalists than Mac Wiseman. I bought the vinyl version of this when it came out and kept hoping that Mac would revisit the genre. Among the classics covered are “Bubbles In My Beer”, “Time Changes Everything” , “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and “Wild Side of Life”.

Disc Six is a so-called bonus disc titled Mac Wiseman – Most Requested. This album contains a few songs not found earlier in the box set, plus it contains the remaining track from the Wiseman – Osborne Brothers collaboration.

This box set is released under the Wise Records label which is Mac’s own label. Mac has apparently obtained the rights for many of his recordings from the past. This set retails for $49.98 but you can obtain it for about five bucks less online.

Maybe this isn’t quite a comprehensive account of Mac’s career, but it is a really fine collection and an excellent place to start if you would like to explore Mac’s music. One thing is for sure – after listening to this collection, you will have no doubts as to why he is known as “the voice with a heart”.

Grade: A+