Lest there be any question, the yellowed notebook on the cover of Mac Wiseman’s new album, Songs From My Mother’s Hand, isn’t a faux vintage artifact picked out by an art director. It’s a collection of handwritten lyrics, one of 13 that the 89-year-old has been singing from since he was a kid and the one that contains all the old, sentimental ballads he recorded for this set.
“I haven’t given them any particular attention,” says Wiseman of his notebooks, “other than to have them in a filing cabinet or something like that. But you would think, being that old, that they might have loose pages and all that stuff. But they don’t. They’re intact pretty well.”
It was his mother Ruth who transcribed the songs for him from live radio performances. “Whatever they sang, she copied,” he says. “So that’s the reason it was such a treasure to me because I liked all kinds of music. I like all of it today — that I can understand.”
Wiseman’s broad tastes and warm, crisp singing shaped his approach to bluegrass — the style with which he’s historically been identified — country, pop and every other musical flavor he tackled during a long career. His achievements will soon be honored with a bronze plaque of his likeness in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
CMT Edge: Didn’t you record about half of the songs on this album during earlier phases of your career?
Wiseman: Yes, I’d say it was five or six of the 12. Songs like “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer,” “When It’s Lamp Lighting Time in the Valley.”
What role did old, sentimental songs play in your repertoire once you started releasing singles?
A big part of it because I’d been on several 50,000-watt stations. I was always what they refer to these days as an opening act. I was an individual and would do the first 15 to 30 minutes of the show, and then the main attraction would come out and finish the show. So I used these songs out of these books on the radio. … The first five, six years I recorded, I didn’t have to search for material. If a good new song came along, I’d record it, but I had a wealth of old songs that had been test-marketed, so to speak.
If side A was a newer song, you had these songs as a go-to for side B.
Exactly. And quite frequently, I’d have two-sided hits.
Some might find it curious to hear a Bluegrass Hall of Famer releasing a new album without a note of banjo on it.
Well, I have a reason for that, too. I had never carried a banjo in my bands until just a few months before getting the deal with Dot. The first thing that had the banjo on it and was successful was “Sweet to Be Remembered.” So as hard as I tried to get it on records, you don’t get off a wooden horse once you have a little success with what you’re doing, you know?
But I was the first guy in a band to use the Dobro, other than Acuff, because the Dobro fit my ballads and serious kind of songs, gospel songs, better than the banjo. I have some wonderful friends who play banjo. But they’re so raucous and loud. … The breakdowns and the up-tempo songs, it’s fine. But for my ballads and story-type songs, they’re so loud they take away from the presentation, you see.
Your opinion of banjo is one of the things that set you apart from other musicians who made a mark in the first generation of bluegrass.
It’s a double-edged sword because there was a period in my career, a few years there when the Top 40 format came in for country music, that [bluegrass] festivals were a big support for me. I was one of the top draws in the business with the success of my records. And without those festivals and bluegrass exposure, it would’ve been a difficult period.
But at the same time, before that connotation of bluegrass came along, I was playing all these package shows with Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell right on down the line to the Maddox Brothers and Rose. And when people got to callin’ me bluegrass, the Top 40 stations wouldn’t play my records.
That’s not the kind of singer you’ve ever been.
No. But with the banjo stuff in there, I had to really fight that to maintain individuality. Which I’ve tried to do by doing the old pop songs. And did ‘em my way. I had some chances to get on record with major labels before I took one, but they wanted me to sing like someone else. …
King Records, who was the biggest independent at the time, approached me in ’47, I guess it was, and wanted me to record for them, but they wanted me to sing like Bill Monroe. I later worked with Bill a year, so there was nothing personal in it. But I had to sing like me. I wasn’t going to sing like Bill Monroe.
There’s a big difference between the way he sang and the way you sing.
By retaining my individuality, good, bad or indifferent, I’m the only one like it. (chuckles)
Was reminding people what you’re about musically one of your motivations for making this album?
Exactly. Being true to my roots. The biggest thing, not that I’d been dormant, but the younger generation probably didn’t know I was still active — or existed, as a matter of fact.
I had great success playing the colleges and the listening rooms and things of that nature, just me and the guitar [during the folk revival]. The kids were very attentive to the old songs. Vanderbilt I played a listening room up there several times. They would come and sit on the floor cross-legged, very responsive to what I did.
How did you respond to changes in the musical landscape — bluegrass becoming a recognized genre, rockabilly coming in, the folk revival and so on?
Well, I would do some of the songs that I thought fit the occasion. But I tried not to discard the vehicle that’d brought me there, if you follow me. … I played all the major folk festivals, played Carnegie Hall twice, the Hollywood Bowl, Kennedy Center, Philadelphia Folk Festival, Newport [Folk Festival] a number of times. And I’d do my same repertoire I’d been successful with, but it was a whole new audience.
Without sounding too boastful, I was one of the first to get the country music into the colleges. Because it was a very lean period with the Top 40 stations coming in. Some of ‘em wouldn’t play my records because they had the bluegrass tag on ‘em. So I wrote every college radio station in the country and told ‘em what I was about and what I had. And if they thought my material would fit their programming, I’d send ‘em a couple of my LPs. And got a tremendous response to it.
Why do you think 20 years elapsed between your inductions into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame?
Well, I tried to be honest with myself, and I gave that a lot of thought. … The only rationale I can [offer] there, when we started the [Country Music] Hall of Fame, I was on the board with the CMA at that time, we had a hundred secret voters who nobody knew who they were, other than the people who were responsible. They now have 300 and just as secretive as it ever was.
The only way I could halfway console myself was the fact that those people didn’t know my track record. … They were hearing Garth Brooks and Vince [Gill] and people like that, people who deserve [the honor]. But there wasn’t an awareness of my [track record] with the people who were doing the voting. So quite frankly, I’d just about given up on it, and I was blown away when they called and told me I’d made it.