When I was a young kid in the late 1940s, a local radio station, WSVA-AM, aired live country music daily from their Harrisonburg, VA studio. My mother kept that string-music (her words) playing in our home every day. Mac Wiseman was a musical renaissance man at WSVA. He read the news, weather and commercials; was the MC for the live shows; played records; and played and sang his own brand of down-home music every day. Such was his presence to me then that now 70 some years later, I immediately can recognize the sound of his voice whenever I hear a song of his being played.
Recently, I had the occasion to interview Mr. Wiseman and chat with him and his co-producer, Thomm Jutz, about his musical life.
The early musical career of Mac Wiseman placed him at the center of the first generation of that genre of music that most now refer to as bluegrass. He recorded with the likes of Flat and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys and Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys. He had a starring role in the famous Bristol, TN broadcasts of the Farm and Fun Time radio show. Plus, he launched a solo recording career with Dot Records and headed that company’s country and western division to success.
A Godfather of Bluegrass
As a grandfather and godfather of bluegrass music, I wondered what his feelings were about this fact. Wiseman told me, “I never did call it bluegrass, and I still think it is a derivation of mountain music or hillbilly music. The terminology of bluegrass came about because Bill Monroe’s band was called The Bluegrass Boys as they were from Kentucky (the bluegrass state). I am not envious or have any bad feelings about that but if the band had been called The Pine Mountain Boys, the music would have been referred to as Pine Mountain Music. That is the way I see it. It would not have had that recognition if Bill had not hit the high spot with Lester and Earl, Jimmy Shumate, and Chubby Wise. Bill got so hot with the music that folks started calling it bluegrass music.” Thomm then asked Mac if he had a bit of pride that he was one of the founding fathers of bluegrass and did he see his self as that? Mr. Wiseman replied, “I really do because I was on the radio in Harrisonburg with Lee Moore in the late 1940’s and I had several programs that consisted of just me and the guitar. We would sell products like ladies hose or baby chicks and things like that. The station did not pay any money whatsoever—it was all a barter system.
They would furnish the time; we would do our programming; and then we had to go out and play these venues like schools and such to make our money. The radio station would in turn sell our programs to local sponsors. So it was a barter system between the acts and the radio station. He continued, “If you go back a little further, the first recordings that I made were in 1946 with Molly O’Day. There were no recording studios in Nashville at that time. We drove to Chicago and cut 16 sides for Columbia Records. In ‘47, I went to Bristol. I was one of the original groups that opened that Farm and Fun Time radio show. There were a few other bands, and the lineup included Eddy Arnold. In the spring of ‘48, Lester and Earl left Monroe. They called me from Hickory, NC, and I joined them there as one of the Foggy Mountain Boys.
Being A Pioneer
I asked Mr. Wiseman to sum up his feelings about being a pioneer. He answered, “I am very excited about that fact and the fact that I’ve enjoyed this much longevity. A lot of things are happening right now. I have a book in print; several CDs just released; and I just got inducted into the CMT hall of fame. I do a lot of mail order business as I have done for the past 40 years.” Thomm asked him if he still enjoyed being part of the game and Mac replied, “Yes, I really do. I’m excited about being a part of it.”
I switched gears a bit and asked Mr. Wiseman to comment on the modern type of bluegrass music. Here is his take, “I guess I liked the old way better. So many of the new artists are recording in little home studios therefore the quality is not as good as it should be; and the songs they use seems as if they are writing songs for right now so they get the publishing rights. There is no longevity to the material. A lot of these groups are fine; however, it seems to me that many of these new groups are playing for each other and consequently, there is no depth to their music to identify them as a group.”
Festivals A Plus
Wiseman continued, “Festivals have been a great enhancement to the bluegrass field because when top-40 radio came to be, the music was called hillbilly music and it was beneath their programming standards, and they did not play it. Up until that time, I had the same records out with the same instrumentation and I played all over the world. I was playing with country and western groups like Earnest Tubb and Bob Wills. I fit right in with their programming, and my songs were accepted; however, once the bluegrass genre came along the radio stations put me in that category.
I can tell you one thing; they reaped several nickels out of my pocket because of that. I will give you an example of that top-40 programming and their discrimination against bluegrass. Many years ago, Woody Herman (the big band leader) wanted to record a country record. His daughter had played fiddle with me at some festivals so she recommended me to her dad. We recorded a song in Chicago on the small Churchill label. That record got up to #67 on the Billboard Top 100 chart. All of a sudden, the DJs on the top 40 stations thought that I was my son and decided this is that guy who plays bluegrass. They cut us off like dirty water from a spigot. This is an example where terminology won out over quality or qualification. That was why packaged blue festivals gained popularity.
I made top money and sold tons of merchandise at these events. I am not embarrassed to be called a bluegrass entertainer. I am glad that today bluegrass music and bluegrass festivals are gaining the attention and respect of business people. Now, when you go to a festival, you see expensive motor-homes and retirees. For instance, I played a festival in North Carolina one weekend and went to another one in Florida the next and met many of the same folks in attendance there. I just want people to understand that I do a lot of material besides bluegrass, and I always have during my time. I’ve done rock songs and quite a few old pop songs. Story-type songs have always been a big favorite of mine. At my concerts I would dismiss the band and just sit on stage on a stool with my guitar and sing to the folks for a bit. I just want to be me and do my music.”
Wiseman added, “I do think younger people are hungry for the historical part of the music and are reviving many of the classic LPs. I was one of the first entertainers of my type to appear at College listening rooms. The people that listened to me then are now adults and fans. That is some of the exciting things for me. For that reason, I have a small record label of my own that I use to try to preserve old songs some of which have never been recorded before.”
I asked Mr. Wiseman of his opinion of the new bluegrass groups and mentioned that I liked groups such as the Steep Canyon Rangers and Old Crow Medicine Show. Mac’s voice became excited when he told me, I like those folks too! I recorded a song with Old Crow Medicine Show a year or so ago. However, you talk about my favorite artists, and I did not realize this for a long time until I thought about how many of his songs that I recorded—that person is Bradley Kincade. He was one of my first influences as least as far as story-type songs.” Thomm then added that of the newer people, Mac likes Alison Krauss and John Prine but that he also is a great fan of the Osborn Brothers. At that point Mac injected, “They are like me. They are getting down the road a ways.”
I mentioned that someone reported that he suffered with arthritis and sometimes had trouble playing the guitar. He acknowledged that as a fact and said, “I’ve recorded over 800 songs, and I have many I want to record; however, I have to get someone to play the guitar for me because my wrist and shoulder will not let me play. I never thought this would happen but Ronnie Reno sets with me a lot. Thomm Jutz is the best guitar player I’ve heard, and he accompanied me at the ‘Opry not long ago. He makes me feel so comfortable.” (Editor: I suspect that there are plenty of side and session players in Nashville that will be at Mac’s disposal any time he needs a player.)
I closed our interview with well wishes from all his fans in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and he came right back with, “Of all the places I’ve been in the world, I love the Shenandoah Valley the best.”
To the man with The Voice with a Heart, we say to you in the words of your old theme song, ‘Tis Sweet to be Remembered, and we all will always surely remember you.