Born May 27, 1925, in Crimora (near Waynesboro), Virginia. Education: Graduated Shenandoah Conservatory of Music, c. 1945. Addresses: Record Company--CMH Records, P.O. Box 39439, Los Angeles, CA 90039-0439.
Known to fans as the "Voice with a Heart" because of his distinctive, mellow, tenor vocals, singer and guitarist Mac Wiseman is renowned as a bluegrass music artist, although his music also encompasses old-time, modern, and even pop styles. Despite bluegrass's reputation as a "feudin'" music, with stylistic hardliners holding to various opposing camps, Wiseman has graciously moved in and out of both the more rigid, tradition- laced Bill Monroe-inspired school and the more progressive brand of bluegrass, making him one of the few performers of the genre to transcend such time-honored factionalism. Introducing the twin- fiddle sound to the bluegrass mix through his own innovations during the 1950s, Wiseman has otherwise specialized in more traditional, sentimental material, such as the A. P. Carter-penned "Jimmy Brown the Newsboy" and the old-time classic "Letter Edged in Black."
Malcolm B. "Mac" Wiseman was born in the town of Crimora, near Waynesboro, Virginia, on May 23, 1925. Performing country and mountain music in the area of the Shenandoah Valley where Wiseman was raised was a common pastime that sometimes even bordered on folk art; young Mac learned a great deal from the talented friends, neighbors, and family members that he watched interpret traditional Appalachian melodies. The Wiseman home was a popular gathering spot for the musically inclined, as Mac's father had one of the only phonograph players in the area, and even owned a battery-powered radio. "I recall that people came from several miles distance on Saturday night to listen to the [Grand Ole] Opry and the WLS Barn Dance, Wiseman recalled in Music City News, "often staying until the wee hours of the morning or sometimes all night, and then having breakfast and going home." Wiseman taught himself to play the guitar when he was twelve years old, and soon built a large repertoire of traditional songs.
During high school, Wiseman grew more and more interested in music, and decided to find a way to make it his livelihood. After high school, he attended Dayton, Virginia's Shenandoah Conservatory of Music. Graduating from their music program in about 1945, Mac went on to join the announcing staff of radio station WSVA in Harrisburg, Virginia, as newscaster and disc jockey. As his on-air schedule permitted, Wiseman made extra money by writing advertising copy for WSVA sponsors. He also indulged in his favorite pastime--music--by performing with local country bands on the weekends. These stints onstage made Wiseman realize how much he enjoyed performing in front of a live audience, and in 1947 he began to orchestrate a shift in his career. While hosting WCYB radio's Farm and Fun Time show in Bristol, Virginia, Wiseman began playing bass guitar with mountain singer Molly O'Day, whom he would later describe to Don Rhodes in Bluegrass Unlimited as, "without a doubt, the female Hank Williams." Already a talented guitarist and in possession of a warm, fluid tenor voice, Wiseman was soon sought out by other bands, including a popular country group called the Blue Grass Boys, led by a fearsome mandolin picker by the name of Bill Monroe. Wiseman liked the group's fast, loud sound, and recorded several sessions with them, singing harmony to Monroe's lead vocals. It would be a few years before their sound, with its high, wailing tenor vocals and intricate acoustic instrumentals, would bear the name "bluegrass."
Wiseman spent most of 1947 playing guitar with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, which then featured what came to be known as the group's classic lineup: fiddle player Chubby Wise, guitarist Lester Flatt, bass player Cedrick Rainwater (Howard Watts), banjoist Earl Scruggs, and Monroe on mandolin and lead vocals. As fate would have it, Wiseman also found himself taking part in one of the most historic "splits" in bluegrass music. In January of 1948, guitarist Flatt and banjo-picker extraordinaire Scruggs-- inventor of the much imitated three-fingered banjo picking style that now bears his name--left Monroe to form their own band, the Foggy Mountain Boys. Their departure from Monroe's band was not solo: Wise and Rainwater would also leave during the same period. Rainwater had linked up with Flatt & Scruggs and the Blue Grass- turned-Foggy Mountain Boys were now performing on WCYB. The group, which would record for Mercury from 1948 through 1950, featured Flatt, Scruggs, Rainwater on bass, and Jim Shumate on fiddle. As Neil Rosenberg notes of the high strung Father of Bluegrass in his classic Bluegrass: A History; "Monroe had previously had the experience of band members leaving him to strike out on their own. But he had never had most of the band leave and go into direct competition with him.... he did not like it." Wiseman would join the Foggy Mountain Boys during their first year--even playing second rhythm guitar and performing tenor vocals on the group's first recording for Mercury in 1948--then left to play guitar for Monroe's band for a season before launching his own band in 1950. While Wiseman successfully transcended the historic split, it would be several decades before the rift between Flatt & Scruggs and Monroe would heal.
After one year fronting his own band, Wiseman signed with Dot Records as a solo artist. His association with Dot--a new, independent record company based out of Gallatin, Tennessee--would be a long and fruitful one, producing a number of best-selling singles, including the recordings that have earned Wiseman his enduring reputation. Hits with Dot included "'Tis Sweet to Be Remembered," "Jimmy Brown the Newsboy" (also a standard for the Foggy Mountain Boys), "Shackles and Chains," "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," and "Love Letters in the Sand."
While working on his recording career, Wiseman established himself as a solo performer beginning in 1951, when he starred on Shreveport's popular Louisiana Hayride. Stints on Atlanta's WSB Barn Dance, and Knoxville, Tennessee's Barn Dance would follow, as well as a guest-starring spot on Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. He joined the cast of Richmond, Virginia's WRVA Old Dominion Barn Dance in 1953, moving to a regular spot on Louisiana Hayride in 1956, which pushed his recordings with Dot to national hit status; Wiseman's poignant rendition of "Jimmy Brown the Newsboy" hung on to a spot on the Billboard charts for thirty-three weeks.
The late 1950s would find Wiseman moving to the business side of country. Mac wanted to hold onto his identity as a solo artist and, although his band had a distinctive sound, unlike a true bluegrass act his sidemen were always subordinate to his own lead vocals. "You could see the decline or lack of interest in country music," Wiseman recalled to Muleskinnner News interviewer Doug Green, describing the musical climate of the mid-1950s, "and rock music was coming on the scene. It was difficult to get exposure for a straight country product because the volume of the teen market was so big." So, in 1957 Wiseman became the now-California- based Dot Records' country music A&R (artists & repertoire) executive, a job he continued until 1961. During that period he also ran the company's country music division. He recorded and produced for Capitol Records during the early 1960s, returning to Dot in 1966 to record three albums' worth of experimental music featuring string orchestra-backed traditional tunes and folk music.
The phenomenal renewal of interest in traditional musical forms during the late 1950s was epitomized by the success of the historic Newport, Rhode Island, Folk Festivals. In addition to performing at Newport in 1959, Wiseman would become a frequent, and popular performer at many of the major festivals spawned by the Newport festival throughout the following decades. Among his many appearances was one at the groundbreaking Roanoke Bluegrass Festival organized by promoter Carleton Haney in Finecastle, Virginia, in 1965, and now considered to be the first large-scale all-bluegrass festival. During the 1970s, as interest in acoustic and folk music rose once again, Mac gained a large following among college students who were captivated by his pleasing vocals and his skillful renditions of traditional songs. In 1973 Wiseman was honored as the only U.S. bluegrass artist invited to perform at England's Wembley Music Festival.
Wiseman has remained a prolific recording artist throughout his career, cutting records for labels that have included Vetco, MGM, CMH, and RCA Victor, which he signed to in 1969. He experienced a resurgence of popularity among veteran bluegrass audiences when he teamed up with Flatt for some earthy bluegrass albums for RCA during the early 1970s, and also built a large following in Great Britain with regular tours and record releases following his appearance at Wembley.
One of the few bluegrass singers who hasn't maintained a regular band, Wiseman frequently teamed up with the popular Osborne Brothers in live performances during the 1980s and 1990s--his Essential Bluegrass Album, recorded with Sonny and Donny Osborne in 1979, is considered a gold mine of traditional bluegrass, much of which the trio would later perform in concert. Wiseman's rich, clear tenor can also be heard in several collaboration albums, such as banjoist Larry Perkins' A Touch of the Past (1993), which features Wiseman alongside such bluegrass notables as Scruggs, Alison Krauss, John Hartford, and award-winning bandleader Del McCoury.
In addition to the continued loyalty of his countless fans, Wiseman's pioneering contributions to bluegrass music have been officially acknowledged. In 1994 he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association's Bluegrass Hall of Honor in Owensboro, Kentucky. Apart from the bluegrass festivals where he continues to perform, Wiseman has remained active behind the scenes in the bluegrass music industry. He has most recently recorded for independent labels Churchill Records and the Los Angeles-based CMH, all the while maintaining his traditional bluegrass style.
by Pamela Shelton
Mac Wiseman's Career
Disc jockey, WSVA, Harrisburg, VA, c. 1945; began performing with Molly O'Day, 1947; radio host, WCYB, Bristol, VA, 1947; joined Foggy Mountain Boys, 1948; played with Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, 1949; started own band, 1950; signed with Dot Records, Gallatin, TN, 1951; regular member of Louisiana Hayride, beginning 1956; A&R executive, Dot Records, California, 1957-61; performed at Newport Folk Festival, 1959; signed with Capitol, 1962; resigned with Dot; signed with RCA, 1969; signed with CMH, 1976; has performed at numerous bluegrass festivals nationwide and in Great Britain.
Mac Wiseman's Awards
Inducted into International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame, 1994.
- Selective Works
- Mac Wiseman, Dot, 1958.
- Twelve Great Hits, 1960.
- Keep on the Sunny Side, Dot, 1960.
- Fireball Mail, Dot, 1962.
- Bluegrass Favorites, Capitol, 1962.
- This is Mac Wiseman, Dot, 1966.
- Master at Work, Dot, 1966.
- Songs of the Dear Old Days, Hamilton, 1966.
- Johnny's Cash and Charlie's Pride, RCA, 1970.
- Concert Favorites, RCA, c. 1971.
- (With Lester Flatt) Lester 'n' Mac, RCA, 1971.
- The Mac Wiseman Story, CMH, 1976 (1991).
- (With the Osborne Brothers) The Essential Bluegrass Album, CMH, 1979.
- Twenty-four Greatest Hits, Deluxe, 1987.
- Classic Bluegrass, Rebel, 1989.
- Grassroots to Bluegrass: A Very Special Collection, CMH, 1990.
- Early Dot Recordings (three volumes), County, 1990-92.
- Teenage Hangout, Bear Family, 1993.
- (With others) A Touch of the Past, Pinecastle, 1993.
- (With Shenandoah Cut-ups) New Traditions (two volumes), Vetco, reissued as Bluegrass Classics, Rebel.
- Golden Classics, Gusto.
- Shenandoah Valley Memories, Canaan.
- Country Music Memories, CMH.
- Songs that Made the Jukebox Play, CMH.
- Greatest Bluegrass Hits, CMH.
- Sings Gordon Lightfoot, CMH.
- Smith, Richard, D., Bluegrass: An Informal Guide, A Cappella Books (Chicago), 1995.
- Comprehensive Country Music Encyclopedia, Times Books (New York), 1994.
- Encyclopedia of Folk and Country & Western Music, edited by Irwin Stamblen and Grelun Landon, St. Martin's Press, 1983.
- Rosenberg, Neil V., Bluegrass: A History, University of Illinois Press (Chicago), 1985.
- Periodicals Bluegrass Unlimited, July 1975.
- Muleskinner News, July 1972, pp. 2-8.
- Music City News, October 1973, p. 30.