Mac Wiseman – a fond farewell to a Bluegrass and Country Hall of Famer

NASHVILLE — Iconic country and folk entertainer Mac Wiseman, 93, succumbed to pneumonia (complicated by bladder and kidney infections) during final hospitalization here at Summit Medical Center, Feb. 24, 2019. He was first hospitalized Christmas Eve, 2018.

A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, he was the final surviving first generation bluegrass star, whose credits include being the last surviving member of Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs’ original Foggy Mountain Boys, and touring, too, with Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, before striking out as a national solo artist by popular demand. He notched up his first Top 10 Billboard single “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” (1955), a dozen years after launching his music career. Other hits include “’Tis Sweet To Be Remembered,” “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy,” “Your Best Friend and Me” and the novelty number “Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride,” while earning the nickname “The Voice With a Heart.”

In more recent years, Wiseman was one of the critically-acclaimed Groovegrass Boyz with Bootsy Collins, Del McCoury, Doc Watson, scoring their funky “Country Macarena” success, and he also recorded with Big Band leader Woody Herman, and such singers as Leona Williams, Johnny Cash, David Grisman, Charlie Daniels, Merle Haggard, Jett Williams, John Prine and Alison Krauss. Mac more than made his mark, crossing genres, and as a founding father of the Country Music Association; bringing the WWVA-Wheeling Jamboree back from the b rink of bankruptcy; and was a force in the Nashville Musicians Association, Local 257, as both board member and Secretary-Treasurer.

In 1951, Dot Records’ mogul Randy Wood engaged Mac as an artist and a producer of such yesteryear talents as Cowboy Copas, Leroy Van Dyke, Reno & Smiley, Bonnie Guitar and Jimmy C. Newman. Mac ran the gamut of industry jobs, ranging from radio newscaster to disc jockey, to promoter (working with the likes of Carter family patriarch A. P. Carter, the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs), to A&R honcho, and hitting the stage as a regular on such popular radio shows as WCYB-Bristol’s Farm & Fun Time, WSM’s Grand Ole Opry (with Monroe), WSB-Atlanta’s Barn Dance (with Bill Carlisle), WRVA’s Old Dominion Barn Dance (with his Country Boys), WNOX-Knoxville’s Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, and KWKH-Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride.

In recognition of these endeavors, Wiseman was inducted into the Virginia Music Hall of Fame, The Bluegrass Hall of Honor (1993), earned a U.S. National Heritage Fellowship Medal of the Arts (2008), and finally was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (2014).

Born Malcolm Bell Wiseman, May 23, 1925, in Crimora, Va., to (Myra) Ruth and Howard Bell Wiseman, at six months their first-born suffered infantile paralysis. Fortunately, his mom defied doctor’s orders to encase his leg in a cast that prohibited movement; instead, Ruth regularly massaged his leg with olive oil, and scheduled surgeries to try and correct the malformed limb, though Dad was skeptical, fearful it might leave him paralyzed. While recovering from treatment, Mac learned to play guitar on a $3.99 Sears & Roebuck special model named after Mac’s idol Gene Autry, the cinema’s first singing cowboy. Later, Mac earned high praise for his flat-top pickin’ style and his rhythm guitar playing. Coupled with his natural, rangy tenor vocals, he became an artist many reviewers termed the best tenor in bluegrass.

Following high school graduation, Mac was awarded a scholarship by the President Franklin D. Roosevelt-inspired Infantile Paralysis Foundation, electing to study at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music in Dayton, Va., while working  at WSVA-Harrisonburg, only a short drive from the campus. A plus for the teen-ager was the station’s luminous entertainer, pioneer Buddy Starcher, who began inviting the youngster to sing on his All-Star Round-Up broadcast. Incidentally, Starcher’s best remembered for his later songs “I’ll Still Write Your Name In the Sand” (#8, 1949) and “History Repeats Itself” (#2, 1966), the latter citing coincidences in the lives of assassinated presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. Another of Mac’s heroes was Bradley Kincaid, whom he came to know well in later years.

Mac made his first recordings, playing bass and supplying background vocals, while sharing the mic with legendary Molly O’Day and her Cumberland Mountain Folk, as produced by noted British producer Uncle Art Satherley in December 1946 at WBBM-Chicago. Among the classics they cut for Columbia Records were “Tramp On the Street,” “The Tear-Stained Letter,” “Six More Miles To the Graveyard” and “The Singing Waterfall.”

Of his solo albums, Mac  was especially proud of his double CD album “Grassroots To Bluegrass” (CMH, 1990), which earned him a Grammy nomination as best album of the year. Another close to his heart was a 2007 teaming with John Prine on a duet LP, “Standard Songs For Average People.”

Personally speaking, back on May 4, 1944, Mac married first wife Alberta Forbus, two years his junior, and mother to his children: Randolph Carson Wiseman, born Jan. 25, 1946, and Linda Wiseman, born Jan. 16, 1949. Following their divorce, he wed Emma Cassell, and welcomed  their daughter Christine come October 1949. Her sister Sheila, who was born Jan. 31, 1951, died unexpectedly on Jan. 3, 2016. Following Mac’s divorce from Emma, he married Marjory May Brennan, a Canadian miss, who hailed from Brantford, Ontario, on April 29, 1962. As with his two previous wives, Mac became dad to two more children: (Marjorie) Maxine in August 1963, and (Malcolm) Scott, born in July 1965. Mac outlived all his wives, and at the time of his death was survived by his nurse and companion Gloria (Janie) Boyd.

At his funeral, conducted at Spring Hill Funeral Home & Gardens, Nashville, Feb. 27, former chief Opry photographer and friend Les Leverett led the congregation in opening and closing prayers, while artists Del McCoury, Laura Cash White, Ricky Skaggs & The Whites performed, and close friends Ronnie Reno, Peter Cooper and Kevin Rose offered their reflections on the artist. Entombment followed in the Spring Hill Cemetery. Survivors include children Randy Wiseman, Linda Parr, Christine Haynes, Maxine Wiseman, Scott Wiseman, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and nieces and nephews.

Among familiar faces spotted in the crowd were Jan Howard, Eddie Adcock, Jesse McReynolds, Kyle Young, Larry Stephenson, Jeannie Seely, Thomm Jutz, Doyle Lawson, Keith Bilbrey, Dan Hays and Donnie Bryant. Fellow legends who claim Wiseman as mentor and hero are Kris Kristofferson, Charlie Daniels and Ronnie Milsap. According to Kris, “Mac is one of the heroes. Having Mac cut ‘Me & Bobby McGee’ was one of the highlights of my life. When I was young, he had a hit song on ‘Love Letters In the Sand’ and I just loved that. Maybe someone tried to put him in that bluegrass box, but he is so much more than that. Mac’s was a great, great voice.”

Charlie Daniels, who wrote the Foreword for Mac’s award-winning biography “Mac Wiseman: All My Memories Fit For Print” (Nova Books, 2016), stated in part, “I discovered Mac Wiseman in the early 1950s, when as a fledgling bluegrass musician, I would buy his new records as soon as I could get my hands on them. To say I was a huge fan would be an understatement and in those days albums were rare, so there were no album covers to give you a look at the artist . . . If I could have, I would have probably imitated Mac’s voice, but the truth is that nobody can imitate Mac’s voice. He’s one of a kind and he only has to sing three notes before every bluegrass fan in the room knows who it is.”

Ronnie said he first became a fan back in his native North Carolina: “I grew up on his music where I was born (in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains) then heard him on the radio in Raleigh, when I went to the state school for the blind for 13 years . . . I think Mac is an American treasure. What’s so unique about the man is his ability to take any situation and basically realize the ups and downs of it, and make the correct decisions most all the time. Mac is such a talented individual, not only in his music, but in other areas as well. I admire his business sense as much as I do his musical ability. Mac’s the whole four quarters it takes to make a dollar!”                                 – Walt Trott