Bluegrass Giant Mac Wiseman Looks Back on a Legendary Career
Mac Wiseman has a thing for the holidays. At his house, tucked away in a suburban neighborhood near Percy Priest Lake in Nashville, it could be December: There’s a faux Christmas tree in the corner with colored lights, a plate of freshly baked cookies sitting on the old round table in the popcorn-ceilinged breakfast nook and a game show glowing in the background on mute, almost like a little ambient light for a morning spent opening presents.
Instead, it’s warm and muggy, and Wiseman, 89, is sitting barefoot in his living room in a reclining chair with a pair of wire glasses, a pill box and a notebook resting on a tray table in front of him. But it’s not just any notebook — this particular diary, the color of deep butterscotch, has been handed down from his mother along with 12 more like it, meticulously preserved and filled with the hand-written lyrics that inspired the bluegrass and country legend to create Songs From My Mother’s Hand. They’re his renditions of songs like “Answer to Weeping Willow,” popularized by the Carter Family, and Grandpa Jones’ “Old Rattler” that the elder Mrs. Wiseman would transcribe straight from the radio in the Twenties and Thirties, which the family would then sing at the very table now holding the sweet treats and some water bottles. This was well before these words — accurate or not — could simply be found through a Google search; well before music became ringtones, not something to soak in, absorb.
“I have a computer, but I don’t know how to turn it on and off,” Wiseman tells Rolling Stone Country, chuckling warmly. But it’s not that Wiseman, who has played in the Foggy Mountain Boys with Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, jammed with Bob Dylan and released over 65 albums, doesn’t understand what a threat this glowing device is to music. It’s an impetus, in fact, for Songs From My Mother’s Hand, to give a generation focused on the ephemeral a sense of our timeless sonic catalogs.
Wiseman, who will play the Grand Old Opry tonight, has a thing or two to tell Rolling Stone Country about the foibles of the record business, hotel nights with Dylan and why he is a little anxious to finally be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame next month. And why, Christmas or not, this is a time to celebrate where American music has been and where it’s going.
The process of writing down songs straight from the radio as your mother did is so painstaking, so meticulous. These days, people can simply look up lyrics online, or download a song quickly and move on just as fast. Does this worry you?
Well, it’s a double-edged sword. I’m glad the younger people are being exposed, especially on YouTube, but at the same time, I’m afraid a lot of us are being lost, that’s why I’m trying to record some of the old songs. But it does bother me that they don’t know the melodies of a lot of the originals.
It’s odd, because on one hand, there is a folk resurgence, where the younger generation is obsessed with roots, in this catch-all genre of Americana. But most people don’t know the origins of real American music, or what pure bluegrass or old time should really sound like, or know the difference between the two.
Well, you’re exactly right. And so many of those songs were brought over from England, Scotland, Ireland and Germany and places like that. They’ve been revived in a lot of ways, interpreted different ways. People try to be too commercial rather than sticking to the original message, you see. That bothers me very much. I’ve been fascinated by it since I was four or five years old, by the songs I heard back them. That’s why I try to preserve them the best I can, so people will know what they’re supposed to sound like.
So was that the motivation for Songs From My Mother’s Hand? And how did you settle on the versions you wanted to record?
The songs on album were written down in my mama’s composition books, prior to when disc jockeys today would play live on the radio. We would work in the summertime, trying to survive the Depression. But in the wintertime, she would set out her radio and crochet and cook. Our programs would come on, and she’d get a few lines or a verse or something, as they were singing it. And a few days later, they’d sing the same song and she’d get some more of it.
It’s inspiring really, looking at those notebooks. Parenting is a big rush these days — most mothers don’t have the time to sit down and copy down songs from the radio. Or they don’t prioritize something like that.
Oh yes. These songs, when you observe them carefully, they are a slice of life, so to speak. They talk of a true happiness, of love affairs and train wrecks, of sadness and farewell parties when you pass away. People don’t change and the situations don’t change, we just get a new batch. That’s the reason for the longevity of some of these songs. It’s all about lyrics you can identify with.
Do you hope these songs will become the new “traditionals”?
I think so. It’s just carrying the message forward, you know. It’s keeping them aware of the past. I know a lot of these songs, back in the day, were kind of gaudy and they would change them to be acceptable to radio.
It’s funny, because not much has changed. That still happens.
That’s exactly right, and it’s becoming more acceptable now than it was for a long time there. A lot of [racy] things couldn’t be said on television and now they show it!
Another lesson from the record is how important it is to sit down and absorb the lyrics from the music, not just a catchy beat or soundtrack to a passing activity. There’s not a lot of time spent focusing on lyrics, particularly narrative lyrics, these days.
No, there really isn’t. And record companies are trying too hard to do commercial songs, to get into charts. They won’t sign an artist unless they can get him in a room to write songs, because they have the publishing rights. They want a hit song on a CD, and other songs that are trash they publish and that’s what hurt the business. People had to pay $20 to get a CD with one song on it that they wanted. Now with downloads, that’s reversed.
There’s no artist development, either.
It’s all going through a cycle. And that contributes to the longevity of an artist — they have two or three hits, and the first time they don’t have a hit the company drops them. They’re unheard of before they become established. I’m so proud of my longevity in the business. Because I’ve worn a number of hats.
Peter Cooper, who produced the record, said you’ve had the longest-running recording career in history.
Apparently I’m the oldest recording artist in the business! Old! There are a few people who recorded ahead of me, like Doris Day, but they haven’t been as active as I’ve been.
Do you still love it as much as you always did?
Oh, I still just soak it up like a sponge, I really do. I’ve got about 200 songs that I know that were never recorded that I still want to do, if time permits…
So what you do think people should do to keep songs like those on Songs From My Mother’s Hand alive?
Well, I was one of the first to take traditional country with me when I played colleges, and I had great success with that. Played a lot of listening rooms and then later the folk festivals, Newport, Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl. We got to a lot of younger people that way. They realized the stories in the songs were basically the same things happening in their lives, and that was the biggest move towards longevity. I tried to be selective and do train songs and disaster songs and love songs and happy songs.
The Newport Folk Festival in the Sixties must have really been something.
Oh, I was very pleased to be a part of it for several years. I was right up there when Chappaquiddick happened — that was something! But then we had people like Joan Baez. Or Mississippi John Hurt, who they thought was gone and dead but they found him down in Mississippi somewhere, and he came up there and sat under a tree and sang his songs. People like that just followed Joan around, getting acquainted with the business. [Bill] Monroe was there, and we would do a set together.
Did you hang out with Bob Dylan there?
I sure did. I remember we played a couple gigs together, and we’d get to the motel and just have a picking session for hours.
That must have been incredible.
Oh, it was just wonderful. Gordon Lightfoot would participate sometimes, too.
Old Crow Medicine Show recently said that they thought Bob Dylan is the most country musician of them all, even though he’s always classified as folk. Do you agree?
I think so. I think he stepped up to his colors. Kind of like Woody Guthrie, I’d put them in the same class. They just did their thing and what they believed in, and carried the message they wanted to get across.
Your collaboration with John Prine, on 2007’s Standard Songs for Average People, is pretty great, too.
Well, thank you, I was so pleased to do that project. I recently did a project with Merle Haggard, which hasn’t been released yet.
Will that Merle album ever come out?
Oh yeah, it’s been mastered, and we are just taking our time, trying to get some distribution, and the distribution is just so difficult to coordinate these days. We did six of his songs and six of the ones I recorded in the past that were most popular, “Love Letters in the Sand,” “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight” and things like that. I think people are hungry for that. So many of the songs are trying to be so commercial that these days they don’t say anything, they are so repetitive. They don’t have the longevity because they don’t say much!
And finally, after all this time, you’ll be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Are you pleased? Or is it like, “What took you so long?”
Well, I’m very pleased. I was one of the founding members of the association, and I’m the only living member of the original board. For it to be this long to get in there, I’m very thankful. I’d almost given up on it!