Over his 70-plus years in the spotlight, singer and guitarist Mac Wiseman helped build bluegrass and modern country music from the ground up. He remained a valuable mentor and ambassador for both genres until his death on February 24th. He was 93.
Of the many accomplishments from Wiseman’s career, two best represent his longevity and influence. He was the final surviving member of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ original Foggy Mountain Boys. That fact alone makes him a key figure in the commercial and musical development of 1940s bluegrass. He was also the last living co-founder of the Country Music Association (CMA). Wiseman helped form the original CMA board in 1958 to fend off the threat that rock & roll posed to country music’s popularity. He served as the organization’s first secretary during a key time in Nashville’s economic and social development.
Born May 23rd, 1925, in Crimora, Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley native contracted polio at a young age. While other children worked in the fields, Wiseman stayed inside listening to music. As a teenager, he purchased a guitar from a Sears-Roebuck catalog and began playing his favorite songs while singing lyrics his mother transcribed from radio broadcasts. He revisited those handwritten lyrics on the 2014 album Songs From My Mother’s Hand.
Wiseman began his career in 1944 as the bassist for Molly O’ Day’s Cumberland Mountain Folks. A gig with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys followed, placing Wiseman on a package tour with Hank Williams and in the studio for Nashville’s first bluegrass recording session. In the 1950s, he worked with Dot Records as a hit-making recording artist and a respected A&R representative and producer. From 1966 to 1970, he brought fresh names to the influential WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia, as the show’s director. Today, it’s the second longest-running country music broadcast behind the Grand Ole Opry.
Notable songs from his solo career include “Love Letters in the Sand” (1954), “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” (1955), “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” (1959), “Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride” (1969) and “My Blue Heaven,” featuring big band leader Woody Herman (1979).
By the 1960s, such fans of Wiseman as Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash sang his praises while plotting their own lengthy and influential careers. Wiseman recorded with both men later in their lives, appearing on multiple American Recordings releases by Cash and teaming with Haggard for the 2015 album Timeless. Two examples of fans turned peers barely scratch the surface of a career that included recording sessions with Doc Watson, Merle Travis, the Osborne Brothers, Alison Krauss and John Prine.
Reverential treatment followed Wiseman to the bluegrass festival circuit. Del McCoury’s sons Rob and Ronnie grew up in the Seventies and Eighties around Wiseman’s storytelling gift and his ever-changing set list. “He could sing the phone book,” Rob McCoury says. “There was no song he couldn’t sing.”
He gave back to bluegrass in 1986 by co-founding another influential organization, the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). In a Facebook post, the IBMA lamented the loss of a “musical treasure, prolific storyteller and instant friend to all who met him.”
The greatest honor bestowed on the Country Music Hall of Fame inductee and National Heritage Fellowship recipient may be his nickname — “The Voice with a Heart.” In a sometimes fickle and cutthroat business, Wiseman maintained a reputation as one of the friendliest and most generous of figures.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2014 in support of Songs From My Mother’s Hand, Wiseman recalled the Newport Folk Festival scene of the Sixties.
“Oh, I was very pleased to be a part of it for several years,” he said. “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.”
Wiseman also recalled hanging out with Bob Dylan at the time and how they’d meet up for musical interludes. “I remember we played a couple gigs together,” he said, “and we’d get to the motel and just have a picking session for hours.”