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Mac Wiseman Finally Gets Country Music Hall Of Fame Nod, Releases New Album, 'Songs From My Mother's Hand'

by   Sep 22, 2014 16:54 PM EDT

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ANTIOCH, TENN. - Let's Make A Deal flickers across the room, but Mac Wiseman doesn't give a damn about Wayne Brady.

The 89-year-old country singer is on the phone, and the television in his Tennessee home has been on mute all afternoon, anyway. He hangs up the handset and flashes a smile before reclining into his faded-brown easy chair.

These days, it's good to be Mac. The only living member of the Country Music Association's original board of directors, Wiseman will finally be inducted into the prestigious Country Music Hall of Fame in October along with singing legend Ronnie Milsap and the late songwriter Hank Cochran.

"I was beginning to think they'd forgotten me," Wiseman says before letting loose a wheezy laugh.

"It's the highlight of my musical career," he says. "This is my 70th year professionally in the music business. It's like the Baseball Hall of Fame or NASCAR, or whatever. It's the top accolade, you know? I'll be in a lot of good company down there."

Wearing gray sweatpants and a long-sleeved black shirt, Wiseman sports a predominately snowy beard that envelops his mouth when he is not speaking. His eyes are small but lively, and they do a quick tour of the living room walls. 

His place, mostly decorated by a "lady friend" from Virginia, features memorabilia from decades past — an exhibit of plaques, photos and guitars that will soon spend a year displayed inside the Hall of Fame post-induction.

Note the large, framed picture with his favorite horse, Sugar Bob (rest in peace), and the candid photograph with his old bird dog, Lady (also deceased).

A small, circular table sits near the front window.

Made of some anonymous dark wood ("I'm not sure what it is," Wiseman says) and decorated with an elegant white tablecloth, the table has been in his family for nearly a century.

Sitting on top are two composition books filled with his mother's cursive handwriting.

During the throes of the Great Depression, she would knit next to the radio in their Crimora, Va., home. When a catchy song came on, she would fire open the notebook and copy down as many lyrics as she could. Over several listens, full songs would come together on the pages.

She filled 13 of these, all of them for her son, Mac.

•••

Who is Mac Wiseman?

With his prime several decades gone, that will likely be a popular question around induction time in late October.

Any summary is too short, and where to begin, anyway? The man lifted Dot Records from obscurity and later ran the company. He helped develop the bluegrass genre before co-founding the Country Music Association in the '50s. He was also one of the most popular international country artists of all-time, eventually selling big chunks of his discography to companies in Japan and Germany.

Wiseman's clear diction and thoughtful subject matter led Nashville radioman Keith Bilbrey to famously dub him "The Voice With a Heart."

Those are the bare bones.

If you want to better understand the lives he's touched, let Marcia Campbell do the talking.

The WSM deejay and longtime friend visited Antioch in March to hang out and listen to Wiseman's yet-to-be-released collaboration with Merle Haggard.

More than a half-century younger than Wiseman, Campbell was raised on his music. Her dad was — and still is — a borderline-obsessive fan, and it rubbed off on his little girl, who first met Wiseman while dancing at the Grand Ole Opry in the '80s.

"When you're in the presence of Mac Wiseman, you want to be quiet and listen," she says before allowing a long pause. "Because he has songs. He has stories that are so important that you want to remember those moments, and you want to remember those stories. Every word."

There was the time Wiseman visited Frankfurt, Germany, and played in Hitler's favorite speech hall. Or the time when he took a barge to see England's White Cliffs of Dover, where he had heard fighter planes would run out of gas as they crossed the English Channel and smash into the pallid rocks.

There was even that one time at the late Lester Armistead's store (every notable Nashville citizen born before 1970 has a story of "that one time at Lester Armistead's") when Wiseman performed for Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie right before they split town for their Vegas nuptials.

But Campbell's favorite story is from another night at Armistead's, when Wiseman forgot to bring his six-string.

"My dad doesn't let anybody play his guitar," Campbell says. "But my dad took his guitar out of the case and handed it to Mac. And Mac played four or five songs, one right after another. He was strumming the guitar, and he broke the guitar string. So we took the guitar string out, wound it up, and my dad still has that string. It's broken, and it's wound and it's in a little sandwich bag."

Campbell's radio career began in the mid-'90s when she called her local independent station and asked to put on a bluegrass show.

That eventually led to a deejay gig with WSM — one of Nashville's most storied frequencies — where Campbell was so nervous in her first week that she flinched before answering the phone when the red hotline bulb flashed on in the studio.

"WSM," she said.

The caller's voice came through clear as day.

"Well, hello there, little lady. This is Mac Wiseman."

Campbell was on the graveyard shift. The only people listening were truckers, diehards and The Voice With a Heart.

"I just want to let you know you're doing a good job," Wiseman said. "And remember: When giving out the phone number, talk real slow. You already know the number, but other people don't."

•••

Wiseman had several obstacles to overcome throughout his professional career, but all of them paled to the work it took to survive his childhood.

The troubles began when he was six months old. A weak leg brought him to the doctor, where he received a dreaded diagnosis: polio.

He could not walk until his second birthday, and even then his ankle was so weak that it could not turn facedown to plant on the ground. He learned to walk on his toe.

"I never knew any differently," Wiseman says. "It was very clumsy."

His mother, Myra Ruth Umphrey, learned how to read music at a local church seminar, and then took on the pump organ at weekly gatherings.

Her son's illness inspired her to steer him toward music, so she filled those notebooks with lyrics in hopes that he would not "have to kick stumps and gravel and rocks" for a living.

Wiseman finally got corrective surgery when he turned 13, but the ensuing cast ran from his foot to his hip. The extra time immobilized led to better work in the classroom.

"I made valedictorian," he says. "Hell, couldn't do anything else."

Another blessing arose from that situation: Wiseman finally had the time to tune his crummy guitar and learn how to play.

"It was a $3.95 job from Sears, honest to god," he says. "Had a neck on it like a wagon tongue."

The seeds for his professional future were in the dirt, and on Easter Sunday the following year, he was able to set his right foot flat on the ground for the first time in his life.

Reminiscing about that day, Wiseman slams the table in front of him several times with excitement.

"I can visualize it," he says while blows from his hand make the small stand shudder. "Walking down the path from my front door. I just could not believe it."

From then on, life got easier. He joined a band with boys from school and played shows in exchange for meals. After high school, he attended Shenandoah Conservatory of Music in Dayton, Va., and learned the art of radio.

His first full-time job was as a news announcer, and he also read commercials and spun records on-air.

When a friend of country singer Molly O'Day recommended Wiseman as a lead vocalist for her band, she called upon him to leave the radio life in the mid '40s, and he eventually recorded 16 sides with her on Columbia Records in Chicago ("There were no studios in Nashville, if you can imagine that").

From there, Wiseman's radio experience gave him another boost. The legendary Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs were looking for a third member after leaving Bill Monroe, and they were fans of Wiseman's show.

That was his last stop before beginning a solo career in 1949 at the WSB Barn Dance in Atlanta.

An offer from Monroe to play the Opry sustained Wiseman for another year and then Dot Records finally came calling.

"They were just a small label when I came, but I had been turned down by all the majors," Wiseman says. "So I was very interested, no matter how small. I think their biggest distributor was the backseat of their car."

His first song, "Too Sweet To Be Remembered," was a hit and he became a country/western producer with the company in 1957. That position took him to Hollywood for two years and then to Nashville in order to work with publishers and studios.

It was around that time that he helped forge the Country Music Association. Designed as a way to bring country awareness to radio stations and listeners, the CMA was initially rebuffed by stars such as Marty Robbins and Carl Smith.

"They misinterpreted it," Wiseman says. "They thought it was a get-rich scheme for us, which it was not. It was an educational thing. We'd have board meetings and reach into our own pockets for postage in the early days."

He was the first secretary treasurer and traveled the country with his compatriots to push the brand along.

More than 50 years later, the CMA has "grown into a monster," as Wiseman puts it. But until this spring, he hadn't gotten his Hall of Fame due.

"I wasn't angry with them because I consoled myself believing that so many of the voters were young people and didn't know my track record," Wiseman says. "So I was blown away when they called me and told me I'd won this year."

CEO Sarah Trahern put through the call to Wiseman's home phone that day.

"To me, it was a personal call," she says. "When I was a little girl, my dad used to sing me 'Jimmy Brown The Newsboy.' Most people in my generation may not know as many of Mac's songs as I do, growing up in a bluegrass and acoustic music family.

"He was so delighted. You could hear his smile through the phone."

Trahern's call caught Wiseman off guard.

"I was blown away when they called me and told me I'd won this year," he says with a faraway look. "I was speechless for a few seconds, I tell ya. I've made the Top 5 a number of times, but never reached No. 1, you know?"

--

You usually need multiple commas to introduce Peter Cooper.

The Nashville resident is also a Tennessean columnist, professor, recording artist and Grammy-nominated producer.

Cooper wore the latter hat when he visited Wiseman's home in Antioch early this year. Tasked with building the elderly country star's new album, he and co-producer Thomm Jutz needed a plan. But with more than 60 full-length albums in Wiseman's rear-view, fresh ideas were in short supply.

The well was dry until Wiseman pulled out his mother's notebooks.

"Immediately, it was clear that those were the songs," Cooper says. "That was the album. That was the story. That was the packaging. It was immediately apparent that it was an album that's never been done before."

The project gained traction quickly. All they needed to do was select a batch of songs from the hundreds that Wiseman's mother had written down.

"Thomm and I were just shocked by those things," Cooper says. "It was really powerful. I would hold the notebooks and call out different songs to Mac and say, 'Well, do you like Blue Ridge Mountain Blues?' and he'd say, 'Oh, yes!' and he would start singing."

Once they figured out the correct keys for a collection of 12 songs, they hit the studio, where Wiseman tore through his work in six hours (including a one-hour lunch break).

"If I was producing a 30 year old, I would never ask him to do that," Cooper says, still astonished by the accomplishment. "He's from an era when time was money in the studio, and he always came prepared. He doesn't treat the studio as a place to mess around of experiment. He knows before he even enters the door exactly what he's going to do and how he's going to do it."

Tracking was complete once the hammer dulcimer, mandolin, dobro and the fiddle were dubbed over the guitars and bass. The cover art was an aesthetic replica of the notebook covers - faded burnt-orange with pen marks and scratches across the surface.

The title? Songs From My Mother's Hand.

(Photo : Wrinkled Records)

•••

This August, Wiseman was invited to a rehearsal ceremony at the CMA Theater in Nashville.

"I sat there in great awe," he says. "To look out at that auditorium and to think that I had a great part in starting the organization that later became that, I was speechless. My mind just went wild."

The 89-year-old has been out of the spotlight for a long time, but he still keeps up with current country stars in order to "monitor" the genre.

"Very little of it really catches my attention," he says. "But I want to keep abreast of what's going on."

He's a fan of Alan Jackson and "some of Garth Brooks' things," but he doesn't dig Kenny Chesney.

"He's had fabulous success, and I wouldn't take anything away from him, but none of the material he does appeals to me personally," Wiseman says. "Apparently it appeals to a lot of people or he wouldn't be that damn hot."

And yes, Wiseman is a Taylor Swift fan.

"I admire her," he says. "Such a successful lady, and she's very benevolent, giving away millions of dollars to causes and stuff. She's going pop. I think that's very wise. A lot bigger audience and a lot more staying power, and she won't lose the country people. She can maintain everybody she had and expand on it, too."

Wiseman's savvy business perspective kept him ahead of the game for multiple decades, though he never managed to break through with a No. 1 hit.

"We've been taught to treat the Billboard charts as if they're a scoreboard for a football game," Cooper says. "You go, 'Oh, okay — Ronnie Milsap ruled the '70s and '80s and had No. 1 hit after No. 1 hit on the Billboard charts.' But so much of Mac's career was spent kind of off the radar from those charts, and the charts weren't necessarily accurate indications of what people were selling.

"Mac was in the business of getting into a station wagon and piling it full of 78s and LPs and songbooks and driving to Canada and helping sell all of those things before he found his way back to Tennessee."

Charts be damned, Wiseman is finally in the Hall of Fame. His induction and Songs From My Mother's Hand will thrust him back onto a scene that has changed markedly since "Jimmy Brown." But Wiseman doesn't have any delusions of making the same worldwide impact that he used to.

For one, arthritis in his left shoulder has not allowed him to play guitar in six months.

"It's very tough because I never dreamed I'd lose the ability to do it," he says, while maintaining that he will keep making records as long as his voice holds up. "I don't want to be like some of those other fellas and not realize when I should stop."

If the new album is any indication, Wiseman's singing ability is still there. His clear voice sails through covers of "Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown" and "You're a Flower Blooming in the Wildwood" without much effort.

"Mac has completely unique phrasing," Cooper says. "Any song, once Mac sings it, becomes a different kind of story. There's a clarity to what he's saying that's really different. He's not interested in the American Idol way of singing, where people want to show you how many octaves they can span or how long they can hold some high note.

"Mac isn't interested in that at all. He's interested in what will convey the emotional truth of a song."

Currently, Wiseman is glancing at the television news (still on "mute") across the room; flash floods are ripping through Memphis and the rest of Shelby County, roughly three hours away.

"I like it out here," he says. "It's so quiet being on this cul de sac. You seldom hear any traffic."

The pictures of Sugar Bob the horse and Lady the dog remind him of his old cattle ranch - about 50 miles away in Alexandria - where he used to hunt for duck and quail.

"I had 700 acres, ran cattle and had the walking horses," he says. "I had a two-bedroom house trailer where I'd go just to get away from the world."

This is his sanctuary now, sometimes interrupted by friends, musicians and calls from the Swedish media.

He won't deny it; he still cares a lot about what the world thinks of him.

"At my age, you start telling tales and people will say, 'That old bastard is lying," you know?" he says. "But one of the Oak Bridge Boys came up with a saying that I really like. They said, 'If you've done it, it's not bragging.'

"That gives it a lot of validity, doesn't it?"

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