Mac Wiseman remembered by his peers

Mac Wiseman, among the last of the original era bluegrass artists, passed away on Sunday, February 24, 2019. 

Born Malcolm Bell Wiseman in Crimora, Virginia, on May 23, 1925, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame member was 93 years of age. 

His experiences in bluegrass and country music saw him as an executive of a record label and music association at the top end, and as a side-man in a band.

However, it is his amiable personality, his sense of humor and his wonderful voice for which people will remember him. We have gathered together a small selection of remembrances that voice those traits. 

Roland White always enjoyed being in Wiseman’s company …… 

“In my mind, he’ll never be gone; I’ll always think of him. And his singing voice will never be forgotten, ‘the voice with a heart’. 

I remember when I was working with Lester Flatt and he traveled with us some. He would sit up and ride shotgun with me when I drove the bus at night, and he talked — he always had something funny to say. He kept me awake and laughing.”

Ronnie Reno notes that Wiseman was the entertainer for any occasion, any audience ……  

“I knew I was with Music Royalty when I got with my good friend Mac Wiseman; Mac was accepted and was comfortable in all forms of music. He was country music, he was bluegrass (before it was called bluegrass), he was folk, and he was Gospel. He could sing all styles and do it with his voice and guitar. He could sit down and play by himself, or with The Woody Herman Orchestra. He knew over a thousand songs, and could entertain any audience. He was the true entertainer. He was music history and will truly be missed. Rest in Peace and Sing On High my precious friend.”

Eddie Adcock was just a teenager when he first enjoyed Wiseman’s knowledge of the business side of the music industry …. 

“Working with Mac Wiseman was probably the best music business education a young boy could have.

I was just a kid in ’55 when I worked with Smokey Graves in the Blue Star Boys all up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and had my eyes opened to real professionalism in music.  But when I worked with Mac in ’56 it was a whole other level of education, and the best I could ever have gotten. He’d been having hit after hit, and we toured across the entire US and Canada. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I was still really a kid. My mama had told Mac, ‘I’ve listened to you for years, and I think you’re a good person I can trust with my baby’, but she still made him promise he’d take care of me.  

This poor kid from the country thought he was rich when Mac paid him $90 a week. Half of that I’d send to Mama. I wrote home and said, ‘Mama, I’ve hit the big time!’

Mac was the best guy in the world to work for and with, and our friendship has been a treasure all my life.”

These comments by young fiddle player Corrina Rose Logston, of the group High Fidelity, show that Wiseman’s influence and friendship extended to younger generations ……. 

“I used to hear of people going to Mac Wiseman’s house, and felt so grateful when I started getting invited to go over there, and later when Jeremy got to share in that with me. Every time I saw Mac, it was memorable, like being in some bluegrass dream just getting to be around him. I had seen Mac perform when I was younger, but the first time I was around him in his home setting, I was struck by the fact that he must be Santa Claus. He just had that sweet demeanor — always had a twinkle in his eye and an infectious joy emanated from him.

He was so kind to me and Jeremy, and always inquired how we were doing, both personally and business-wise. His interest and opinions certainly served as inspiration to us. It was a special treat when Mac would render songs at his home gatherings, and his singing was always striking and magnificent. We are so blessed to have been able to call this bluegrass legend and royalty of country music a friend. We love you, Mac, and we will dearly miss you.”

Larry Stephenson met Wiseman while he was playing for Bill Harrell (during the period January 1979 until June 1983), and Stephenson got to know him better after he moved to Nashville in April 1992 ….. 

“I’ll always value Mac’s friendship! Went to many lunches and pickin’ parties at his house. There wasn’t anything in the music business he didn’t do in his wonderful career. He was a music original from Virginia just like me! Dreama and I will miss his calls and that great voice!”

Ricky Skaggs speaks of Wiseman’s wonderful voice also … 

“It’s hard to say the name Mac Wiseman and not hear his voice in your head. It was one of the most unique voices in bluegrass and country music. Mac never considered himself any one kind of singer, he sang in and out of those genres with total ease. I loved his voice and his ease of singing, but the one thing I will remember most about Mac, was his kindness toward everyone. He was a blessed man, with a blessed voice. I’m thankful that I got to meet him back in the early ‘70s while I worked with Ralph Stanley. We were friends from then on. Rest peacefully brother Mac, you will be missed by all of us down here.”

Rhonda Vincent admired Wiseman from afar for a long time ……. 

“I’ve been listening to Mac Wiseman for as long as I can remember. His voice was distinct, and familiar; yet his persona was larger than life, and for a little girl, very intimidating.  

The first time I saw Mac Wiseman was at a bluegrass festival where my family and I were performing. I remember being perplexed as I watched him walk by our camper, inviting musicians to join him on stage. When the shows started, I sat and listened to Mac and watched as the musicians from the camp site were now on stage with him.  

This is but one of the very unique and interesting modes of operation I observed of the great Mac Wiseman.  

I don’t know if Mac ever carried his own band. I would think at one time he would have; but it’s not something I ever witnessed. 

His soothing voice is really all he ever needed to captivate an audience. His voice, along with his amusing sense of humor. 

The first time I saw him in person, I was eleven years old. Our family band, The Sally Mountain Show played many, many bluegrass festivals with Mac, but I never had any interaction with him, or even a conversation. Fast forward forty years later, July 14, 2016, to the Ryman Auditorium, and the first and only time I shared the stage with Mac. He was kind enough to join Bobby Osborne, Sonny Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, along with Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, for a performance that was filmed and recorded on the evening of the Springer Mountain Farms Bluegrass Nights at the Ryman. It later became an historic project preserved on CD, DVD, and Blu Ray, titled Live at the Ryman.  

When I called Mac to invite him for the Ryman performance, I remember being star struck when I heard his voice through the phone. It took me back to when I was a little girl, but I was listening to his voice speaking to me as an adult. Some of my favorite things about the music business are collaborating with other artists, and they’re not always in the same genre of music, and finding that many of my musical heroes somehow, amazingly end up being the dearest of friends.  

Mac was so kind to invite us into his home for a special time to visit together and share stories as part of the filming that is featured only on the Blu Ray. That was another ‘pinch me’ moment. Mac welcomed Bobby, Sonny, Jesse, and I into his home, and those two plus hours are my very favorite memories of Mac Wiseman.  

He was kind and gentle, and so generous in sharing his talents and home. His voice and music will live on forever.”

Country music star singer/song-writer Bill Anderson remembers how Wiseman’s knowledge of the old songs was so extensive …. 

“I have many Mac Wiseman anecdotes, but one I think the fans will enjoy happened late one Sunday afternoon in Akron, Ohio.

Several of us, including Mac, were working a matinee/night show at the big theater there, and between shows one of the disc jockeys from WSLR Radio, Ken Speck, invited us over to his house for some food and fellowship. 

We were sitting around in the living room when somehow Mac got his hands on a flat-top guitar, and he began to strum and sing some old obscure country song. For some reason that prompted me to ask him if he knew another old, obscure song, and he did. He began to sing that one. Well, the floodgates opened. We all started throwing out titles and we never once stumped him. I’m talking The Little Rosewood Casket, The Baggage Coach Ahead, Put My Little Shoes Away.. .all those happy old folk-based songs from years ago. He knew every single song that we asked for and he sang every one of them. We tried our best to stump him, but it was impossible. He was a walking musical encyclopaedia.  

I had always admired Mac and his talent, but I grew a whole new appreciation for him that afternoon. With each request he’d get that little twinkle in his eye as if to say, ‘Boys, this is easy!’ and away he’d go. That was at least forty-plus years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. 

Mac was truly one of the all-time greatest. I was so proud to share stages with him and to call him a friend.”

Mike Armistead, the guitar-playing member The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, is another who remembers that Wiseman had a sharp wit …. 

“Mac had a brilliant sense of humor. As a matter of fact, he was always sharing jokes that our band could use from the stage. He also would ALWAYS leave me with a joke before I’d leave or hang up the phone. 

He told me this story about when he and Flatt were out supporting their new record, and Mac was singing this song, Wrinkled, Crinkled, Wadded Dollar Bill. There’s a line in the song where it talks about ‘cold wind blowing off of Lake Michigan.’ Mac notices Flatt in the wings watching the show, and Mac changed a little line in the song to say basically ‘the cold wind blowing up my ass from Lake Michigan.’ He looked over at Lester and seen him running off the side of the stage laughing. Nobody caught the line in the audience. He loved practical jokes too. Some of the things he and Tex Ritter would get into was legendary out in California.”

Don ‘Donnie’ Bryant played banjo for Mac Wiseman during the brief period that Wiseman carried a band (The Country Boys) ……..

“I auditioned and was hired by Mac Wiseman in September 1954. I remember his words to me regarding what he wanted and expected as a member of his band. He said, ‘I’m paying you to make me sound better. Keep it simple and forget the hot licks, and I’ll do my best to sell you when your turn comes to be featured.’ That was fine with me because I didn’t know any hot licks.’ So, simple was all I knew. Mac was a crooner, and you did not want to get in the way of his voice or his style. 

What I value most of all is the friendship between us that continued through the years. We never lost touch and I will always keep him in my memories.”

Legendary photographer Les Leverett has a multitude of his photographs of Mac Wiseman included in the book that accompanies the Bear Family box set On Susan’s Floor

“From late 1954 thru most of 1956, I worked for a commercial photographer in Nashville. He had a station wagon that I drove for jobs outside the studio. I tuned the radio to a station in Gallatin, several miles north of Nashville. It was there that I discovered Mac Wiseman, and sort of kept up with happenings in his life.  

I found that he went out to Los Angeles to become A & R man for Randy Wood of Dot Records, working with such people as Pat Boone, Billy Vaughn’s Orchestra, and the like. Mac had some great stories about working on the Town Hall Party, a weekly black and white (of course) TV show out of Compton, California, with Tex Ritter, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, and lots of other wonderful stars. 

I was the official Grand Ole Opry photographer from March of 1960 through March 1996. The first time I remember seeing and meeting Mac Wiseman was in 1961, when he was making a guest appearance on the Opry, which then was broadcast from the historic old Ryman Auditorium. Sadly, he was never made a member of the Opry, but was on a lot of Opry shows, and on record shows at the annual Opry Birthday celebration, and the annual Fan Fair shows.  

I was always fascinated by his perfect, clear singing. In recent years, I have been privileged to be a guest in his home, along with a room full of others, most of whom were musicians. We had lots of good food, laughing, singing, and picking. Some of the greatest of country and bluegrass stars were always in attendance. Mac had great remembrances of things in his life and career. I believe he remembered every show he ever worked, or at least it seemed so. He had the crowd laughing a lot, and though arthritis prevented him from picking his guitar any more, he could sure sing about as good as ever.

We were talking on the phone a few months back, concerning his birthday, he learned that I was ninety. He remarked, ‘you’re gonna catch up with me it looks like.’  I said, ‘the only way that’ll happen, is if you die first, and I keep on living.’ Well, that’s now happened!  

His memorial service was in Madison, Tennessee, at the Spring Hill Funeral Home, where a lot of our musicians are buried. I was asked by his family to have the opening remarks and prayer, and to close the service with a prayer. They played the first song Mac recorded with Bill Monroe in 1948, These Hands. Del McCoury sang Mac’s song The Old Folks at Home, Peter Cooper gave some personal reflections, Laura White played Maiden’s Prayer on her fiddle. Ronnie Reno gave some of his personal reflections.  Ricky Skaggs and the Whites sang I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer, and they played Mac singing on Flatt & Scruggs Someday We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart, and then I did the closing prayer.  

I felt so inadequate at that podium but, considered it a very special honor to he asked. Mac was then entombed in the mausoleum, which incidentally is where my wife is buried, and where I will be.”

‘Tis sweet to be remembered.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.