This month’s Songwriter’s Backstory features the bluegrass and country standard, ‘Tis Sweet To Be Remembered, by American bluegrass star, Mac Wiseman. Internationally referred to as ‘the voice with a heart’, Wiseman is one of the original architects of the bluegrass music genre. Much has been written about this iconic artist who is also an award-winning writer, recording artist, polio survivor, Grand Ole Opry Star, Country Music Hall of Famer and original member of The Foggy Mountain Boys. Though the list goes on and on, this particular article is about Mac Wiseman the songwriter and, more specifically, the creation of his timeless masterpiece, ‘Tis Sweet To Be Remembered.
I caught up with Mac from his home in Nashville to get a little insight on how this song came to be. I found the most compelling part of the story to be not so much about Mac’s composition of the song, but about his belief in the integrity and uniqueness of it. The song features a time signature change from 4/4 in the verse to a 3/4 waltz time in the chorus. This is an unconventional yet remarkable structure for mainstream music, and one that really emphasizes the lyric’s sentimentality, as the author intended. For five years, Mac performed the song as the closing theme song on the WCYB radio Farm & Fun Time show in Bristol, Tennessee. A particular recurring situation confirmed to him the strength and universal appeal of the song: “I’d get in a cab and the cab driver would be humming the song.”
He described the journey in his own words: “I wrote the song in 1946. I was living in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was recording with Molly O’Day in Chicago in the late fall of 1946. Then in the spring of 1947, WCYB Bristol had a noontime 2-hour show. I organized a band and went up there. I was one of three acts on the show. I performed the song in my radio show for five years. It was the closing theme.” Mac played with Molly O’Day for seven or eight months, performing five days a week on the 2-hour radio show, Merry Go Round, and on the Saturday night show, Tennessee Barn Dance in Knoxville. His time on the road was as a musician in her band, opening act, and occasional featured performer.
“In the [Farm and Fun Time] show we alternated. Took 15 minutes each time. The Stanley Brothers, myself and a local fellow named Curly King who sang like Eddie Arnold. I was sweating blood for fear someone was gonna record the song. In 1951 while I was performing on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, Louisiana, I was approached by Randy Wood of Dot Records to record for them.” Mac says with a hearty laugh, “I didn’t know who was doing who a favor. Their biggest distributor was the back seat of their car. I was glad to be doing a record and [Dot] said, ‘What do you want to record?’ I pitched, ‘Tis Sweet To Be Remembered first. He said, ‘Oh no we can’t record that’. I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Well the big part of our sales is juke boxes. We’ll never get that with different tempos on the juke box’. And I don’t know why I was brave enough to do it and stood up and said, ‘Well then forget it.’” Of course, the record executive thought better than to pass up the talent of Mac Wiseman. Dot Records went on to record and release the song with huge success to follow. Mac confirmed: “It wasn’t any length of time before Dot called and said, ‘From now on, you pick the material.’”
It was on his birthday, May 21st, 1951 that Mac Wiseman first recorded ‘Tis Sweet To Be Remembered. He proudly states that four artists have re-recorded the song since his original release. Jimmy Skinner had it out on Capitol, Flatt & Scruggs on Columbia, Cowboy Copas on Dot Records (#8 on the charts) and a country act from California.
“I have my life story in book form. And just recently Peter Cooper from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Thomm Jutz, who owns a studio here, we’ve written several things together. They came to my house a number of times and we wrote 10 songs. And it’s my life story in song. That’s very unusual I thought.” These 10 songs were recorded on the upcoming and much-anticipated Mountain Fever Records album, I Sang The Song, produced by Jutz and Cooper. Alison Krauss lends her voice to Mac’s newest rendition of ‘Tis Sweet To Be Remembered (bringing the total of other artists who have covered the song to five.) This 10-song collection hits both stores and iTunes on January 20, 2017, though the first single, Going Back to Bristol, has already topped the Bluegrass Today charts in December 2016.
Mac also touched on his writing process: “A lot of time, it was while I was driving down the road. I’d get an idea and write it down, and then come back to it later. A lot of my ideas are about memories back home and Christmas songs.”
I asked Mac what he is working on right now, and if he is still writing songs. “I have three or four that are very unique right now. I’d rather write those on my own. I’m still working on them.”
So what came first, the melody or the lyric for ‘Tis Sweet To Be Remembered? He replied, “I wrote the melody first then the lyric. I liked that changing tempo. It depicts the spice of life.” And indeed, ‘tis sweet to hear and to cherish for all time.
Tis Sweet To Be Remembered
Written by Malcolm B. Wiseman
As I travel all this world
Just to soothe my movin’ mind
And the messages I get
From a dear one left behind
They were filled with sweetest words
That so touched me when I heard
Dear oh dear can I forget
These are some things that she’d say
‘Tis sweet to be remembered on a bright or gloomy day
‘Tis sweet to be remembered by a dear one far away
‘Tis sweet to be remembered remembered remembered
‘Tis sweet to be remembered when you are far away