It was 5:00 a.m. when Mac Wiseman heard a knock on his door. As he went to the door of his hotel room, there stood Johnny Cash. The night before Wiseman shared a bill at Carnegie Hall with Cash and the extended members of the Carter Family. In his hand, Cash held a copy of the New York Times.
“Congratulations,” he said to Wiseman. “You got the best review.”
That night in the late Sixties was somewhere between Wiseman’s venture to Bristol in 1951 to record “’Tis Sweet To Be Remembered” with Molly O’Day and his later inductions in both the International Bluegrass Hall Of Fame and later the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“It ain’t bragging if you done it ,” John Prine sang in the autobiographical “ I Sang The Song” written by Mac Wiseman, Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz in words that provided a summation of Wiseman’s life. Wiseman left us this past week at the age of 93.
As Prine delivered a recitation of names Wiseman had worked with, it was with reverence and a sense of humility on behalf of Wiseman and the people he’d met along the way. It was an historical accounting and an enduring memorial to the idea that perhaps his greatest gifts to us came late in life.
As a young boy, Mac Wiseman watched trains run through Crimora, Virginia and watched the silhouettes of the people passing by as the sun went down. He couldn’t make out their faces but wondered where they were going. Moreover, it spoke to the five-year old that he too wanted to go to that somewhere. Wiseman grew up with polio and thought he’d have a career in agriculture. Discovering his voice on radio and playing music was his ticket out.
Six years ago Peter Cooper and Jutz got together for a project with the then 88 year-old country and bluegrass legend Mac Wiseman, an alumnus of Bill Monroe’s original band and Flatt and Scruggs. The resulting Songs From My Mother’s Hand was based on notebook entries of the words she heard from listening to songs on the radio.
The two struck up a friendship with the world’s oldest recording artist and one of the founding members of the Country Music Association. In his latter years Wiseman’s was sharp as a tack as he revered Cooper and Jutz with stories. Wiseman could tell you about touring with Hank Williams or where he was when he heard Jimmie Rodgers on the radio or the day he ran into AP Carter working at his radio station.
Jutz loved stopping by Wiseman’s house, just ten minutes away from his home studio TJ Tunes outside Nashville. Wiseman began recounting details of his own life that span a third of the country’s history, inspiring a series of Sunday conversations about the values that made him who he became over two centuries.
As Wiseman held court in his recliner over nine afternoons, he and Jutz were sitting at the feet of history. Cooper was taking notes on his iPad as Wiseman transported them back to the days of the depression–and memories of waking up to tend to the family’s cows and working the fields after school.
ln another conversation, Wiseman recounted riding three miles into Crimora to swap eggs for kerosene. Jutz and Cooper, the former music journalist for The Tennessean, peppered him for the details.
“Well Mac,” Jutz asked, “how much did eggs cost?” He and Cooper did a calculation that a dozen eggs could buy a gallon of gas back in 1928. It led to the song “Simple Math” with Jim Lauderdale singing the autobiographical details in a galloping up-tempo romp, driven by the core band of Jutz, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses and Mark Fain. In the song, Lauderdale recounts Wiseman’s voice in the first person in a series of milestones, including his recording session with Molly O’Day where he earned $250.
Cooper and Jutz had sat in the audience at Wiseman’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Perhaps the Country Music Association might not be what it is today were it not for Wiseman’s contributions early in its founding.
“Mac’s Country Music Hall of Fame induction was an incredibly emotional night,” Cooper told me. “Mac was one of the people who created the Country Music Association, which created the Hall of Fame. When all that was beginning, he never imagined the CMA would become an important economic and cultural force, and he never imagined the Hall of Fame would be a gleaming building and a centerpiece for Nashville’s downtown revival. Many of us have known for years that Mac was good enough for the Hall of Fame. Now, there’s no doubt that the Hall of Fame is good enough for Mac.”
I first learned about Mac’s failing health when I sat with Cooper at a show he did with Eric Brace and Thomm Jutz a few weeks ago. Late in their second set they shared the story of their relationship. As they sent out best wishes, Jutz stepped to the stage and sang the words we first heard from Prine.
“I could hear the highway calling
Long before the road ran through
Dreams are free and not much else is
What else can a poor boy do?”
It’s a folk song for the ages and a permanent record and accounting of a life well lived.
When you look at images of Wiseman through the years, there’s a vibrancy in his middle years that transcended the kitschy made for tv reissues. There’s a hilarious picture of Wiseman posing with Lester Flatt holding a picture frame over their faces. And then there’s Mac in his later years holding court in his recliner, narrating much of the history of America and the American dream he embodied.
But the gifts that Wiseman left us in his later years are perhaps his greatest contributions. In addition to Songs From My Mother’s Hand and I Sang The Song, there’s a whole set of songs he and John Prine sang together. When Wiseman reprised “‘Tis Sweet To Be Remembered” with Alison Krauss where Molly O’Day once stood, It wasn’t just another song. It was Wiseman speaking to her childhood.
Spanning two centuries and a third of the country’s history would be compelling unto itself were it not for the life lived so remarkable.