By Larry Stephens
1966. I remember it well because that’s the year I graduated from high school and started college. I was playing in the Starlighters, a local country band that was pretty danged good. Mac Wiseman wasn’t on my horizon. Neither was bluegrass. Most of the people in the band couldn’t stand it, especially the banjo.
But Wiseman, “The Voice With a Heart,” was a well established and popular performer in both the bluegrass and country worlds as well as dipping into folk music. Still active today, albeit with a lighter schedule, you’re most likely to catch him on RFD-TV’s Country Family Reunion, though he recently performed on the Grand Ole Opry. He started out as the bass player for Molly O’Day, joined Flatt & Scruggs then Bill Monroe and later struck out as a solo artist. His voice and the way he styles a song has made him one of my favorite arists. Many others love his work, too. He was inducted into the IBMA Hall of Honor in 1993 and will become a member of the CMA Hall of Fame within a few days.
In 1966 he made a mono LP (Sings Old Time Country Favorites [RRMW-158]) for Uncle Jim O’Neal, owner of Rural Rhythm, the only recording he ever did for them. It was reissued in 1973 (Singing Country Favorites [RRMW-258]) with an electric guitar and bass plus drums overdubbed to make a stereo effect. It was reissued again in 1997 (20 Old Time Country Favorites [RHYCD-258]) and that one is still available. The original recording featured Wiseman on guitar, Rudy Thacker on guitar, and Peggy Peterson playing Dobro. This CD was re-mastered from the original tapes with “Wildwood Flower” as a bonus track. It was recorded with the other tracks but not released. There’s not much information available on Peterson but she does appear in the credits of several records of that era (including works by J. E. Mainer and Jim Eanes) and is mentioned in Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass by Murphy Henry. Thacker was probably the man associated with the Stringbusters in the Cleveland area (the LP was recorded in Ohio, possibly Akron).
Several of these songs have become closely associated with Wiseman through the years. “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight” traces back to the Carter Family, though he cuts out the middle two verses on this record. This song is a good example of a curious choice made by singers, more so in the first half of bluegrass history than the second but not unheard of today. A man will sing a song clearly intended for a woman without changing the words.
And when the dance is over and all have gone to rest
I’ll think of him, dear Mother, the one that I love best
He once did love me dearly and ne’er from me would part
He sought not to deceive me, false friends have changed his heart
It’s not as if the words are set in stone. Wiseman’s version varies slightly from the lyrics attributed to the Carter Family, but there seems to be a reluctance to change from first person to third person. This can be disconcerting when you first hear it.
Many of the songs on the album feel abrupt, shortened. The Vince Gill/Asleep At The Wheel version of “Corrina, Corrina” runs three minutes. The CD’s version is 1:36. This is a familiar song dating back to 1928 and recorded in several genre by a long list of artists. My guess is the choice was made to make most songs short so more songs could be included. An LP could hold twenty to twenty-two minutes of playing time on each side and each song has some delay until the next one. Math tells the story. It’s an understandable decision but still a trade-off.
Another “Wiseman” song is “I Saw Your Face In The Moon.” It dates back to 1937 and Governor Jimmie Davis. “Midnight Special” bears Wiseman’s melodic touch but many may associate it with CCR or Johnny Rivers. It probably dates (in print) to Howard Odum in 1905 and has been recorded by artists as varied as Lead Belly, The Kingston Trio and ABBA. Wiseman may have the gentlest touch of all.
On the gospel side are a very short “When They Ring Those Golden Bells” and “Just Over In Gloryland.” “The Black Sheep” has a message of forgiveness that isn’t gospel but is still an uplifting message of right in the end. Other familiar numbers are “Wreck of the Old ’97,” “The Georgia Mail” and “More Pretty Girls Than One.” “Rovin’ Gambler'” runs only 1:51 but there are so many variations of this song (as with most of these) that it’s not necessarily shortened and, in this case, you feel like he finished the song instead of just cutting it off. Listen to “Little Mohee” and you’ll hear where “On Top of Old Smokey” borrowed its melody.
“Mary of the Wild Moor” has a long and interesting history and many artists have recorded it, including Sara Evans in 2001 who heard it on a Dolly Parton recording. “Little Blossom” is a beautiful but grim number, the story of a little girl killed accidentally by her drunken father. Then there are the simple songs that don’t say much of anything but were still popular at one time. “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat” was recorded by artists like Split Lip Rayfield, Grandpa Jones and the Coon Creek Girls while “Turkey In The Straw” dates back longer than anyone can remember. “Sourwood Mountain” is another song with unknown beginnings, part lament, part nonsense. Parts of it were used by the Grateful Dead in Sugar Magnolia.
This is a welcome half-century look back at a recording by one of the greats of bluegrass and country music. It’s a reminder of the history of the music and might influence some listeners to look back for one of their next cuts when they record.