By Larry Stephens
Wiseman’s nickname is “the voice with a heart,” and I’ve enjoyed that voice for decades. Wiseman got his start in professional music in the ’40s, recording as Molly O’Day’s bass player in 1946. He played in Flatt & Scruggs’ band and in Bill Monroe’s, found a following in folk music, and dipped his toes in country music. His ninety-one years have been filled with many adventures, but it all started in a country home where money was short and the work was hard. This isn’t a showcase for Wiseman’s voice: it’s the story of his early days.
He wrote ten of these songs in nine Sunday meetings with Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz, both Nashville-based musicians who join Jim Lauderdale here on”Simple Math.” This song strikes a chord with me as I recall hearing my dad’s parents talking about grandpa walking several miles to town to sell some eggs, a large part of their meager income during the depression.
Ten cents a dozen eggs and that’s a gallon kerosene
Riding six miles to the store and back
We traded eggs for coffee, and some for sugar, too
You got no eggs you drink your coffee black
Can’t spend the money you don’t have
That’s how it works, simple math
Though Wiseman makes only a few scattered and short vocal appearances along with the long list of contributing artists on this CD (until the end), his voice hardly shows the effect of his many decades of life—the magic is still there.
Junior Sisk, another country boy, teams with Sonya and Becky Isaacs to sing “The Wheat Crop,” a story of the Wiseman family’s dependance on their farm. It starts with Wiseman and the Isaacs singing the chorus of “Bringing In The Sheaves,” an apt kickoff to this story of hardship and prayer. It’s summed up by “I watched my mother cry when the rain and summer heat turned that precious wheat into sacks of chicken feed.” Sisk’s voice is plain and unadorned just like life on that farm while the Isaacs add the feeling of hope and prayer when they sing with him.
I usually match Jim Lauderdale with country music and he’s written a long list of country hits since landing in Nashville in 1979. He’s also had a long association with bluegrass, recording two albums with Dr. Ralph Stanley and involved with a number of other bluegrass artists and recordings. He sings “Barefoot ‘Til After the Frost.” Wiseman told a story to his co-writers about moving the cow out of the barn while barefoot then standing in the warm spots where they had laid. “Oh, Pete,” he said, “my feet would be just as red as a gobbler’s snout.” Another song of hard times. It brings back a conversation with my late cousin, Earl Polley, who decried the popular phrase “the good old days.” He told me the old days weren’t so good [for the poor people] and, just like the song, described shoes with cardboard soles worn through the snow and rain.
Sierra Hull and Justin Moses team up with their excellent harmony to sing “The Guitar,” the story of Wiseman’s first guitar, a $3.95 special from Sears Roebuck. I have a similar one that belonged to my great-uncle, Jesse Polley. Wiseman talks about “playing in G and singing in C” and finally getting it right, singing Gene Autry’s “There’s An Empty Cot In the Bunkhouse Tonight” for his mother. Wiseman closes the track with a chorus of that old song. Buddy Melton, Andrea Zonn and Milan Miller team up for “Three Cows and Two Horses,” more about the hardships of Wiseman’s early life and “Somewhere Bound,” describing how he’d watch as he would “slop the pigs and milk the cows” (I remember those days!) as the train passed by his folks’ Sampson Village farm, an almost-forgotten spot near Crimora Virginia. The vocals on all the traks are excellent and this trio blends seamlessly. Melton and Miller have been combining forces on other projects and Zonn adds a special touch with her harmony. The musicians are excellent, providing the backdrop for the many vocalists. Sierra Hull played mandolin and Justin Moses stayed busy with the banjo, fiddle and Dobro tracks. Thomm Jutz played guitar and Mark Fain played bass. As Mark Hodges of Mountain Fever told me, “These four played every note on it and did a bang-up job. It wasn’t hard for them since their hearts were in their work for sure. It was a true labor of love for everyone who participated.” This speaks to the respect all the singers and musicians have for Wiseman.
An interesting song is “Manganese Mine,” (vocals by Shawn Camp) the story of a mountain man near Crimora who sold his land for almost nothing and watched as it turned into a multi-million dollar mining operation (mentioned in the Wikipedia article about Crimora). He eventually “picked up his old .45” and ended his misery. Wiseman’s stories are varied, touching on religion (“Crimora Church of the Brethren” – Ronnie Bowman and Sisk), how much of his adult life is connected to Bristol Tennessee (“Going Back to Bristol” – Camp) and summing it up with the title cut performed by John Prine. Prine, now seventy (an age I no longer consider to be old), has a voice that carries the sound of every mile he’s ever traveled, raspy, a little weary, and a perfect match for this song. The CD is capped with ”Tis Sweet To Be Remembered,” composed by Wiseman and a hit for him from many years ago. This is a new recording with Wiseman’s track (and all the others when he’s heard) recorded at his house. It features Alison Krauss singing harmony. If you’re a Mac Wiseman fan you must have this CD. If you just like good bluegrass, you’ll enjoy every track.