Mac Wiseman — a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, a founder of the Country Music Assn. and the last surviving member of the Foggy Mountain Boys band — died Saturday (Feb. 23) in Nashville at the age of 93.
“This is the end of an important era in bluegrass music,” wrote dobro master Jerry Douglas on his Facebook page.
A much-recorded sideman and bandleader, Douglas currently heads the Earls of Leicester, a band that resurrects and carries forward the sounds and repertoire of the Foggy Mountain Boys. “One of the most important things Mac Wiseman did was to make himself available to all of us who wanted to know the true story of how the music we love evolved. He imparted some wisdom no one else could have, and I will forever be indebted to him.”
Malcolm B. Wiseman was born May 23, 1925 in Crimora, Va. He first sang publicly on a Harrisonburg, Va. radio station. After he was stricken with polio, he was given a scholarship to the Conservatory of Music in Dayton, Va., where he studied singing and music theory.
Over the next few years, he sang and played with Molly O’Day (1945-47) Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys (1948) and Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys (1949). His reedy, tenor voice and affinity for singing sentimental ballads eventually earned him the sobriquet of “the Voice With a Heart.”
He was welcomed into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 1993.
Wiseman served as country A&R director for Dot Records (1956-59), the label for which he also recorded such chart hits “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” and “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy.” Other songs he became closely identified with included “Love Letters in the Sand,” “Tis Sweet to be Remembered,” “Goin’ Like Wildfire” and “We Live in Two Different Worlds.” By the time he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014, he estimated he had recorded more than 800 songs.
In 1958, Wiseman helped found the Country Music Assn. — a trade group designed to widen the acceptance and commercial viability of country music — and served as its first secretary.
“He gave not only ideas, but he did the work, as well,” said the late Jo Walker-Meador, the longest serving executive director of the CMA as she formally inducted Wiseman into the Hall of Fame. “He was invaluable to me [because] I knew nothing about country music then.”
Charlie Daniels, who performed “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” for Wiseman’s induction, said, “He’s been an idol of mine since I learned my first three chords on the guitar.” Confined to a wheelchair during his final years, Wiseman was celebrated for holding court for his friends and admirers, whom he invariably regaled with stories and songs.
He recorded dozens of albums between 1957 and 2017, often pairing up with such other seminal talents as Merle Travis, Doc Watson, Lester Flatt, the Osborne Brothers, Del McCoury and John Prine. It was with Prine that he recorded the deliciously titled collection Standard Songs for Average People (2007).
His final two albums were Songs From My Mother’s Hand (2014), based on his mother’s handwritten notebook of songs she savored, and I Sang the Songs (2017), tunes related to his 2015 autobiography, Mac Wiseman: All My Memories Fit for Print.
“I’ve tried to be true to myself,” Wiseman said during his Country Music Hall of Fame induction, “and give back the best that I could. … I think a reason for the great endurance [of country music] is that it’s such a slice of life. … I firmly believe that people don’t change. We just get a new batch.”