Very few people that have played Bluegrass and country music have succeeded in as many areas of the business as Mac Wiseman. One of the outstanding singers of all time, he is known throughout the world as “The Voice with a Heart.” He has worked as a newscaster, disc jockey, head of a talent agency, a sideman playing guitar or bass fiddle, a promoter, an elected official of trade organizations, and a record company executive.
He was named Malcom B. Wiseman when he was born on May 23, 1925, in Crimora, Virginia, located in the Shenandoah Valley, just North of Waynesboro. His family home was the gathering place for friends and neighbors on Saturday nights, because they owned a phonograph and a battery powered radio. Listening to the Grand Ole Opry and other radio shows was a very special event to which all looked forward, not only for the enjoyment of the music, but also as a relief from the heavy work that was a part of everyday farm life.
In the 1930s, the word polio struck fear in the hearts of many. Mac had a bout with polio that left him with a limp that he still has today. He received a scholarship from the National Polio Foundation and attended the Conservatory of Music in Dayton, Virginia, where he studied music theory, radio, and piano, one of only a couple of the Bluegrass pioneers to have studied classical music.
Mac started playing guitar when he was fourteen and joined a band during his high school days called The Hungry Five. He began his professional career in 1943 by forming his first group called the Country Boys. One of the most influential female vocalists of all time, Molly O’Day, heard Mac and hired him as a featured singer and bass fiddle player in 1946 and took him to Knoxville, Tennessee. Mac played bass on Molly’s first recordings for Columbia Records on Thanksgiving Day, 1946 in Chicago, Illinois.
When Mac left the great Molly O’Day’s Cumberland Mountain Boys in 1947, he put together a band called the Country Boys that included another Bluegrass pioneer, Curley Seckler. When WCYB radio in Bristol, Tennessee debuted that spring, Mac Wiseman & the Country Boys, the Stanley Brothers, and Curley King & His Hilltoppers were the first musical acts on the station. WCYB’s “Farm and Fun Time” would have a profound effect on many of the prominent musicians of today’s Bluegrass, because of the friendships that started there. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were with Bill Monroe during this time. When they were traveling through the WCYB listening area, they would tune in the station to listen one of their favorite singers. When Lester Flatt joined with Earl Scruggs in 1948 to form the Foggy Mountain Boys, they hired Mac to play guitar and sing tenor. Mac had disbanded his Country Boys a couple of months before and returned to Virginia.
The urge to move on forms a part of a journeyman musician’s life, so Mac left Flatt and Scruggs and joined Bill Monroe, playing guitar and singing lead in the spring of 1949. Since Mac had been performing some of the “blue grass” songs with Lester and Earl, Monroe erroneously assumed he could jump right in singing lead for the Blue Grass Boys. Mac, however, had been singing tenor, Bill’s part, to Lester’s lead. Mac recorded four songs with Monroe on October 27, 1949, Bill’s last session for Columbia Records. One of the songs that Mac and Bill cut, “(Sweetheart of Mine) Can’t You Hear Me Calling,” became a Bluegrass standard.
Mac left Bill Monroe in the spring of 1951 and formed his own group, again called The Country Boys, and became a regular member of “The Louisiana Hayride.” Mac then performed on several radio stations in North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia in rapid succession as his recording career took off. He recorded songs for Dot Records that are now considered “Mac’s Classics:” “Jimmy Brown, The Newsboy,” ‘“Tis Sweet to be Remembered,” and many others. He moved to “The Old Dominion Barn Dance” in 1953, then when Dot Records moved to California in 1956, Mac also made the move, and became Artist and Repertoire Director (A&R) for their country music artists.
Mac was a founding member and served as the first Secretary of The Country Music Association (CMA) in 1958, an organization that has promoted country music for many years and is now a power in the business. So far only Mac has served on the Boards of Directors of both the CMA and IBMA. The call to perform was too strong to ignore, so Mac moved back to Nashville in 1959, appearing with some Grand Ole Opry package shows as a solo performer, using whatever back-up musicians were available. He moved from Dot Records to Capitol in 1963. The years of 1966-1970 found him as a member of the “Wheeling Jamboree” on WWVA, Wheeling, West Virginia, where served as a performer, program director, director of the talent agency, and host of a late night record shop program.
When the Bluegrass festivals became popular, Mac promoted a festival at Renfro Valley, Kentucky in 1970 and recorded for CMH Records. During this period, Mac had gained a lot of weight, and on one occasion in the early seventies, when he was introduced at Bill Monroe’s Beanblossom Festival, he told the audience, “Friends, they told me not to get too close to this microphone as they are having some problems with feedback.” Pointing to the Martin guitar resting on his ample stomach, Mac said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I can’t get very close to this microphone.” He underwent an intestinal bypass operation and lost 155 pounds very quickly, and this caused much concern to his fans, when they would see him looking so slim. They would ask, “Is that really Mac Wiseman? Has he been sick”? When they heard that the weight loss was intentional and noticed that his great Voice was unchanged, the relief was obvious.
Mac joined with his old friend Lester Flatt in the early seventies and recorded three albums for RCA: Lester ‘N Mac, On the Southbound and Over the Hill to the Poorhouse. They also worked many Festivals together with Lester’s band backing up Mac. When they sang those great duets as only Lester and Mac could do, it was always a magic moment.
The distinct singing voice of Mac Wiseman proves so easily recognizable that once you hear it, you will never forget. So many have tried to copy the way his “golden tones” wrap themselves around a song, but none can do it like Mac. He also has a wonderful rhythm guitar style, and complements his singing with some exact runs that belong only to Mac Wiseman. Mac also has a very nice speaking voice, smooth and polished, and his friendly smile greeting his friends and fans make him appreciated all the more.
Malcom B “Mac” Wiseman has been a professional musician for more than forty five years. On September 23,1993 Mac Wiseman joined the Bluegrass Hall of Honor at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky. He was honored for his many contributions to Bluegrass Music by his induction into SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall of Greats in 1987, a fitting reward for another Bluegrass pioneer.