Crimora, Virginia in the 1930s.
Shenandoah Valley. Christmas was a chopped-down little cedar tree, with candleholders affixed and bent to shape the bows of the tree. The Wisemans lit the candles and stood there to be sure the tree didn’t catch on fire. Stockings held a handful of hard candy, maybe an orange or a pair of socks.
There was life to the old home place, though, and it centered around a Victrola radio. Mac’s mother, Ruth, listened intently to that radio, thrilling in far-off sounds that somehow entered that little kitchen.
As she listened, Ruth sat at the family table and wrote the words to the radio songs in composition books. Then she’d clip a number out of the Ramon’s Calendar and paste that number to the book cover. Mac sang these songs with his mother, around a pump organ. He often pored through her books, sang to himself and taught himself guitar chords. He would become one of a handful of musicians who helped create bluegrass music, but this was more than a decade prior to bluegrass’ genesis in 1945.
The notebook songs, written in Ruth’s hand, are folk songs, with roots in the British Isles. They are foundational to what has come to be known as country music, and they imparted in Mac Wiseman a love of song that would spur the longest recording career of any American singing star alive in 2014.
Mac Wiseman has made more than 60 albums filled with folk, country, bluegrass, pop (he recorded Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again,” and Gene Austin’s “My Blue Heaven” with big band legend Woody Herman) and rock ‘n’ roll music. He began recording in 1946, on a Chicago session with Molly O’Day. He was a founding member of Flatt & Scruggs’ band and a lead vocalist for Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. He helped found the Country Music Association. He sang at Carnegie Hall, and made fans of legends Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard. He entered the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and in October 2014, he’ll be formally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Wiseman became known as “the Voice with a Heart,” and that heart for music began beating back in Crimora, as he lifted his mother’s hand-written words in melody.
In June of 2014, Mac gathered friends including Musicians Hall of Famer Jimmy Capps, Grammy-winning bass player Mark Fain, heralded multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses, acclaimed harmonica player Jelly Roll Johnson, dulcimer master Alisa Jones-Wall, guitar great and co-producer Thomm Jutz, Grammy-nominated producer Peter Cooper, and 23-year-old, rising acoustic music star Sierra Hull for what Mac counts among the most special recording sessions of his 68-year career. He brought that 89-year-old voice with a heart, and an old, yellowed composition book.
The words from his mother’s pages, which Mac calls Songs From My Mother’s Hand, are more than cherished postcards from another age. They are vibrant, present (and present-day) musical wonders. They were gifts, from a mother to her son. Now, they belong to all of us.
Praise for the record:
“Songs From My Mother’s Hand is a treasure. Every song appears as a long-lost story that’s waited the better part of a century to be told. The words Mac’s mother wrote down come with a mother’s knowing and a mother’s love. She apparently knew which songs would make one of America’s premier balladeers shine in an even more reverential light.” – Marty Stuart
“For a long time, I’d take a Mac Wiseman song book with me into the studio every time I’d make a record, just in case I ran short of songs. Mac told me years ago about the songbooks that his mother kept, and I’m so glad he’s finally dipped into them for an album—he sure sounds great singing those old songs!” — Del McCoury
“This may be the fall’s most important folk album. Mac Wiseman is sounding spry and more vital than ever in this gorgeous tribute to his Mother and her old book of songs. He reminds us that the most important tunes are the ones we learn when when we are young, and that a musician’s greatest influence is not radio and not records, but kin.” –Ketch Secor, Old Crow Medicine Show