Mac Wiseman: Songs From My Mother’s Hand

Direct, beguiling and brilliant, songs from Wiseman's family history realised in accessible, caring ways which reflect and bring forward mountain traditions.
Mac Wiseman
Songs From My Mother's Hand

The legend of Mac Wiseman, as a singer, performer and song-crafter, runs deep. Intimately involved in the foundation of bluegrass, his place in the pantheon of American roots music owes as much to his strengths in singing and playing as it does to the length of his career. His 68 years in music has seen him be both a founder member of Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys and a lead singer in Bill Monroe’s own Blue Grass Boys.

The title of his newest work, produced by Thomm Jutz and Peter Cooper, who also contribute to the album, suggests history, tradition, and the passing on of songs which have a personal meaning to the artist. And that’s just what it entails. The fascinating liner notes tell of the old home place, and the centrality of music in the house where Mac grew up through the medium of the radio. From this, Mac came to, learnt and loved music. But the connection was even more personal, even more special than that. His mother, Myra Ruth Wiseman, noted down lyrics to some of her favourite songs by hand – into her own personal ‘song’ books, which were then passed from mother to son – making the album’s title poignantly literal. The traditional nature of the songs belies the vibrant place that they maintain in present day music, a fact reinforced by the contributions of Sierra Hull, a firebrand performer of modern roots music. The accompanying band includes Jutz on guitars, Cooper’s backing vocals, award-winner Mark Fain on bass and Jelly Roll Johnson’s interesting bluesharp additions.

The immediately obvious features of Songs From My Mother’s Hand are the warmth of the compositions, the playing and the voice. Mac has always had a mountain goodness to his delivery, but his new set adds a lived-in experience to his range. On the whole, the songs are given a light touch to fit their arrangements, with one feature being the inclusion of Alisa Jones Wall’s hammered dulcimer -– a fitting selection of a traditional mountain instrument for traditional mountain songs.

Mac is understanding as well as majestic on the tragic train song “The Wreck of the Number Nine”, and Hull’s subtle mandolin and vocals on “You’re a Flower Blooming in the Wildwood” points to the continuance of the music and the songs for a new generation.

The concept, production and delivery of the work is straightforward and sympathetic. Cooper and Jutz have gone to great lengths of bring out and promote the strength and the vision of Wiseman’s music, presenting it as a gift from the mountains and from his family to the world. Old shouter “Old Rattler” is given a quieter, more restrained take with a little more swing than the original. The approach, imbued with bluesharp, works perfectly -– the tale of farm life and adventures is tempered with age and experience.

The album twice visits the tune of the Great Speckled Bird / I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes. And on both occasions, it takes in the idea of the ‘answer’ song. “Answer to Weeping Willow” was AP Carter’s (or AP’s informant’s) take on it, and this version treats it wonderfully – with mandolin, fiddle and bass. “Answer to Great Speckled Bird” revisits and extends the religious allegory of the original, of course with the same tune.

Songs of home, love and life are treated tenderly, and standards like “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer” and “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown” are given simple, fitting settings, allowing the power of the songs and the messages that Mac delivers to shine through. The spoken explanation at the beginning of the latter places the song, and the entire album, firmly into the family setting, yet the work is a delight for all listeners, near and far.

RATING 8 / 10