One can debate about how old is “old” or whether it’s appropriate to say somebody is old even if they definitely are. But let’s be clear. Mac Wiseman is old. Eighty nine years old. Older than the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam and even five months older than the Grand Ole Opry, which enthralled and inspired him growing up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia during the Depression.
What I won’t tolerate is the association of “old” with irrelevant or square or disposable, in life or in music. The voice of Mac Wiseman today, which we hear with breathy intimacy and focus on his new album Songs From My Mother’s Hand, is a history lesson, a psalm, a window on ourselves and an ennobling meditation on America. If a novelist named an octogenarian folk troubadour “wise man” in a book we’d snigger at his obtuseness. Yet this Wiseman’s very real name carries very real freight and insight. We need to listen to Mac Wiseman – to tune our compasses. So it with great pleasure and pride that I share with you the prospect of country/bluegrass icon Mac Wiseman on our stage on Sept. 24.
The bill will pair Wiseman (opening the show) with our annual slate of artists from Australia, curated by our friend Dobe Newton of the Bushwackers. These folk, country and roots pop performers have been playing and networking their way through Nashville as part of the Americana music conference. More on them shortly.
Wiseman is in the spotlight just now for two big reasons. First, he has at long last been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His career included singing for several years with the first version of Flatt & Scruggs, decades of popular recordings and live performances and a role in the founding of the Country Music Association. So the honor seems overdue. And second, the new album is a warm, glowing wonder. Friend of the show Peter Cooper produced, pulling in a top-flight acoustic band that could take the pre-bluegrass songs to the right emotional place. And as all great albums should, it tells a story. The literal title of the CD is about a stack of notebooks in which Mac’s mother wrote down lyrics to cherished songs as she heard them on the radio in the 1930s. The books were bequeathed to Mac, and he’s now mined them for songs that call through time, such as the poignant “Little Rosewood Casket,” the zesty “Old Rattler” and the classic gospel number “Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown.”
Peter was celebrating and championing Mac’s music before they became collaborators. In a 2011 profile in The Tennessean he wrote: “Across all styles and genres of music that are sung, Wiseman believes the melody belongs to the voice. A child of the fields, Wiseman’s voice isn’t a field holler. He enunciates. He is mannered and kindly. He does not assert; he conveys. His is, as a radio disc jockey asserted long ago, ‘the voice with a heart.’”
As for the Aussies, you’ll find them fun and surprising. I got to see three out of four of this week’s lineup at the annual Aussie Lunch on Day 2 of American Fest. If The Mae Trio doesn’t charm and delight you, you may have to check your vital signs. Three women wield banjo, ukulele, fiddle, guitar, cello (not all at the same time) all while singing crystalline harmonies. The Melbourne based groups earned the 2013 Folk Alliance Youth Award at that agenda-shaping conference, and that’s just one of many accolades that have chased this engaging band around. Embracing a new folk approach that builds on tradition, they’ve cited Crooked Still and the Wailin’ Jennys as kindred spirits.
Brooke Russell and the Mean Reds love classic country and traditional jazz, and they say to expect “songs about boozy nights, bad decisions, broken hearts and the best intentions.” I very much enjoyed their red-headed lead singer and their single “California,” which had overtones of the sunny side of Gram Parsons and Buffalo Springfield.
Falls is a duo from Sydney featuring Melinda Kirwin and Simon Rudston-Brown that makes stompy uplifting and romantic folk pop. At their lunchtime set, Kirwin proved her down home bona fides when she explained that as a child of the bush (near Darwin) she just couldn’t handle performing in shoes. So she removed her fashionable footwear and took the whole set one nice notch toward the country. The band’s press says they’ve toured with The Lumineers and Delta Rae. Plus they’ve launched an American EP and played South By Southwest. Rounding out the bill will be Kevin Bennett of popular Aussie country rock band The Flood. His own official bio says that he “crawled from the Namoi swampland deep in the Pilliga scrub, just north of nowhere in particular,” so that suggests some interesting lines of questions.
Music City Roots established a great relationship with Australia by staging the show at the Tamworth Country Music Festival in 2013. Our friend Dobe has a history of sending us fascinating, talented, innovative stars and rising stars from the Down Under music scene. That plus the golden throat of Mac Wiseman should make for a delightful season closing show. Then there will be a week off and the show will return Oct. 8.