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VOL. 39 | NO. 44 | Friday, October 30, 2015

Mac Wiseman: Last of the original CMA board

‘Spectacular’ vision for awards show lives on

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Holding his just-released autobiography, Mac Wiseman, the last living member of the original CMA board, talks about his strategy for selling books and CDs.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“Charley Pride was sitting right there in that same chair as you. We sang ‘Footprints in the Snow,’’’ says Mac Wiseman, the last surviving member of the original CMA board of directors, nodding to where I sit.

That board was formed in 1958, and the rest of the folks who teamed up to boost country music’s international profile have perished. But Mac, the lone survivor, thrives in relative peace in an almost pastoral part of Davidson County.

Mac was one of the folks who helped map out what he calls “the spectacular” Country Music Association Awards shows decades ago at Municipal Auditorium, long before the dancing girls and boys, fireworks, sparkly high fashion and full-grown men singing about drinking beer and back-seat tickling took over.

That early vision he and his original CMA cronies shared for the inaugural awards show in ’67 has morphed into a blockbuster broadcast network spectacle, a Nielsen-friendly evening of what is called “modern country music.”

This year’s version, which will take place at Bridgestone Arena, will air Wednesday night at 7 on ABC.

It’s the longest-running annual music awards show on network television, having been broadcast continuously since 1968.

Fans adore it as they tune in to see just what Carrie’s wearing or if Brad Paisley ever appears without a white cowboy hat. (Brad: Is there hair beneath that thing?) Perhaps the folks are watching to see if Taylor Swift, who has ditched country music for super-pop stardom, might drop in to shake things up, or perhaps “Shake It Off.”

Anyway, it pleases me that I’m using the same padded office chair Mr. Pride used during his recent visit to the comfortable home and garage I refer to as, “Mac Wiseman International Headquarters.”

Course one big difference between Charley’s visit and my own is that I don’t sing. Mac is thriving and enjoying life at age 90, and doesn’t deserve to be subjected to a singing voice that makes Kristofferson sound like Pavarotti. Instead, we chase the slanting sun by talking about old friends, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the CMA Awards, age, change and the weather.

“Yeah, Charley was right there. Came with Mel Tillis, just to visit,” says Mac, whose own induction into the Hall of Fame – a body he helped establish all those years ago – came in 2014, much later than it should have, and after Garth, Vince and other acolytes had made the grade.

“I was very disappointed, to be honest with you, that I wasn’t in the Hall of Fame earlier,” he says, casting off a glowing smile – he always does – while discussing everything and nothing, two friends sharing company in the living room of his L.A. world headquarters.

Well, it’s not the L.A. that fills the silver screens with tales of war, love, suave spies and light sabres, but Lower Antioch.

“Yep, I just call it L.A.,” he says gazing across the living room where memories – like old photos of him with his quail-hunting dog, Spot, and with his quarter-horse, Sugar Bob, share space with posters and photos, most commemorating a life spent as a country music troubadour.

“You can see the lake from here,” he adds. While not exactly on Percy Priest’s shores, this international HQ is damn close, tucked on a cul-de-sac in a comfortable subdivision in an area of Nashville that was pretty rural when he moved out here 15 years ago.

One of the posters he points to has him sharing the bill with Doc, Monroe, Lester and Earl, just about any of the revered pickers who hatched bluegrass music.

“That was the very first bluegrass festival. 1965, at Fincastle, Virginia, out on a horse farm near Roanoke,” says this man who befriended everyone from Tubb to Haggard to a stone-sober Hank Williams.

“Hank was with us on a package show as we traveled from Minneapolis to Dallas. There was booze on that bus, but I never saw him take a drink, even when we were together on the ‘Hayride’ down in Shreveport. I guess, Hank would just go off on a binge.”

Yep, to borrow from Waylon, Mac’s sure Hank done it that way.

He allows his one unspoken rule on package tours was that artists never cover a song recorded by one of the others on the bill. “I forgot and sang ‘Six More Miles,’ which was one of Hank’s songs. When I walked off that stage he said: ‘I’ll never sing that G.D. song again.’ He wasn’t mad. He liked the way I did it.”

Just behind me is a plaque commemorating the Hall of Fame induction of the man regarded as one of the best singers and flattop guitarists in history (just ask Merle and Kris, two of his admirers), or ask Mac to tell you what the late, great guitar man Grady Martin – a Hall inductee this year – told him about his distinctive talent.

“One day I was standing in the parking lot of the Willie Nelson Theater in Branson, and Grady (Martin) said, ‘You know you’re the best flattop picker in the business, don’t you?’”

The mext morning Haggard said the exact same thing to this gentle soul known as The Voice With a Heart.

“After hearing it from those two experts, I was inclined to think maybe I was.”

Finally, the Hall of Fame agreed.

“I can remember Bob Wills accepting his (Hall of Fame honor) in his wheelchair,” says Mac, a gentle soul, who had toured the West Coast with the king of Western Swing and similarly bent guys like E.T. and Lefty.

“I’m glad I got in,” he says, noting that when he went downtown to accept the honor at last autumn’s Medallion Ceremony, he didn’t recognize the city that he and other pioneers helped to create.

If it wasn’t for the arthritis in both shoulders that keeps him from being able to play his beloved guitar – “I can’t form the chords with my left hand,” he says – he’d shrug off further talk of the tardiness of the honor.

What he will talk about is that when he accepted that honor a year ago, it was the first time he’d been downtown in a long time, as the polio suffered as a child in mining country, haunts him as an old man.

“I looked around (downtown) and about sun-burned the roof of my mouth,” he says, of the “It City” where condo and office high-rises sprout like dandelions in a freshly fertilized lawn.

Mac taps his right leg. “Polio in this leg. Then I broke it twice, too,” he says, adding that those falls were in the kitchen of this home, before his “full-time assistant” (a nurse and trusted friend) moved here from Virginia a couple of years ago.

During his career, no one could keep him at home for long. He enjoyed being part of a band on the run, Gibson in hand, overcoming, or at least willing his way through, the effects of that childhood disease.

Now he’s pretty much stuck in his recliner or Hoveround. Rather than complain, he pokes fun at himself and admits he’s just glad he’s still around to make his mark as a singer and as an author. He has penned his just-released autobiography, orders for which he fulfills from his stacks in the garage.

“I’m going to get my assistant to move my Cadillac out of there so I can store more things” like CDs, posters, hats and T-shirts, items he is sure will sell quickly on the Internet.

“I’m hoping for a real rush on the book this Christmas,” he says, hoisting the new paperback version of “All My Memories Fit for Print.”

To fuel that “rush,” his assistant started a Facebook page. And a mac.com (or some such) web page may well be in his future. “I’m looking at it real hard,” he says.

He’s also pondering putting together a photo book chronicling his career as well as recording some songs he is writing with Mt. Juliet nice guy guitarist/producer Thomm Jutz and my old and trusted friend Peter Cooper (a fine journalist who’s now a Hall of Fame bigwig of some sort.)

Perhaps Mac’s relative isolation kept him from being inducted into the Hall sooner. Perhaps it was the forgetfulness and lack of institutional knowledge of the 300-person voting panel populating this modern country music landscape.

“Hell, I’ve been making my living in show business for 72 years. These new ones, well, they’re lucky if their careers last six months after they release their first hit song.”

It’s their last, too, in many cases, says the last man standing from that first CMA board. “I was secretary-treasurer,” he says, noting that early boards included industry leaders like Wesley Rose, Jim Denny and Charlie Lamb (the original ‘Mayor of Music Row’), as well as performers like Bill Anderson, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter and others.

The self-described “youngest of the Founding Fathers” is proud of his role with the CMA, which, he says, was formed to overcome a “stigma” killing country music.

“Along in 1958, the top 40 format came in, and they didn’t know country from pop music. Country was in one helluva slump.

“We did this to make people more aware of country music.

“I remember going to Houston with Tex Ritter,” he says, adding that the performers pretty much barnstormed the major cities in an effort to overpower that stigma.

“We paid our own way,” he says, another difference between today’s expense account cowboys and those from the thrilling days of yesteryear.

“I can remember once, the board went to London. We had our board meeting at the Wembley show (The International Festival of Country Music, which seeded the love of the genre throughout the British Isles.)

When the board meeting was over, the executive types spread across the continent, exploring and vacationing.

It’s always Christmas for Mac Wiseman, 90, who leaves the tree and holiday decorations out year-round

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Not Mac. “I had to book some club gigs so I could pay my expenses,” he says, recalling his urgent string of gigs in London taverns. “Course I didn’t get a lot of money, because I was booking them at the last minute.”

He notes that the Hall of Fame, back when it was on 16th Avenue South (now Music Square East), had a sidewalk of stars.

“I was the first one in there,” Mac says. “They broke up that sidewalk when they moved down to the new building. I don’t know what happened to that and the other stars.”

Someplace, he reckons, his star and others from the heroes of his era are either stashed in a closet or a landfill rather than being displayed at Walk of Fame Park, across Demonbreun from today’s state-of-the-art Hall of Fame and Museum.

Should be noted at this point that not all the visitors to Mac Wiseman International HQ are old-timers like Pride, Tillis and this newspaper refugee. The relative youngsters of the Americana roots music movement blaze a trail out here, just to pick while Mac sings.

Some of them likely learned about Mac from his most-recent work, “Songs From My Mother’s Hand,” a collection of folk songs his mother jotted down while the family listened to the radio in Virginia mining country.

He and his pal Haggard also have just released an album that is being sold at Cracker Barrel stores. The long-time pals figure interest in the CD likely is wider than the folks who regularly enjoy Uncle Herschel’s Favorite plates of eggs, milk-gravy and the works.

“We have the rights to it, and we’re going to release it worldwide on Hag Records,” says Mac, who also in recent years recorded with John Prine.

Yep, the guy with the sardonic grin and worldview recorded with this gentle optimist.

Mac also has recorded a gospel album with reformed longhaired country boy Charlie Daniels and “Six More Miles” with Jett Williams (Hank’s daughter) on her recent CD.

While country music holds its self-congratulatory celebration with banquets leading to Wednesday’s red-carpet filled with cleavage-revealing or cowboy-hat-wearing (or both) celebrants, Mac will be “monitoring it” out in L.A.

He won’t necessarily like what he sees and hears.

“Well, I want to be truthful, but at the same time I don’t want to be malicious,” he says, when asked the biggest difference between the music that first board celebrated and the new stuff.

“But it’s a bastardized deal. People came in here from New York and Chicago and Hollywood to run things, and they don’t have any knowledge of roots music.”

The song-writing assembly line they’ve formed troubles him.

“They have all these writers locked up in rooms, two or three of them, together from 9-3 and have them write songs. Then an artist will record it and get some recognition for one song while the other nine or 10 on the album are pieces of junk.”

Suddenly he laughs.

“You know, I was managed for awhile by Colonel Tom Parker (who guided the early careers of people like Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow and that weird Presley kid from Memphis public housing). Back then Davy Crockett was all the rage because of the Disney TV movies.

“Colonel Tom wanted me to dress like Davy Crockett in a coonskin cap and with leather fringe.”

While Mac went so far as to sing the King of the Wild Frontier’s theme song in performance, he wasn’t about to resort to such gimmickry. His relationship with the colonel was done.

He shakes his head when asked to define the music of his era.

“Real country music is like a slice of life. That’s why it used to be so popular. It was about tragedy. Train wrecks. Love affairs. Drunken drivers.”

Modern country doesn’t follow that tradition.

“It’s so make-believe,” he says, adding that today’s fans love the traditional stuff when it is served up. “People don’t change, we just get a new batch.”

As the long conversation winds down, he says he’s outlived his contemporaries because “I rest well and eat properly …. I’m not in any hurry to go. I don’t dread going. I just want to be ready when the bell rings.”

As for his new books and records, well, “I’ll probably sell better after my farewell party. But we don’t talk about that much.”

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