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I Got To Pick With Mac Wiseman! By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Tuesday, May 3, 2016

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A few weeks ago when I was in Nashville I had the head-over-heels pleasure of picking with bluegrass pioneer, Mac Wiseman. It was one of those magical afternoons where time stands still and everything goes perfectly. Son Chris was there on guitar, Mike Bub was on bass, John Mailander was on fiddle, Mac’s singing was strong, and I was having a good banjo-picking day. (Mac said, “She don’t let up!”) My mantra about playing remains the same: keep it simple, play the melody, keep your tone fat and your timing crisp, and make every note count. And only occasionally show off!

My showing off got me in trouble when we were doing There’s A Bluebird Singing In the Blue Ridge Mountains. I asked Mac if he minded me singing one of his standards, and he graciously said it would be fine. Then, in trying to replicate the call-and-response break that Haskell McCormick and Paul Warren did when Lester Flatt sang the song, I got lost up the neck and ended up singing the banjo part with “dah-duh-dahs.” I looked right at Mac while I was doing it and he thought it was funny as hell. It was like, “I see what you’re doing and the performer in me salutes the performer in you!” He and I both knew that I was just “making show” and keeping the ball in the air. It was a magic moment.

The first time I performed on stage with Mac I was attending the University of Georgia and playing bass with Betty Fisher’s band. We were sharing a show with Mac at the Last Resort in Athens, and Mac needed a backup band. We were it, sans Betty, of course. What a thrill it was to play with one of the legends of bluegrass! As I told Mac, I still remember one of the songs he sang: Take A Drink On Me. Betty’s band had worked a lot of festivals with Mac and I had never heard him do this song for the festival crowds. I thought it was brilliant for him to sing this for the college crowd. They loved it. Being new to bluegrass I was familiar only with the Byrds’ version, Take A Whiff On Me, which was about cocaine! In my youthful ignorance and arrogance I wondered if Mac had ever heard that one. I’m sure now that he probably knew the song well, he just had the good sense not to sing it in public!

I would perform on stage with Mac a number of other times down through the years, playing bass and then banjo, and that’s how I became familiar with the “Mac Wiseman Kickoff.” Since Mac often played as a solo act, he didn’t carry a full band with him. So when he needed a group at a bluegrass festival, his contract called for the promoter to furnish him with a backup band. If the band knew his material, so much the better! But even so, they wouldn’t have known what key and what tempo. So Mac usually just said, “Get in A, boys” (we were all boys back then!) and he’d start strumming his guitar to set the time and then we’d all come in. So, in my student Tip Jar Jam, when no one knows a kickoff, I say, “Let’s use the Mac Wiseman Kickoff” and I start strumming my guitar. Or if someone else has the guitar, like Kasey or Kathy or Chuck, I’ll say, “Kick it off, Mac!”

Tidbit: Mac also filled us in on a little-known detail of his festival contracts. They spelled out that the promoter was to pay his backup band. You can imagine how often that happened! And though we still joke about not getting paid, we didn’t really mind. After all, we were picking with Mac!

Mac was always a great storyteller, both on stage and off. I reminded him of a story he told on Red and me when we were backing him up at the Winchester, Va., Apple Blossom Festival years ago. Unbeknownst to Mac, our marvelous bass player, Karen Spence, was not happy in the band. It was nothing drastic, just the normal wear and tear of a long-term, low-paying job. Mac knew nothing of this. So while we all are on stage, Mac tells the audience he was talking to Karen before the show and she told him she’d rather play for the Pope than play for Red and Murphy. (Shocked looks from the band and the audience.) Mac asked her why and she said, “If I was playing for the Pope, I’d only have to kiss his ring!” Badda bing! I knew that Mac was just adding humor to the show, but it was uncanny how he’d managed to pull this particular joke out of his hat!

Mac was in excellent voice and sang a good many songs including Put My Little Shoes Away, By The Side Of The Road, Little Joe, Traveling Down This Lonesome Road, and Sing Me Back Home, which he was practicing for an upcoming tribute to Merle Haggard. He was also an appreciate and attentive listener. When I finished Old Country Church, he said, with a twinkle in his eye, “I believe you missed a word in that first verse.” Well, dang! He’d heard me change the gender from “small country boy” to “small country girl.” He said, “It didn’t rhyme.” I responded, “Maybe I should have said, ‘As a small country girl, how my heart gave a whirl…’” He grinned and said, “That would work!”

As the three-hour session was winding down, Mac told a story about working for Molly O’Day and how he had become the bass player. I knew he loved Molly’s songs, so I suggested we end with Traveling The Highway Home. It was appropriate as I had miles to go before I could sleep. We then did hugs and photos and good byes. I gave Mac one of my books, Pretty Good for a Girl: Women In Bluegrass, and he asked me to sign it! I’d already purchased one of his books, All My Memories Fit for Print, which I’d asked him to autograph for me. (Both books are available from Amazon.)

When I hit the road for Virginia, the euphoria carried me all the way to Knoxville, where the magic wore off and the coach turned back into a pumpkin and I found myself wandering in the darkness (heavy-hearted and alone), looking for the motel Siri had recommended in downtown Knoxville, with my gas gauge on empty and my bladder on full. Ah, well. The young woman at the desk patiently gave me directions (I called her, like, five times) and a little Jack Daniels worked wonders when I finally got into my room. As I kicked back and started sipping, I knew that life was just re-balancing itself and that it was well with my soul.

3 comments on “I Got To Pick With Mac Wiseman! By Murphy Henry”

macwain Says:
Tuesday, May 10, 2016 @3:48:29 PM

I am very jealous Murphy but happy for you that you got to pick with Mac. He is one of my all time favourites and met him once in the early 60s at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto where he showed me the little tag he added to Jimmy Brown the newsboy. I am just a rank amateur picker,1975 Stelling Staghorn and 1970 D28 and have several of your instructional vedeo's that I find very helpful. Paul McILwain, Manitoba Canada

Roger Frost Says:
Tuesday, May 10, 2016 @9:58:00 PM

Wonderful account Murphy, just great, and obviously a supreme event! I think I only got to see Mac perform once at the first Ontario Bluegrass Festival somewhere west of Toronto in 1974 at age 29, the year we left Canada for New Zealand. But his voice is so distinctive on so many recordings that I can here him singing now. Roger Frost, Murchison, NZ.

gottasmilealot Says:
Sunday, May 22, 2016 @4:18:10 PM

Good times!

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