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Mac Wiseman

I Sang the Song – 2017 (Mountain Fever)

Reviewed by Greg Yost

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CDs by Mac Wiseman

Mac Wiseman's album is one of the most unique collaborative efforts in recent memory. While many music figures have released late-career albums made in partnership with producers and musicians best-known for their work in other genres in an effort to either reinvent themselves or to bring their music to a new audience, bluegrass great Wiseman opted to partner with songwriters in order to turn stories from his life into new songs.

"I Sang The Song (Life Of The Voice With A Heart)" grew out of a series of weekly chats with noted songwriters Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz during which Wiseman shared stories from his long and eventful life - a stretch of 91 years that so far has taken him from a young boy in rural Crimora, Va. to both the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The visits weren't necessarily meant to result in a new album, but Wiseman's stories were so impactful that songs started to just naturally materialize for Cooper and Jutz - including all but 1 of the album's 11 tracks.

The beauty is their simple narrative structure. On the opener, "The Guitar," the trio recalls the life-changing moment when Wiseman received his first guitar - one ordered through Sears, Roebuck & Co. for a mere $3.95. Through a few simple verses, we learn that a preacher who knew how to tune a guitar, combined with bed-ridden days due to illness allowed Wiseman to focus on picking instead of his usual work on the farm, helped him find his voice and eventually his life's work.

Similarly, "Somewhere Bound" finds Wiseman reflecting on how the railroad tracks near his childhood farm made him yearn for a time when he would get to be on those tracks heading out to explore the world.

This stuff isn't overly complicated - just straightforward songs about real life moments. For instance, on "Simple Math," Wiseman cleverly uses everyday economic measurements to convey the struggle that was life on a family farm - emphasizing through the chorus that you, "Can't spend the money you don't have/That's how it works, it's simple math."

"Manganese Mine" is another narrative standout. This tune conveys the story of Doss Hanger, a man from the Crimora region who discovered manganese ore on his property and who subsequently sold the mineral rights for a paltry sum. This opened the door for a company to come in and form the mine where Wiseman's grandfather and father once worked. The realization of what he essentially gave away drove Hanger to commit suicide - a sad situation, which clearly made a lasting impression on Wiseman.

The collaborative spirit of isn't limited to the songwriting. Wiseman's voice isn't as strong as it once was. So, he called in some super talented colleagues and fans to give voice to these new songs. On "The Wheat Crop," a meditation on the precarious nature of successful grain farming, Wiseman is joined by the formidable trio of Junior Sisk, Sonya Isaacs Yeary and Becky Isaacs Brown, who provide tremendous vocals. Other notable vocal contributions come from Jim Lauderdale, Shawn Camp and John Prine, who manages to both summarize Wiseman's life and pay homage to his career through his evocative lead vocals on the stunning title track that are at once both rough-hewn and tender.

Speaking of stunning, Alison Krauss joins Wiseman for a magnificent duet rendition of "'Tis Sweet To Be Remembered," a song written by Wiseman in the '50s and performed by countless artists over the years. On an album full of new songs reflecting upon his life, this classic about remembrance is the perfect closing statement.