july 2009

Mac Wiseman
Rebel Records

Originally recorded for and released on Cincinnati's Vetco label in the mid-'70s, this compelling 14-song collection finds the great Mac Wiseman revisiting a body of work dating from early 1952 to late 1954, peak years for Wiseman when he was recording for the Dot label. The original Dot recordings are available in their entirety only in pricey, import boxed sets, but Rebel (which shows Wiseman's Early Dot Recordings, Vol. 2 in its current catalog) has done a great service in reissuing those Vetco sessions in one volume, as the performances rank with Wiseman's finest on record, on many songs that secured him legendary status. He's backed here by an augmented version of his original band, the Shenandoah Cut-Ups, with an impressive young mandolin player, Jeff Terflinger, and stalwart fiddler Buddy Griffin joining the trio of Billy Edwards on banjo, John Palmer on bass and Tater Tate on fiddle (providing Wiseman with the twin fiddle sound he favored on his '50s recordings). As Jon Weisberger notes in his typically astute liner notes, this band virtually eliminates the thin boundary between country and bluegrass, its more prominent banjo adding the insistent drive of the latter, but the twin fiddles, Wiseman's plaintive, emotional tenor and the arrangements themselves planted squarely in country stylings.

What Wiseman does with some of these tunes is pretty amazing—performances so rich in feeling but so subtly verbalized, his voice rising at key emotional moments then returning to a steady, reportorial mode that sets up the listener for the next, unexpected volley of exultant or melancholic musing. You don't have to listen closely to the rising and falling tones he affects in "Fire In My Heart" to hear a lot of what Del McCoury took from Wiseman's textured approach to a lyric reading, whereas his stately rendering of "Knoxville Girl" sounds like a verbal homage to Jimmie Rodgers. The tender, plaintive take on the waltz "Mary of The Wild Moor," with its keening twin fiddle breaks and Wiseman's gently arcing upper register flights, is about as perfect a folk song as you'll ever encounter. In classics such as the sturdy "You Can't Judge a Book By Its Cover," the anguished father's plea that is "The Letter Edged In Black," and the jubilant gospel number, "Reveille Time in Heaven," Wiseman and the Cut-Ups work something close to magic in the elegance and restraint of their vocal and instrumental conversations, summoning the deep feeling inherent in the narratives but resisting sentimentality or needless embroidery in the arrangements. Mark this one as essential. —David McGee 

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024