Back in 1958, when Mac Wiseman was a mere lad in his early 40s, he helped found the Country Music Association.
It was the first trade group created to promote a specific genre of music, and it had what was considered an urgent mission: to keep country music from being subsumed by rock ’n’ roll.
“The CMA was formed,” its website still says, “in response to the burgeoning popularity of Elvis Presley.”
When Mac Wiseman died Sunday at the venerable age of 92, he could rest assured that while the CMA did not neutralize Elvis, its greater mission had been accomplished.
Country music thrives today as a multibillion-dollar industry, thanks in no small measure to artists like Wiseman, whose bluegrass-rooted picking and singing made him a recording and concert favorite for more than six decades.
Bluegrass purists remain partial to his work for Dot Records in the early 1950s, songs like “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” or “Shackles and Chains” that remain beloved examples of stripped-down bluegrass at its most pristine.
In a minor slice of irony, Wiseman himself moved toward more of a pop flavor just a few years later. It wasn’t rock ’n’ roll, but by incorporating additional strings and a fuller sound, his later material reflected one of the ways in which country music survived the rock ’n’ roll revolution — by sliding from the more raw singing and playing of Jimmie Rodgers and even Hank Williams to a smoother sound with a contemporary feel.
It’s been declared more than once that rock ’n’ roll was rhythm and blues with a new name. That’s not untrue. It’s just not the whole truth. Rock ’n’ roll blended R&B, gospel, blues, Latin music and, yup, country.
Lots of country. It wasn’t an anomaly that Chuck Berry’s seminal hit “Maybellene” was lifted from the country tune “Ida Red.” Bill Haley’s Comets were a country band. Ray Charles recorded albums of country music. And so on.
An unintended consequence was that country, maybe more than any other genre except popular standards, suffered a serious identity crisis. Artists with clear country roots and instincts, like Buck Owens, Sonny James, Conway Twitty and Jerry Lee Lewis, were pointed toward the rock ’n’ roll market instead of the Grand Ol’ Opry.
“Rock and crossover country became such a strong thing and I found it was difficult to compete,” Wiseman told Gary Reid for the 1984 reissue album Early Dot Recordings. “The whole ballgame changed. It was scramble time.”
Forming the Country Music Association, whose original board of directors included Wiseman, Ernest Tubb and a fistful of record label executives and promoters, was one countermove.
Others would follow, often targeting radio and the growing popularity of the top-40 format. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, top-40 cherry-picked the most promising material from all other formats — R&B, pop, country — and blended it together.
On the one hand, it was good news for country music that Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” Jim Reeves’s “Four Walls” or Faron Young’s version of Willie Nelson’s “Hello Walls” became top-40 hits. It was less good news that some of those top-40 stations used to play all country.
For Wiseman, radio wasn’t a big issue. He’d never been much of a radio favorite, with “Jimmy Brown” his only top-10 hit. His early 1950s sound, like that of other bluegrass icons like Bill Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs, was largely ignored by country radio in favor of artists like Williams, Tubb, Webb Pierce, Eddy Arnold, Ray Price and the like.
Wiseman made his living on the road, playing up to 300 nights a year. But in 1957 he sent his band home and moved to an office job with Dot, thinking this new music world didn’t have room for his act any more.
Wiseman had grown up in the old school. He played live shows on radio stations all over the South. He backed the pioneering Molly O’Day and played with both Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs’s Foggy Mountain Boys. Rock ’n’ roll, he and others were afraid, was going to make that world extinct.
They were wrong. By the time the Beatles arrived in 1964 and rock ’n’ roll became the industry juggernaut that evolved into the popular music of today, country music had stopped scrambling and was doin’ just fine, thank you for asking.
Conway, Jerry Lee, Sonny and Buck were right near the head of a country radio pack that included the likes of Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn and George Jones. A few years later, sparked by rockers like the Byrds and Bob Dylan, country and rock ’n’ roll were forming a partnership that helped propel artists like the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt.
By the 1990s, singers like Haggard, Jones and Lynn couldn’t even get played on country radio any more because the new country sound had assimilated so much of the pop-rock style and attitude.
Here again, that didn’t really affect a Mac Wiseman, who kept performing well into his 80s. Since he’d never depended on radio play, he wasn’t harmed by its absence.
Besides, he’d always had a little secret. While the core of his show was traditional country and bluegrass songs, even back in the early 1950s at Dot he wasn’t just singing back-porch favorites.
He felt the way to keep bluegrass fresh, and to keep country fresh as well, was to bring in new material. So he recorded “I Hear You Knocking,” a song that Fats Domino’s partner Dave Bartholomew wrote for R&B pianist Smiley Lewis. He recorded “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover.”
If saving country music from Elvis Presley meant recording “One Mint Julep” with a bluegrass twang, Mac Wiseman was ready to answer the call, and he made it sound like it belonged right next to the weepy classic “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight.”
He was one of the soldiers who helped win the war, which was a particularly good war because in the end, every side won.