This is the first thing that anyone will know about this album, and certainly something that will be mentioned pretty much whenever it is discussed, so I’ll get it out of the way: Mac Wiseman is 89 years old. He’s old, even for bluegrass. In pop music, he’s ancient. There aren’t any pop musicians that we’ll be listening to when they are 89.
Age can be a weakening, of course, or at least a gauge of what a performer has lost through the years. So many performers have pushed the envelope too far, such as B.B. King or Doc Watson, both of whom were placed on stage after the point they should have taken a pass and left us with the memory that both, sadly, didn’t have.
But, age is a two-edged sword. It can take some things away, though it can add something, too. Like wisdom, or perspective. Joni Mitchell’s 2000 recording of “Both Sides Now” couldn’t be more different than the one she made in 1969: her voice is diminished by decades of smoking, the pace is slower, the accompaniment is strings rather than guitar. And it’s gut-wrenching in its beauty. Age, partly because we’re aware that this is a song she wrote when young and is now singing as a senior, adds a poignancy that is, in a word, remarkable. At an age when most pop stars have retired, she delivered a performance that we’d simply be poorer without.
“Little Rosewood Casket”
Wiseman, with this recording, Songs from my Mother’s Hand, has shown himself to be in that same category. His instrument isn’t what it was in the 50s and 60s, but it’s not a question of quality, it’s just a different instrument. His voice at 89 is an important one, and he is using it to tell some stories that he likely couldn’t have told before, or at least not told as well.
The songs he presents here foreshadow that: they are all songs that his mother copied down in a series of notebooks from listening to them on the radio. She collected the songs in order to play them, and Wiseman, understandably, treasures those notebooks today. They are songs about life and death, poverty and uncertainty, faith and doubt.
Some of these are songs that he’s recorded before, and comparing this recording to the earlier one is telling. His earlier recording of “Little Rosewood Casket” is more confident, cleaner, perhaps slicker. The one on this album is better, more honest. It’s rougher, but age makes it a clearer reflection of what the song is about: reflecting, and comforting those who will be left behind.
It’s not all sad, and he takes a lovely romp through “Old Rattler” and “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues.” But it’s the ballads—and this album is rightly and understandably weighted toward the ballad end of the spectrum—that really grab our attention through their poignancy. The tear-jerker “Put my Little Shoes Away” could easily become morose, but Wiseman of course knows what he’s doing, and navigates the song expertly, steering it toward meaning and thoughtfulness rather than, well, not.
The musicianship here is gorgeous, though a standout is perhaps his duet with Sierra Hull, “You’re a Flower that is Blooming in the Wildwood.” Hull’s mandolin is so tasteful, so supportive, that you simply get lost within it. No hot licks, just a wonderful support to a wonderful song. Her harmony vocals are cut from the same cloth.
Songs From My Mother’s Hand will prove to be an important one in the scope of Wiseman’s work, though we needn’t think of it that way. It’s just a beautiful album that tells some stories, expresses some ideas, and we’d be poorer without it.