Born on May 23, 1925 in Crimora, Virginia, Malcolm Bell Wiseman contracted polio at a young age. Since he couldn't work out in the fields like the other children, he stayed inside listening to music. By his teen years, Wiseman saved up enough to order a guitar from the Sears-Roebuck catalog. Eventually, he could play and sing along to songs, using lyrics his mother transcribed from radio broadcasts into composition books. Those handwritten lyrics were revisited for 2014 album Songs From My Mother's Hand.
A Bluegrass Pioneer
Before he became a full-time musician, Wiseman graduated from the Shenandoah Conservatory and worked as a radio DJ for WSVA in Harrisonburg, Va. He landed his first music gig in 1946 with old time country artist Molly O'Day. He spent 1948 with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs' Foggy Mountain Boys and the following year with Monroe. Both groups exposed Wiseman's skill at singing high harmonies to an early bluegrass audience.
A Solo Country Sensation
In the 1950s, Wiseman became a successful solo artist for Dot Records. His seminal recordings from the decade include "Jimmy Brown the Newsboy," "Tis Sweet to Be Remembered" and "Love Letters in the Sand." Those hits and others earned Wiseman a nickname from country disc jockeys, "The Voice With a Heart." By 1957, Wiseman became head of Dot's Country Division.
Another benchmark moment for Wiseman in the late '50s came when he helped found the Nashville-based Country Music Association. The organization formed in 1958 to keep country music relevant in a rock-saturated market. He was the last living member of the original board.
From 1966 to 1970, Wiseman served as director Wheeling, West Virginia's WWVA Jamboree, the second oldest country broadcast in the United States behind the Grand Ole Opry.
An Elder Statesman
Wiseman remained relevant for years to come, participating in the '60s folk revival and becoming a respected veteran in bluegrass festival circles by the '70s. Several releases since the late '70s teamed Wiseman with other bluegrass and country legends. Collaborators included Merle Travis, Del McCoury and Doc Watson.
He continued recording with famous friends into the 21st century, including a 2006 duet album with John Prine titled Standard Songs for Average People and 2017's I Sang the Song, featuring guest appearances by Alison Krauss, Shawn Camp, Thomm Jutz, Peter Cooper, Sierra Hull and others.
This story originally ran on June 14, 2018.