Jerry Wicentowski …Thanks, Mac! Songs of Mac Wiseman www.WizGrass.com
If not for Mac Wiseman and a pair of brothers named Osborne, I am not certain we would have living ties to the first generation of bluegrass performers. While Bobby continues to book shows and record, Sonny and Mac have largely eased into retirement to only make rare appearances. More than a year ago, Wiseman was the subject of the incredible collection I Sang the Song: Life of the Voice With a Heart. Next up is Jerry Wicentowski’s well-considered set, …Thanks, Mac! Songs of Mac Wiseman.
I am sure Wicentowski, a long-time member of the Milwaukee bluegrass community, would prefer to hear Mac Wiseman singing his own songs with the strength and clarity evidenced herein, and most certainly so would I. While we have old recordings on various formats to enjoy (until they become further obsolete) Mr. Wiseman’s voice—with all respect—isn’t what it once was, and neither should we expect it to be. To give his many fine songs the ongoing attention they deserve, they must be sung by the generations which follow. And in this regard, and others, …Thanks, Mac! Songs of Mac Wiseman is a complete success.
Wicentowski, while emphasizing the distinctive characteristics of Wiseman’s voice—the rise within a vowel, and the fall at the end of a phrase, along with the immediately familiar phrasing—hasn’t allowed the instrumentation to take a back seat. Supported by bluegrass veterans including Joe Mullins (tenor vocals) and Shad Cobb (fiddle), Wicentowski surrounds himself with names that may not be as familiar: the immensely talented Jeremy Stephens (5-string), the adventurous Paul Kowert (bass), and Jennie Obert (fiddle) augment the collective, as does Marc MacGlashan (mandolin) who appeared on those very fine, Sugar Hill-era Gibson Brother recordings.
Wicentowski can flat sing. Endorsed by Wiseman, Wicentowski’s interpretations of these fifteen timeless songs surprise only in the quality of the interpretation. I haven’t compared Wiseman’s and Wicentowski’s approaches side-by-side (as I write, I am two thousand kilometres from the Bluegrass Bunker and home), but most certainly nothing sounds ‘off.’ Each and every vocal note sounds fitting to the context of songs originating from the 50s, 60s, and earlier. The production presentation is fresh and contemporary; not overly slick, no one is going to mistake these for tracks ripped from 78s long ago.
Wicentowski, no youngster himself, has his own voice, but—whether by nature or design—is near a dead ringer for Wiseman. To his credit, he isn’t attempting to imitate the bluegrass legend (as a jam singer may do) and I am quite comfortable with “Love Letters in the Sand,” “‘Tis Sweet to be Remembered,” and “Travelin’ This Lonesome Road” being presented in this manner, and as they should ever be. These are songs of another time, and while they should appeal to modern listeners, and Wicentowski realizes they do so best within honest and true structures.
I must say, listening to Stephens ripping through these songs is a true treat. Approaching the instrument in a traditionally-rooted manner, in just over a year Stephens has become one of my favourite banjoists. “Are You Coming Back to Me” “We Live In Two Different Worlds,” and “Homestead on the Farm” contain shining examples of his playing. “We Live In Two Different Worlds,” “‘Tis Sweet To Be Remembered,” and “Four Walls Around Me” are fiddle-centric songs, featuring twin fiddles, I believe (and could very well be wrong!)
A balanced, enjoyable bluegrass listen, I can’t imagine many folks finding fault with these fabulous, faithful interpretations of classic songs.