Good Country People 

Legends Mac Wiseman and John Prine join forces for a duet album

As male singers go, John Prine and Mac Wiseman are as different as charcoal and crystal.

by Michael McCall

As male singers go, John Prine and Mac Wiseman are as different as charcoal and crystal. Prine’s jagged voice evokes the acoustic storytellers of his generation who used personality and phrasing to give their tales color. Wiseman, a bluegrass pioneer, is the Frank Sinatra of mountain music, a smooth and adventurous crooner whose mellifluous tone rides atop mandolins and fiddles like cirrus clouds skimming tall pines and deep hollows.

On their new album of duets, Standard Songs for Average People, these two veterans don’t harmonize as much as bring out the other’s distinctive vocal strengths. They’re more apt to trade lines than join together, but they sound delighted either way. This isn’t a duo set up as a star-power venture, nor is it meant as an artistic exercise to stretch their talents. It simply sounds like two well-traveled guys—Prine is 60, Wiseman, 81—sharing a love of old songs and feeling inspired by each other’s company.

The 14-song collection is co-produced by John Prine and David Ferguson (a longtime co-hort of Jack Clement, who suggested the two singers unite), and the arrangements wrap these divergent voices in artful parlor music. Drummer Kenny Malone and Bassist Dave Jacques provide a lovingly subtle pulse, and the producers weave in guest players around a core band of Charles Cochran on piano, Lloyd Green on steel and Pat McLaughlin on mandolin and acoustic guitar. Frequent guests include Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Jamie Hartford on electric guitar, The Carol Lee Singers on harmony, Ronnie McCoury on acoustic guitar and mandolin, Joey Miskulin on accordion and Tim O’Brien on acoustic guitar.

All 14 songs are covers, the most recent of which dates back a quarter of a century, with Tom T. Hall’s “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine,” first released on album in 1972, being two years younger than Kris Kristofferson’s freedom-is-just-another-word tale of a ragged rambler, “Just the Other Side of Nowhere.”

But those are the only songs from the era when Prine was starting out—and the only ones reminiscent of the kind of songs he writes. Most of the selections reach much further back, from a jaunty rendition of Ernest Tubb’s ode to marital bliss, “Blue Eyed Elaine,” or a sweet-and-mellow take on Bing Crosby’s “Where the Blue of the Night.”

In that sense, the album shares a lighthearted outlook with the recent album by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Ray Price, Last of the Breed, or, for that matter, Jerry Lee Lewis’ duets album with various veterans, Last Man Standing. Maybe it’s a reaction to our turbulent times that these masters want to trade lines on buoyant songs that celebrate endearing aspects of love and life. Or maybe, when old guys sing together, it’s just more natural to put across a sunny lyric—pain, disappointment and disdain are better saved for the intimacy of a solo performance.

Interestingly enough, the serious moments occur when Prine and Wiseman bow their heads on two contemplative hymns, “In the Garden” and “Old Rugged Cross.” Otherwise, the two gents sound like they’re smiling throughout. They even give a ribald, jug-band treatment to “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” about a woman looking to gun down her good-timing man—and it’s the album’s standout track. In it, Wiseman gives a doctorate lesson in how to vary phrasing in each stanza to give a song more flavor, while Prine sings his lines as if having the time of his life. Meanwhile, McCoury and O‘Brien show just how virtuosic string players can get on a playfully rocking tune.

At this point, Prine and Wiseman have earned a right to lighten up and have a little fun. Give into the album’s charms, and it’ll have the same effect on you. 

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