Wade Mainer – An Appreciation

As reported earlier, Wade Mainer, one of traditional music’s most durable practitioners, passed away on September 12 after a short illness.

Born on April 21, 1907 in Weaverville, North Carolina, he was one half of the famous Mainer Brothers, with the older J E Mainer (1898 – 1971), who played on radio stations in and around Charlotte, North Carolina between 1933 and 1936.

Mainer was a show-stopping banjo player who employed a distinctive two-finger style of playing that was a precursor to bluegrass music, bringing the instrument to the forefront as a lead instrument by using finger picks for a more pronounced sound.

Prior to working with his brother on a full-time basis, he played with and for fellow cotton-mill workers in Concord, North Carolina.

In 1937 Mainer formed his own band, the Sons of the Mountaineers – himself, Zeke Morris, Steve Ledford and Clyde Moody – worked the territory from stations in Danville to as far west as New Orleans, and recorded well over a hundred songs for RCA’s Bluebird label, including versions of Little Maggie, Little Birdie, the classic Maple on the Hill, Old Reuben, Wild Bill Jones, John Henry, Down in the Willow Garden, On a Cold Winter’s Night (The Wreck of Number Nine) and Riding On That Train 45. The recording of Sparkling Blue Eyes, recorded in 1939, proved to be exceptionally popular.

Other musicians that Mainer hired during the period included Jack and Curly Shelton, Tiny Dodson, Red Rector and Fred Smith.

In February 1941 Mainer and his band played during an “Evening of American Folklore” at the White House at the behest of Alan Lomax and the Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish. It was a memorable occasion for Mainer; as he accidentally tipped ice cream down Eleanor Roosevelt’s dress!

Although he wasn’t drafted, World War II led to some disruption to his music career. However, he continued to broadcast and perform when he could, and farmed to help feed a growing family.

In September 1944 Alan Lomax produced a patriotic radio play for the BBC, The Old Chisholm Trail, which featured Wade, J.E., Red Rector, Woody Guthrie, the Coon Creek Girls and Burl Ives.

At the end of the war, the Sons of the Mountaineers were reorganized and once again they began to play at radio stations throughout North Carolina. Recordings at this time were sporadic, due to the declining popularity of the genre.

In 1953, Mainer and his wife since 1936, Julia, herself a talented traditional singer and guitarist who performed on radio stations as Hillbilly Lily, renewed their commitment to Christ and moved their family to Flint, Michigan. Mainer took a job at General Motors from where he retired in 1973. In the meantime his banjo gathered dust under the bed.

Wade and Julia Mainer played and sang together at many church functions and from 1972 got together to play and sing further afield, mostly at folk festivals and colleges. They were invited to Europe a couple of times also.

Although Wade Mainer and the Sons of the Mountaineers were invited to appear on the Grand Ole Opry in 1941 they were restricted from doing so because of his contract with Radio WNOX in Knoxville, where they were the featured band on the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round. Mainer never got to play on the Grand Ole Opry until July 2002.

His performance of Maple On The Hill and of another of his classics, Take Me In The Lifeboat, earned standing ovations. Belated, but it was well-deserved acknowledgement from a wider audience for the Grandfather of Bluegrass Music.

Among the many awards that have been bestowed on him is the National Heritage Fellowship, which he received in 1987 for his contributions to American music.

Wade Mainer created a distinct sound that bridged the gap between old-time mountain music and bluegrass music. Among the great musicians that he influenced were Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson.

Dick Spottswood’s book Banjo On the Mountain (University of Mississippi, 2010) provides a good in-depth review of Mainer’s life and achievements.

There is a brief, but more-detailed biography here, written on the occasion of Mainer’s 100th birthday.

In 1995 David Holt, a prodigy and friend of Mainer’s, interviewed Wade for UNC-TV’s Folkways show. The video can be viewed online.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.