Wade Mainer celebrates his 100th birthday

Here’s another post from our all-the-more regular correspondent, Richard Thompson. He writes from England, where he is also a longstanding contributor to British Bluegrass News, a quarterly print publication where he also briefly served as editor.

Wade MainerOld time music pioneer Wade Mainer celebrates his 100th birthday today, Saturday, April 21, 2007. The celebration will take place at 4pm at the Fenton Community Center, Fenton, MI. Several guests, including Wade’s wife Julia, David Holt and Dick Spottswood among others, will attend.

Born April 21, 1907 in Buncombe County, North Carolina, on a farm a few miles from Ashville, Wade Mainer has been an influential figure for well over six decades, helping considerably in the development of modern bluegrass music. Among his innovations was a distinctive two-finger banjo picking style, emulated by young musicians like Ralph Stanley, Wiley Birchfield, Hoke Jenkins and Shannon Grayson, and crossing the traditional clawhammer with the modern three-finger picking style used by performers such as Earl Scruggs. Their respective versions of “Old Reuben” stand testimony to the similarity in styles.

As he grew up on a tiny mountain farm near Weaverville, North Carolina, Mainer listened to old mountain songs and was greatly influenced by the fiddling of Roscoe Banks, his brother-in-law. As a young man, he moved to Concord to work in a cotton mill. Later he and his brother J.E. [Joseph Emmett] formed Mainer Mountaineers with the Lay brothers Howard and Lester and began performing on radio. In 1935 the band comprised the two Mainer brothers and guitarists Zeke Morris and Daddy John Love. By this time Wade had become a smooth radio-friendly singer, with a distinct banjo sound that was identifiably his own.

That same year the Mainers were offered a chance to make records for the Bluebird label, their first session taking place in Atlanta on August 6, 1935, where they recorded several best-sellers, “This World Is Not My Home”, “New Curly Headed Baby”, “Lights in the Valley” and Wade’s memorable new arrangement of a nineteenth century tragic ballad, “Maple On the Hill”.

Wade remained with the band until 1937 when he and fellow band-mate Zeke Morris left to work as a duet, before expanding into a five-piece band with fiddler Steve Ledford and nephews Robert and Maurice Banks. The quintet did a further recording session for RCA.

In 1937, Mainer married singer Julia Brown, who performed under the name Hillbilly Lilly. Later they had five children.

Subsequently Mainer established a new band, the Sons of the Mountaineers. Members of the group included guitarists Jay Hugh Hall and Clyde Moody as well as the aforementioned Steve Ledford. Other members over the years included Jack and Curly Shelton and Tiny Dodson, among others. They performed on various radio stations, including WIS in Columbia, South Carolina, and WPTF Raleigh. They also recorded many songs for Bluebird, among them was “Sparkling Blue Eyes”, which was a good-sized hit in 1939.

After folklorist John Lomax reissued a few Mainer tracks from 1936 and 1937 in an album of “folk songs” aimed at a national audience, a prestigious invitation came from Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, requesting that the Mountaineers perform for the Roosevelts at the White House, which they did on the evening of February 17, 1942. The band included guitarists Curley and Jack Shelton, steel guitarist Howard Dixon and fiddler Tiny Dodson.

In September 1942, the Sons of the Mountaineers did a final session for RCA after a two-year absence from the recording studio. This was the date that produced “Old Reuben,” Wade’s ground-breaking version of a traditional song and banjo tune learned from his cousin Roscoe Banks. Its release made the record available to a young Earl Scruggs, whose version bears a noticeable resemblance to Wade’s.

In 1943 Wade was invited to New York to perform in a morale-boosting wartime broadcast destined for the BBC network in England. Titled ‘The Old Chisholm Trail’, the cast included Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry and Lily May Ledford. Wade’s group included two young teenaged cousins, Red Rector and Fred Smith – for their first professional music job – and even J. E. Mainer himself.

The following year Wade briefly formed a band with two more promising teenagers, Jim and Jesse McReynolds and worked on WBBO in Forest City, North Carolina.

Mainer joined King Records early in 1947, nearly six years after his last Bluebird session. He remained with King until 1951, recording his last session in November of that year. A two-CD set, ‘Wade Mainer'[KG-0957] features 37 recordings from this phase of Mainer’s illustrious career, along with a couple of Blue Ridge recordings and a later session for King (mentioned below).

In 1953, Mainer found God and retired from the entertainment industry; he did spend some time singing at gospel revivals in Flint, Michigan, where he eventually settled to work at a General Motors automobile plant. He spent a few years singing at religious functions, but renounced his banjo playing for a long time until Molly O’Day convinced him that the instrument could be used in gospel music. He recorded again in 1961 with his wife Julia, and continued recording mountain gospel music infrequently through the 1960s. He retired from General Motors in 1973 and thereafter he resumed his recording career. He issued a series of albums on the Old Homestead label spanning from 1976 to 1993 and a CD for June Appal. Wade and Julia Mainer also played at local churches and at several bluegrass and folk festivals, mostly around Michigan, performing invigorating versions of mountain sacred – and sometimes secular – songs.

More recently, the husband and wife team has remained semi-active and Wade has been fit enough to entertain well-wishers at birthday parties.

In 1987, Wade Mainers’ contribution to American music was recognized when he received the National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, presented by President Ronald Reagan

Earlier this week country music historian Dr. Ivan M. Tribe sent me these observations regarding Wade Mainer’s life and music ‚Ķ‚Ķ..

I first became acquainted with Wade and J. E. Mainer’s music in the mid-sixties when I began to some understanding of what old-time music was all about. I heard J. E. on a rare appearance he made on the WWVA Jamboree in 1965, just prior to his first album on Rural Rhythm. In the Spring of 1970, I visited him at his home in Concord, North Carolina. That fall I relocated to Toledo and soon became friends with John Morris. I met Wade through John in 1971 or 1972, when he sang a few gospel songs on the Sunday morning hymn sing. After that I got to see and hear him several times in Michigan, Berea, Kentucky., and Chapel Hill North Carolina; and in November 1975 did the cover story in Bluegrass Unlimited on both Mainers in a single article. Since then I have done some encyclopedia entries and album liner notes for both reissue and new Mainer recordings. I have respect for the man and his music both as a preserver of old-time music and as an influence on bluegrass. To date John has begun to reissue all of the old Mainer recordings, two volumes of which are now released. I hope the series continues and that I can do liner notes on all. Yesterday, my wife and I did a Wade Mainer tribute on our radio program through Ohio University.

My biggest regret is that in 2000 or 2001 Wade asked me to help him with an autobiography. At the time, I was deeply involved in co-authoring what later came out in 2002 as ‘Rio Grande: From Baptists and Bevo to the Bell Tower’ and could not participate. I guess the project never went anywhere, but it would have been a good one.

It is hard to identify any one song of his that strikes my as most significant. Each is a classic in it own way. One thing in particular that always amazed me is his ability to make lyrics fit meter, even when you would think it can’t be done. His King recording of “I’d Rather Be on the Inside Looking Out” is a good example of this skill.

Only Jimmie Davis among major figures in country music has ever lived so long. My congratulations to the man.


I must express my very grateful thanks to Gary B. Reid for his assistance in compiling this brief career overview.