Bluegrass pioneer dies at age 104
(Photo: Julia Mainer (left), Bluegrass Country host Dick Spottswood (center), Wade Mainer (right) in 2010)
By Dick Spottswood
Wade Mainer died in his sleep at home in Flint, Michigan, on September 12, 2011 at 9:45 PM, after a brief illness. Until just a couple of years ago, he could pick the five-string banjo, sing with the best of them, and still perform “Maple on the Hill” as convincingly as when he first recorded it in 1935. Remarkably, he was the oldest surviving world musical figure on Wikipedia’s list of centenarian musicians at the time of his death.
More significantly, Wade was one of the most remarkable musicians of his era. With his fiddling brother J.E. (1898-1971), Wade played music informally with and for fellow cotton mill workers in Concord, North Carolina staring in the 1920s. When they played over WSOC in Gastonia in 1932, the Mainers began a new career that would eventually allow them to become full time musicians, performing at night by gaslight in rural schools and getting up in time for 5 and 6 AM daily radio shows designed for working farmers to enjoy at breakfast before heading out for the fields. They graduated to WBT (Charlotte) in 1934, becoming Mainers’ Mountaineers when they were sponsored by Crazy Water Crystals, a Texas mineral water-derived concoction that hosted live country music from Oklahoma (Bob Wills) to Halifax (Hank Snow). The brothers split up in 1936 when J.E. elected to stay with Crazy Water and Wade chose to move on, calling his new outfit Wade Mainer and Sons of the Mountaineers. In 1937 he wed Julia Mae Brown of Mocksville, who had performed on radio herself as “Hillbilly Lily.”
Before World War II, Wade, along with band members Zeke Morris, Steve Ledford, and Clyde Moody worked at ten more stations from Danville to New Orleans, and recorded more than a hundred titles for RCA Bluebird, including versions of Little Maggie, Little Birdie, 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 last four were selected by John Lomax for the influential 1941 RCA record album Smoky Mountain Ballads that introduced music from Wade Mainer, Uncle Dave Macon, the Monroe Brothers, Dixon Brothers and Carter Family to folk music fanciers up north. Wade’s records also sold well in the south, keeping his songs in repertory well into the bluegrass era, and keeping the unique sound of the fiddle and banjo alive all but single handedly until Bill Monroe hired Stringbean (1942) and Earl Scruggs (1945) to complement fiddlers and Bill’s own mandolin.
John’s son Alan Lomax liked Wade’s records too. He and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish invited the Sons of the Mountaineers for an “Evening of American Folklore,” at the White House on February 17, 1941. Wade liked to tell about being accidentally hit by a swinging door and spilling a dish of ice cream on Eleanor Roosevelt. As he related,” I was standing right there and Mrs. Roosevelt went out for something. And when she came back she pushed the door open and it hit me and it knocked the bowl of ice cream out of my hand and knocked it on her.
“So I run my hand down in my pocket and pulled out a big old red bandana handkerchief, I was going to wipe the ice cream off of her. She said, ‘No, you just forget about that.’ She disappeared for a few minutes and directly she came back, she had on a different dress and everything. The concert went on and it was a very lovely evening we had down there with them at the White House.”
Alan Lomax then went to Asheville, where Wade and the band were broadcasting daily from WWNC. With staff announcer Marty Lyles, they recorded a simulated broadcast that concentrated on traditional material. In the fall, famed Life magazine photographer Eric Schaal went to Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina to document Wade, the Carter Family and Bascom Lamar Lunsford for an article on country music, scheduled for the second week in December 1941. But America entered World War II that week, and the photo essay never appeared.
On November 19, 1941, Wade received a telegram from WSM’s George D. Hay inviting the Sons of the Mountaineers to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. At the time they were the featured band on the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round on WNOX in Knoxville. Producer Lowell Blanchard had the band under contract, and, after initially agreeing to let Wade go, held him to the contract’s terms. Wade never got to play the Opry until 2002, when he was hosted by Bill Anderson and Eddie Stubbs.
Wade wasn’t drafted, but the war years cut into his career. He continued to broadcast and perform when he could, and farmed to help feed a growing family. Alan Lomax remembered him once more in September1944 when he produced a patriotic radio play for the BBC, The Old Chisholm Trail, that featured Wade, J.E., Red Rector, Woody Guthrie, the Coon Creek Girls and Burl Ives. Woody and Wade made some records together that have since been lost, and Woody typed an enthusiastic two-page single-spaced fan letter to Wade a few days later.
By 1953 Wade was ready to trade music for the security of a day job and steady salary. He and Julia revived their faith around the same time that they left North Carolina to settle in Flint, Michigan, where Wade took a full time job at General Motors that he kept until he retired in 1972. When he wasn’t working, their lives revolved around the church, four healthy children who were growing into their teens and their last, Randall, born in 1955. There wasn’t much time for music and, as Wade put it, the banjo gathered dust under the bed.
The children were grown and gone by 1972. Julia was a strong performer in her own right, and the two set out to make music again. Bluegrass impresarios often didn’t know who Wade was, so his invitations were mostly to folk festivals, colleges, and to Europe a couple of times. They played often for friends and neighbors at churches and local events, and were valued friends to Virgil Shouse, Mel Hammons and other musicians who played and recorded with Wade and Julia after the 1970s. In 1987 Wade received the National Heritage Award which by then could justifiably been awarded to them both. When Wade cruised past the century mark in 2007, he decided he’d like to see his life story in print. When he asked me to do it I was most honored, and together we managed to get Banjo On the Mountain (University of Mississippi, 2010) published while he was still around to enjoy it and autograph copies for fans and friends. Critic, historian and musician Stephen Wade added a perceptive essay on multiple facets of the Mainer banjo style.
Wade remembered most aspects of his long life with pleasure, and even sad things with perspective of time. He was a modest man, guided by his deep and abiding Christian faith. His healthy, self-deprecating sense of humor allowed him to understand his role in American music history, though he never sought to magnify his own worth. He didn’t need to–nearly all of his many recordings spanning more than seventy-five years are back in print and speak for themselves. Every picker who knows a little history understands the role Wade Mainer played in preparing the ground for bluegrass, and all who love his music know how well its artistry stands the test of time on its own.
Wade is survived by his wife Julia, daughter Polly, and sons Frank, Kelly and Randall.