Country Music Pioneer Wade Mainer Dies At 104

Sep 14, 2011

There might be no bluegrass music as we know it without Wade Mainer, who died Monday at his home in Flint, Mich., Sept. 12 at age 104.

Here's what this amiable North Carolina native did in the 1930s that set the stage for Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and their hot new brand of mountain music:

  • He brought the banjo to the front of the band as a lead instrument instead of using it only as a backup rhythm instrument.
  • He played his banjo with finger picks, for a sharp, tough sound that Scruggs developed further and popularized after WWII.
  • He sang with his bandmates in tight, beautifully arranged harmonies similar to what bluegrass bands would use in the 1940s and 1950s.
  • He included lots of gospel music in his performances.

Music scholar and collector Dick Spottswood says, without these innovations, he thinks Bill Monroe wouldn't have had much to build on to create bluegrass. Musician David Holt tells me Mainer also influenced a later generation of professionals — including Holt himself — who started performing in the '60s and '70s. Holt knew Mainer well. He says Mainer was a positive, generous person who also demonstrated how to be a super entertainer, flipping his banjo onto his back, playing it behind his neck, but always playing it skillfully.

I interviewed Wade and his wife Julia in 1990 at a banjo players' gathering in Tennessee. They were two of the most charming, centered, kind people I've ever encountered. Wade recalled "chuckling along the highway" in 1934, in a T-Model Ford, to the first-ever radio job for the band he and his brother J.E. had started. It was called Mainer's Mountaineers. Julia is a magnificent singer who recalled her own days on the radio in Winston-Salem, N.C. when she was a teenager. Before Wade died, she and I spoke briefly on the phone. Did she concentrate on her own coming misfortune? Not a bit. She chatted about music, and about Wade. She expressed thanks to me and the other journalists and musicians who'd called for being interested. In other words, as she had done before, she inspired. Wade would no doubt have liked that.

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And NPR's Paul Brown has this appreciation.

PAUL BROWN: He was a farm boy from western North Carolina. And he did what thousands of farm boys in the South did in the 1930s, found work in a cotton mill. And like thousands, he soon wanted out of the hot, dusty mill. But he was one of the few who found a way out through music and the radio.

WADE MAINER: Hello, folks. First thing we in the morning when we get up some old new guy is picking on the hollow log. Something like this.


MAINER: Now, next thing we hear is something down at the pig pen, going something like this.


MAINER: (unintelligible) that. That's the sound of a little pig.

BROWN: Wade Mainer put together a band with his brother J.E. to play on a station in Concord, North Carolina in 1934.

MAINER: Let's go.


BROWN: In 1990, Wade Mainer recalled how they landed that gig.

MAINER: We just took our string band and went over there and told the man that we played music. And he said, well, let's hear you play a tune or two. So we played a tune or two, said could you boys make it over here on a Saturday evening. We said sure, said we'll come over here and a Saturday evening. So we loaded up the car and went over there in an old T-model Ford, chuckled along the highway till we got over there.


BROWN: He quit the band because the radio sponsor didn't pay enough. But after another stint in the mills, he formed new groups and performed on stations around the South.


MAINER: (Singing) A short life and its trouble and a few more words to part. Short life and a troubled little girl for a boy with a broken heart...

BROWN: Music collector and historian Dick Spotswood has written a biography of Mainer titled "Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years." He says Mainer unwittingly made a major contribution to the advancement of traditional country music, by making the banjo more than just a backup instrument.

DICK SPOTSWOOD: Wade brought the banjo out a little bit. He brought it forward in the ensemble. He played some lead. He was the connecting tissue between that string band sound of the 1920s and the music that was created in the '40s that came to be called bluegrass.


BROWN: Spotswood says it was this Mainer innovation plus his band's tight vocal harmonies, and focus on gospel music that Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys would pick up on.

SPOTSWOOD: If those people hadn't been doing what they were doing in the 1930s, there would have been no bluegrass in the 1940s. Bill Monroe wouldn't have had that to build on.

MAINER: (Singing) It takes a worried man to sing a worried song. It takes a worried man to sing a worried song. Worried now but I won't be worried long...

BROWN: Musician David Holt says Mainer's modest comeback inspired another generation of professionals, people like Holt himself.

DAVID HOLT: And he could really wow a crowd with his flipping the banjo behind his back and playing it behind his neck, as well as being a good player. He knew how to entertain a crowd, so he was influential in that way, too, to the '60s and '70s generations.

BROWN: And for decades beyond, Wade Mainer promoted the music he loved.

MAINER: We just appreciate people sticking to the old time music. And we just hope that we can do it for many years to come.


(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE And Wade Mainer kept performing at festivals, at his)


MAINER: (Singing) Oh, Lulu...

GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.