Wade Mainer: Musician who bridged the gap between Old Time music and Bluegrass

Wade Mainer was, with his elder brother, JE, an important link between the Old Time music of their North Carolina home and the taut, driving sound that would gain worldwide acceptance as Bluegrass.

His banjo-picking, in particular, was revolutionary; he abandoned the traditional Old Time "drop thumb" style for a two-finger approach that was both distinctive and influential. If the fiddle and guitar heard on recordings by the brothers' bands echo with the musical traditions of the 19th century, then Wade's banjo points the way forward to the "Father of Bluegrass Music", Bill Monroe, and to the great banjo player Earl Scruggs. Little wonder, then, that in 1990 he was the recipient of the Bluegrass Music Association's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Almost uniquely among brother teams in country music, the Mainers did not perform together as youngsters. JE moved to Knoxville, Tennessee to work in a cotton mill when his brother was only three, and it wasn't until he moved back to North Carolina that Wade and he began to play together. They appeared at social gatherings and talent contests, JE playing a fiddle that had belonged, once, to an itinerant musician whose death in a train wreck he had witnessed, and Wade, his banjo.

They were eventually joined by guitarist "Daddy" John Love and by the mandolin and guitar-playing Zeke Morris. It was this quartet, known as JE Mainer's Crazy Mountaineers, which in 1934 began performing on radio station WBT out of Charlotte, North Carolina. This exposure gave the band a measure of local fame and led to their first recording session, for Victor-Bluebird in August 1935. Among the numbers cut in an Atlanta hotel room were the fiddle breakdown "Seven and a Half" and a record that would prove one of the biggest hillbilly hits of the decade, the classic "Maple on the Hill", with its splendid harmony vocals from Wade and Morris.

Just over a year later, Mainer and Morris left to form the Sons of the Mountaineers. As with JE's Mountaineers, the band's line-up seemed in constant flux, but notable members included guitarist Clyde Moody, who would later gain fame as "The Hillbilly Waltz King", three-finger banjo player DeWitt "Snuffy" Jenkins and fiddler and vocalist Steve Ledford. They too recorded for Bluebird, cutting numerous sides including "Riding on That Train Forty Five" (1937), with its strong contribution from Ledford, and, in 1938, Wade's fine instrumental "Mitchell Blues". In 1939 they enjoyed a massive hit with Billy Cox's hillbilly standard "Sparkling Blue Eyes".

While working at WWNC, Asheville, the band's line-up was augmented by an old friend, the steel guitarist Howard Dixon. He and his brother Dorsey were mill workers who had briefly joined the Mainers at WBT. During that time he and Wade had co-written "Intoxicated Rat", a highly original hillbilly blues number that would become a minor classic when cut by the Dixons in 1936.

In 1942, accompanied by fiddler Walter "Tiny" Dodson and guitarist Jack Shelton, Mainer played at the White House and he even appeared on a wartime BBC programme, The Chisholm Trail. After the war he recorded briefly for King Records (1947 and again in 1951) but tastes had changed and he largely left the music business to work for General Motors at their Flint, Michigan plant.

A new-found faith saw him limit his public appearances to gospel meetings; indeed, for a short while he abandoned his banjo, believing it incompatible with such material. Only with his retirement from GM in the early 1970s, and a renewed interest in the roots of country, was he coaxed into performing regularly. From 1970 onward he cut a series of albums for the Old Homestead label, many of them reflecting his religious beliefs: Sacred Songs of Mother and Home (1971), Rock of My Soul (1972), Mountain Sacred Songs (1972) and Old Time Gospel Favorites (1993).

He and his wife, Julia, became a regular fixture at the many Old Time music festivals that take place in the Southern Appalachians and, in 1987, his contributions to the area's cultural life were acknowledged by a Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Wade Mainer, banjo player and singer: born Weaverville, North Carolina 21 April 1907; married 1937 Julia Brown (four sons, one daughter); died Flint, Michigan 12 September 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Systems Compliance Manager

£43555 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

King's College, Cambridge: Stipendiary Junior Research Fellowships October 2016

£20,100 (pre-award of doctorate) rising each year to a maximum of £25,869: Kin...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Back End

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has bec...

Recruitment Genius: Online Lettings Negotiator

£18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'