Wade Mainer: Musician who bridged the gap between Old Time music and Bluegrass
Saturday 17 September 2011
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.
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