Sep 25, 2011
Wade Mainer died last week. He was 104 years old. Born when Theodore Roosevelt was president and only four years after the Wright Brothers first flew, he was just about old enough to vote when sound came to movies, Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, and Babe Ruth hit 60 homers. He was only 22 when the first Great Depression fell… but things actually didn’t change much for the worse in those hard-scrapple hills of Buncombe County, North Carolina, where he was reared. Music was one of the few “releases” folks had, a type of salvation.
But Wade was not notable because he lived longer than is allotted to most of us. Among his plaudits is the fact that he followed his brother J E Mainer into playing music. J E was a fiddle player; Wade got interested in the banjo, which then, in black and white rural Southern music, was strummed (or played “claw hammer” style). Wade experimented, following his own curiosity and taste, and started plucking the strings. He used only two fingers – his own style.
It was a distinctive style of playing, and a sound that fit well with the guitar and fiddle of mountain music. Other local banjo players were influenced; one of them was Smith Hammett, who influenced a few more, one of them being a cousin named Earl Scruggs. Earl “added” a finger to the right-hand picking, learned to slide and bend the strings a little bit on the neck, and the famous “sound” of the Bluegrass banjo was born.
Wade Mainer began that musical thread, but was modest about his role, and in fact never played in the Scruggs style, and firmly declined the Bluegrass label. When I would call his music “mountain” music, he liked that best. Yes, I had the privilege to know Wade.
I had written several books on country music, and written about the Mainers, without knowing he was still alive; or dreaming that I would meet him; or guessing that we would become friends. I had moved from San Diego to mid-Michigan to be close to my daughter who took a job as a youth pastor. A local radio station announced a 97th birthday party concert for Wade Mainer – could it be? – and I met him, wound up joining his church, and becoming friends with him and his wife Julia, whose own stage name in the 1930s was “Hillbilly Lillie.”
Back to the 1930s. The ensemble “Mainer’s Mountaineers” became a major act, and recorded for RCA Victor Records. In the early 1940s Wade played in a Broadway revue, The Old Chisolm Trail, with Woodie Guthrie and Burl Ives. He performed at the White House for President Franklin D Roosevelt. Then came World War II, a postwar recession, and a public’s taste that veered away from traditional mountain songs. Wade could no longer support his family with the banjo. The auto industry was booming, and he took a factory job with General Motors in Flint, Michigan.
At that period of his life, a renewed commitment to God coincided with laying the banjo down. He considered that playing country music – anything that didn’t serve God – should be avoided. He stopped recording, touring, even playing locally. It was only later, when the legendary Molly O’Day, also born again, persuaded him that he should serve God through his music, that he began to sing, play, and record again.(Molly O’Day was one who discovered a young Hank Williams.) Latter-day albums were released by John Morris’s Old Homestead Records.
Until near the end, Wade played a lively banjo, had a great sense of humor on the stage and in his living room… and loved to testify. He would punctuate his monologues with everyday talk about Heaven and Jesus. And Julia, 94, who still plays a great flattop guitar in the style of Riley Puckett and Mother Maybelle Carter, can break out in spontaneous, anointed prayer that can sweep the hearts of everyone in a room.
I wanted to tip my hat to a legend I was blessed to know (a painting I did of Wade and Julia performing is attached to this message) – but also to share the story of a man who was responsible for starting a major trend in American music, but was uncomfortable discussing it; who scaled the heights of show business for a time, but was totally modest about his acclaim; and – most of all – who followed his Christian conscience in forsaking the music business, or returning strictly to gospel music, despite many pleas to hit the road and club venues again. Those are rare traits these days, but Wade Mainer was a rare type of man.
Painting of Wade Mainer
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The video accompanying this message is a portion of an interview with Wade conducted by David Holt – this generation’s John or Alan Lomax, seeking out pioneers of American music. Wade and Julia perform his gospel classics Sit Down (“I just got to Heaven and I got to walk around”) and Take Me in Your Lifeboat.
Click: Wade Mainer Gospel