Wade Mainer, banjo pioneer, dies at 104


Wade Mainer and the Sons of the Mountaineers, circa 1937 - top: Wade Mainer (banjo), Steve Ledford (fiddle), bottom: Clyde Moody (guitar), Jay Hugh Hall (guitar). Wade Mainer, 104 years old banjo player and bluegrass innovator, died Sept. 12. (Courtesy of the Mainer family.)
September 13, 2011

Wade Mainer, 104, a show-stopping banjo player from North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains who was a vital link in the evolution of bluegrass music, died Sept. 12 at his home in Flint, Mich. He had congestive heart failure.

The death was confirmed by radio host and Mainer biographer Dick Spottswood.

Mr. Mainer, widely known as the grandfather of bluegrass, was one of the last of a generation of rural string-band musicians who recorded during the Depression. Because of his prolific career on radio, disc and stage, he earned an invitation to the White House to play for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A noted raconteur and showman, Mr. Mainer shared the stage over the decades with folk music luminaries including Woody Guthrie, Josh White and Burl Ives. In 2002, Mr. Mainer appeared on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. It was his first and only performance on the program.

“He goes to the absolute taproots of this music,” country music historian Charles Wolfe told the Charlotte Observer in 2003. “He took the oldest traditional songs and translated them into sounds that could be recognized as blues and modern country.”

Historically, Mr. Mainer’s musical technique was noteworthy, and he was said to have influenced a range of bluegrass performers including Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt.

Mr. Mainer picked the banjo with his thumb and index finger — creating a softer and less-syncopated approach than the three-fingered style later popularized by Scruggs and Don Reno. At the same time, Mr. Mainer heralded a distinct change from the drop-thumb style known as clawhammer.

Mr. Mainer’s radio career started in the early 1930s with the Mountaineers, a band led by his older brother, fiddler J.E. Mainer. By 1937, Wade Mainer formed his own group, the Sons of the Mountaineers, and made more than 100 recordings for RCA’s Bluebird subsidiary. They included such future hillbilly standards as “Maple on the Hill” and “Riding on That Train 45.”

Mr. Mainer performed throughout the Southeast and as far west as New Orleans, and his band included at times such bluegrass notables as Clyde (“the Hillbilly Waltz King”) Moody, Red Rector and the brother duo Jim and Jesse McReynolds.

“People would come to our show after riding two hours on horses,” Mr. Mainer told the Charlotte Observer. “Some would walk to the shows carrying lanterns so they could see their way back home.”

He came to the attention of folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who arranged his February 1941 performance at the White House for an event dubbed “An Evening of American Folklore.” White and Ives were also featured.

Mr. Mainer performed in bib overalls and a red bandana — dressing, he said, “for the farmers of America.” He often recalled how, that evening, he spilled ice cream on first lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s dress.

“I felt so embarrassed — reached into my back pocket to wipe her off with my handkerchief, but she wouldn’t let me,” he told The Washington Post in 1972. “Went upstairs and changed her dress.”

A few years later, as a morale-boosting exercise during World War II, he performed in New York with Guthrie on the BBC radio program “The Old Chisholm Trail,” which featured traditional American music.

As his style of music was overshadowed by newer forms of bluegrass and country, Mr. Mainer moved to Flint in the early 1950s to work full time in an auto plant. He returned to entertainment after his retirement and became a popular attraction at folk festivals.

In a 1986 concert at the National Museum of Natural History’s Baird Auditorium, Mr. Mainer drew praise for his dynamic musicianship in a program called “Living Legends of the Banjo.”

Reviewing the show for The Post, critic Joe Sasfy wrote that Mr. Mainer “was the showman, ending the set on his feet, dancing and playing the banjo behind his back.”

Wade E. Mainer was born April 21, 1907, on a family farm near Weaverville, N.C. (His middle name has been spelled variously as Eckard, Eckhart and Ecord.) He first learned banjo by borrowing other pickers’ instruments during breaks at square dances.

In 1937, he married Julia Brown, who performed under the stage name Hillbilly Lilly.

Besides his wife, survivors include three sons, Frank Mainer of Mocksville, N.C., Kelly Mainer of Flint and Randall Mainer of Grand Blanc, Mich.; a daughter, Polly Hofmeister of Rochester Hills, Mich.; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. A son, Leon Mainer, died in the mid-1980s. J.E. Mainer died in 1971.

In 1987, Wade Mainer received a $5,000 National Heritage Fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“What we was playin’ in the ’30s was true country music — no electric instruments, no copyrights,” he once said. “Something’d happen and someone’d write a song about it — nobody owned it, nobody’d know who wrote it. The music just told a story.”