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Wade Mainer (April 21, 1907 - September 12, 2011) was an American singer and banjoist. With his band, the Sons of the Mountaineers, he is credited with bridging the gap between old-time mountain music and Bluegrass and is sometimes called the "Grandfather of Bluegrass." In addition, he innovated a two-finger banjo fingerpicking style, which was a precursor to modern three-finger bluegrass styles.

Originally from North Carolina, Mainer's main influences came from the mountain music of his family. In a career that began in 1934 and spanned almost six decades, Mainer transitioned from being a member of his brother's band into the founder of his own ensemble, the Sons of the Mountaineers, with whom he performed until 1953, when he became more deeply involved with his Christianity and left the music industry. After working at a General Motors factory and attending gospel revivals, Mainer was convinced that he should restart his career as a Christian gospel musician and began to tour with his wife in this capacity. He continued to release albums until 1993.

Personal life

Mainer was born near Weaverville, North Carolina, on a mountain farm in Buncombe County on April 21, 1907. His family was poor during his childhood and they lived in a log cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Mainer credited his father who was, in Mainer's words, "a good singer -- real stout voice", as of one of his influences. During his career as a musical artist, Mainer would perform many of the old songs that he had heard from his father.

Mainer grew up listening to traditional mountain music and was largely influenced by his brother-in-law Roscoe Banks. He first learned to play the banjo at square dances, where he would pick up instruments left by performers and practice on them. After moving to Concord, North Carolina and working in a series of jobs at cotton mills, he became a part of his brother J.E.'s band, known as J. E. Mainer's Mountaineers. His entry into the band in 1934 marked the beginning of a nearly six-decade career in music. J.E. played the fiddle while Wade performed on the banjo for the string band, and they played at fiddlers' conventions and other gatherings.

Mainer married Julia Brown in 1937, shortly after forming his own band. Brown was a singer and guitarist popularly know at the time as Hillbilly Lilly. She had performed from 1935 until 1937 at WSJS Radio in Winston Salem. Brown is considered to be a pioneering female musical artist and later joined Mainer during his performances.

Musical career

Mainer's first recordings came in 1934 and are compiled on Ragged But Right: 30's Country Bands. Mainer performed with The Mountaineers on tracks such as Maple on the Hill, Seven and a Half and Johnson's Old Grey Mule. Also included on the compilation are Mainer's later collaboration Short Life and It's Trouble with Zeke Morris, his solo effort Riding on That Train 45 and a sample song Mitchell Blues from his band the Sons of the Mountaineers. Throughout his career, he was noted for his unique and innovative two-finger banjo fingerpicking style, which some view as a precursor to three finger bluegrass banjo styles. Mainer took jobs at local radio stations to increase the visibility of his relative's ensemble, recording classics such as Take Me in the Lifeboat. During this time, he appeared on many regional stations including WBT in Charlotte, WPTF in Raleigh, WNOX in Knoxville and WPAQ in Mount Airy.

Mainer performed in a series of live radio shows with The Mountaineers, sponsored by Crazy Water Crystals laxatives. In 1934, J.W. Fincher, the head of the company, observed their popularity at the first gig, the Crazy Water Crystal Barn Dance, a radio program out of Charlotte. Under the name J. E. Mainer's Crazy Mountaineers, they toured the American South on live radio shows and recorded fourteen songs for Bluebird Records. Maple on the Hill, which according to the National Endowment for the Arts was their biggest hit, had originally been composed in the 1890s by Gussie L. Davis.

Mainer was in his brother J.E.'s band for two years, until he left for more traditional work, which at the time was far more profitable than his musical career. Making only five dollars a week under sponsorship, Mainer found that he could earn up to three times as much working at a yarn mill, which he described as being "gold" for the era. After leaving his brother's group in 1936, he began to perform duet work with Zeke Morris, who was a fellow band mate from The Mountaineers. After a time working on this project, Mainer left to form the short-lived "Smilin' Rangers" which later became "Sons of the Pioneers". Zeke Morris then got together with his brother Wiley to form The Morris Brothers.

Sons of the Mountaineers:

Mainer named this new band Sons of the Mountaineers. Its initial lineup included Jay Hugh Hall and Clyde Moody as guitarists with Steve Ledford as a fiddler. Among the musicians who would join the group later were Jack and Curly Shelton, Tiny Dodson, Red Rector and Fred Smith. The band got its start performing on the radio and recording songs for Bluebird Records and their first hit, entitled "Sparkling Blue Eyes" was recorded in 1939. From 1935 through 1941, Mainer recorded over 165 songs for the record label RCA Victor in various lineups, ranking him among one of the most prolifically recorded country music artists of that period.

The Sons of the Mountaineers briefly stopped playing during World War II because Mainer could not afford to squander the valuable gasoline required for the journey to the radio stations. One notable exception, however, came in 1942, when they were invited to the White House by Eleanor Roosevelt. There in Washington D.C., they played several tunes, including "Down in the Willow Garden", a song personally requested by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During this time, they also appeared in a version of The Chisholm Trail in New York. At wars' end, the band was reorganized and once again began to play at stations across North Carolina. Recordings at this time were sporadic, due to the declining popularity of the genre. In 1953, after having renewed his commitment to Christianity, Mainer left the group and exited the industry for a time.

Later life

In 1953, Mainer and his wife settled in Flint, Michigan, where he found work at a General Motors factory. Although renouncing both the music industry and his trademark instrument, the banjo, he and Julia did continue to sing at gospel revival meetings. In the early 1960s, Molly O'Day convinced him that he could use the banjo in gospel recordings, which spurred a series of religiously-theme banjo albums beginning in 1961. He also began to record and tour with his wife.

Mainer retired from General Motors in 1973. Mainer has been credited with bridging the gap between old-time mountain music and Bluegrass and musicians such as Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson have all cited Mainer as a source of influence. He has also been called the "Grandfather of Bluegrass." His influence was not limited to the United States. Pete Smith, of the British newspaper The Advertiser, in a report for Mainer's 100th birthday, cited Mainer as "one of the most influential figures in the development of modern bluegrass," noting his picking style and his efforts in bringing bluegrass closer to the mainstream. In addition, Smith also credits him for making the banjo, an instrument previously described as "satanic," acceptable for spiritually-themed music. Mainer continued to live with his wife in Flint, where he celebrated his centenary in 2007 and performed at a concert for his 101 birthday in 2008. Mainer died of congestive heart failure on September 12, 2011. He was 104.

Awards and honours:

In 1987, president Ronald Reagan bestowed upon him a National Heritage Fellowship for his contributions to American music. In 1996 he received the Michigan Heritage Award and the Michigan Country Music Association and Services' Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1998 both he and his wife were inducted into the Michigan Country Music Hall of Fame, while Mainer received North Carolina's Surry Arts Council Lifetime Achievement.

Original discography

Wade Mainer/Zeke Morris:

Matrix

Title

Record #

Recording date

99133

"Come Back To Your Dobie Shack"

Bluebird 6551

February 14, 1936

99134

"Just As the Sun Went Down"

Bluebird 6383

February 14, 1936

99135

"What Would You Give In Exchange"

Bluebird 8073

February 14, 1936

99136

"Bring Me a Leaf From the Sea"

Bluebird 6347

February 14, 1936

99137

"Brown Eyes"

Bluebird 6347

February 14, 1936

99138

"Maple On the Hill - Part 2"

Bluebird 6293

February 15, 1936

99139

"Going To Georgia"

Bluebird 6423

February 15, 1936

99140

"Nobody's Darling But Mine"

Bluebird 6423

February 15, 1936

99141

"Mother Came to Get Her Boy Back From Jail"

Bluebird 6383

February 15, 1936

99142

"Where the Red, Red Roses Grow"

Bluebird 6293

February 15, 1936

102612

"My Cradle Days"

Bluebird 6489

June 15, 1936

102613

"Gathering Flowers From the Hillside"

Bluebird 6489

June 15, 1936

102614

"My Mother Is Waiting"

Bluebird 6551

June 15, 1936

102615

"If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again"

Bluebird 6460

June 15, 1936

102616

"Nobody's Darling On Earth"

Bluebird 6460

June 15, 1936

102617

"Shake Hands With Your Mother"

Bluebird 6596

June 15, 1936

2530

"They Said My Lord Was A Devil"

Bluebird 6653

October 12, 1936

2531

"Won't Somebody Pal With Me"

Bluebird 6704

October 12, 1936

2532

"Hop Along Peter"

Bluebird 6752

October 12, 1936

2533

"Just One Way To the Pearly Gates"

Bluebird 6784

October 12, 1936

2534

"Dear Daddy, You're Gone

Bluebird 6752

October 12, 1936

2535

"Been Foolin' Me, Baby"

Bluebird 6704

October 12, 1936

2536

"I'll Be a Friend of Jesus"

Bluebird 6784

October 12, 1936

2537

"Cowboy's Pony In Heaven"

Bluebird 6653

October 12, 1936

7051

"Little Birdie"

Bluebird 6840

February 16, 1937

7052

"I've Always Been a Rambler"

Bluebird 6890

February 16, 1937

7053

"I'm Starting Life A New With You"

Bluebird 6840

February 16, 1937

7054

"Little Rosebuds"

Bluebird 6993

February 16, 1937

7055

"Train Carry My Gal Back Home"

Bluebird 6890

February 16, 1937

7056

"In the Land Beyond the Blue"

Bluebird 6936

February 16, 1937

7057

"A Change All Around"

Bluebird 6993

February 16, 1937

7058

"Short Life and It's Trouble"

Bluebird 6936

February 16, 1937

11812

"The Dying Boy's Prayer"

Bluebird 7165

August 2, 1937

11813

"Free Again"

Bluebird 7114

August 2, 1937

11814

"Answer To Two Little Rosebuds"

Bluebird 7114

August 2, 1937

11815

"I'm Not Turning Backward"

Bluebird 7165

August 2, 1937

11820

"Riding On That Train 45"

Bluebird 7298

August 2, 1937

11821

"Little Maggie"

Bluebird 7201

August 2, 1937

11822

"Little Pal"

Bluebird 7201

August 2, 1937

11823

"Down In the Willow"

Bluebird 7298/Victor 27497

August 2, 1937

Wade Mainer's Smilin' Rangers:

Matrix

Title

Record #

Recording date

11825

"Ramshackle Shack"

Bluebird 7274

August 2, 1937

11826

"Memory Lane"

Bluebird 7274

August 2, 1937

11827

"Wild Bill Jones"

Bluebird 7249

August 2, 1937

11828

"I Want To Be Loved"

Bluebird 7249

August 2, 1937

11816

"What Are You Goin' To Do Brother"

Bluebird 7384

August 3, 1937

11817

"Companions Draw Nigh"

Bluebird 7384

August 3, 1937

11818

"Mountain Sweetheart"

Bluebird 7587

August 3, 1937

11819

"Don't Forget Me, Little Darling"

Bluebird 7587

August 3, 1937

Wade Mainer and his Sons of the Mountaineers:

Matrix

Title

Record #

Recording date

18763

"Lonely Tomb"

Bluebird 7424

January 27, 1938

18764

"Pale Moonlight"

Bluebird 7483

January 27, 1938

18765

"All My Friends"

Bluebird 7424

January 27, 1938

18766

"Since I Met My Mother-In-Law"

Bluebird 7742

January 27, 1938

18767

"Don't Get Too Deep In Love"

Bluebird 7483

January 27, 1938

18768

"Don't Leave Me Alone"

Bluebird 7561

January 27, 1938

18769

"I Won't Be Worried"

Bluebird 7561

January 27, 1938

18770

"Where Romance Calls"

Bluebird 7753

January 27, 1938

18771

"Another Alabama Camp Meetin'"

Bluebird 7753

January 27, 1938

18772

"Mitchell Blues"

Bluebird 7845

January 27, 1938

26981

"Father Along"

Bluebird 8023

September 26, 1938

26982

"Dear Loving Mother and Dad"

Bluebird 8152

September 26, 1938

26983

"Can't Tell About These Women"

Bluebird 7965

September 26, 1938

26984

"That Kind"

Bluebird 7861

September 26, 1938

26985

"If I Had Listened To Mother"

Bluebird 8137

September 26, 1938

26986

"She Is Spreading Her Wings For A Journey"

Bluebird 8023

September 26, 1938

26987

"The Same Old You and Me"

Bluebird 7924

September 26, 1938

26988

"Life's Evenin' Sun"

Bluebird 8007

September 26, 1938

26998

"You're Awfully Mean To Me"

Bluebird 7861

September 26, 1938

26999

"Home In the Sky"

Bluebird 8007

September 26, 1938

27700

"A Little Love"

Bluebird 7924

September 26, 1938

27701

"North Carolina Moon"

Bluebird 8628

September 26, 1938

27702

"More Good Women Gone Wrong"

Bluebird 7965

September 26, 1938

32625

"Sparkling Blue Eyes"

Bluebird 8042

February 4, 1939

32626

"We Will Miss Him"

Bluebird 8042

February 4, 1939

32627

"I Left My Home In the Mountains"

Bluebird 8091

February 4, 1939

32628

"I Met Her At A Ball One Night"

Bluebird 8091

February 4, 1939

32629

"You May Forsake Me"

Bluebird 8120

February 4, 1939

32630

"Look On and Cry"

Bluebird 8120

February 4, 1939

32631

"One Little Kiss"

Bluebird 8145

February 4, 1939

32632

"Mama, Don't Make Me Go To Bed"

Bluebird 8145

February 4, 1939

32633

"Crying Holy"

Bluebird 8203

February 4, 1939

32634

"Heaven Bells Are Ringing"

Bluebird 8203

February 4, 1939

41200

"Sparkling Blue Eyes No.2"

Bluebird 8249

August 21, 1939

41201

"The Poor Drunkard's Dream"

Bluebird 8273

August 21, 1939

41202

"Were You There"

Bluebird 8273

August 21, 1939

41203

"The Gospel Cannon Ball"

Bluebird 8249

August 21, 1939

41204

"The Great and Final Judgement"

Bluebird 8288

August 21, 1939

41205

"What a Wonderful Savior Is He"

Bluebird 8288

August 21, 1939

41206

"Why Not Make Heaven Your Home"

Bluebird 8340

August 21, 1939

41207

"Mansions In the Sky"

Bluebird 8340

August 21, 1939

41208

"Not a Word of That Be Said"

Bluebird 8359

August 21, 1939

41209

"Drifting Through an Unfriendly World"

Bluebird 8359

August 21, 1939

71014

"Shake My Mother's Hands For Me"

Bluebird 8848

September 29, 1941

71015

"Anywhere Is Home"

Bluebird 8965

September 29, 1941

71016

"I Can Tell You the Time"

Bluebird 8965

September 29, 1941

71017

"He Gave His Life"

Bluebird 8887

September 29, 1941

71018

"Ramblin' Boy

Bluebird 8990

September 29, 1941

71019

"The Precious Jewel"

Bluebird 8887

September 29, 1941

71020

"Old Ruben"

Bluebird 8990

September 29, 1941

71021

"Precious Memories"

Bluebird 8848

September 29, 1941

Other discography

Studio albums:

1961: Soulful Sacred Songs,

1971: Sacred Songs of Mother and Home,

1973: The Songs of Wade Mainer,

1976: From the Maple to the Hill,

1980: Old Time Songs,

1984: Old Time Banjo Tunes,

1987: In the Land of Melody,

1989: How Sweet to Walk,

1990: String Band Music,

1993: Old Time Gospel Favorites,

1993: Carolina Mule,

Compilation albums:

1979: Early Radio,

1983: Early and Great, Volume 1,

????: Early and Great, Volume 2,

1993: Early and Great, Volume 3

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