Banjo player Wade Mainer, 104, died on September 12 at home in Flint, Michigan. One of country music’s first stars, he was born in Weaverville, North Carolina. He and his older brother J. E. learned music from friends and neighbors in and around Buncombe County. Their father was, according to Wade, “a good singer—real stout voice.” J. E. and Wade were also influenced early on by their brother-in-law Roscoe Banks, a left-handed fiddler. They often accompanied Banks and his brother Will when they would play square dances, J. E. fiddling with Roscoe, and Wade playing banjo.
Having worked for a time in a textile mill in Knoxville, in 1922 J. E. went down the mountain to Concord, North Carolina, to work at the Gibson Cotton Mill. Wade soon followed. The mills of the Piedmont were a fertile ground for string band music in those days, and the Mainers began to play for dances, cornshuckings, and other events with their friends Lester and Howard Lay.
In 1934, the Mainers were invited to join the cast of the Crazy Water Crystals Barn Dance on WBT (“Watch Buick Travel”) in Charlotte. After a time, they moved back to Asheville, where they joined up with guitarist Zeke Morris, from Old Fort. In a variety of band configurations, both with and without Wade and Zeke—as J. E. Mainer and his Crazy Mountaineers, and J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers—they recorded dozens of songs and tunes for Bluebird records, many of which are now considered classics of the country brother-style duet (although the singers were not the brothers but rather Wade and Zeke). Wade and J. E. parted ways professionally, the older brother remaining with Crazy Water Crystals and the younger forming Wade Mainer and Sons of the Mountaineers. They would play on radio stations all over the eastern half of the United States, and record more than 100 songs for RCA Bluebird. In 1941 the band played at a concert called “Evening of American Folklore,” at the White House. The occasion was memorable both for the music, and for Wade’s faux pas of spilling ice cream on Eleanor Roosevelt’s frock.
That same year, “Solemn Old Judge” George D. Hay invited Wade and the band to play on the Grand Ole Opry. They were unable to break the contract they were under at the time in Knoxville, though, and had to forego the invitation to the Opry. In 1944, Wade appeared in the BBC radio folk extravaganza The Old Chisholm Trail, along with Woody Guthrie, the Coon Creek Girls, Red Rector, Burl Ives, and brother J. E.
Like so many natives of the Southern mountains, Wade, with his wife Julia—who is also a talented musician, and played on the radio as a young woman as Hillbilly Lilly—moved to the industrial Midwest in search of work. For the next 19 years he would be an employee of General Motors. In the 1950s, they began to perform together more often, playing gospel and mountain music.
Following Wade’s retirement, the Mainers had a second music career, touring widely to play at folk festivals and college campuses, and recording albums. In 1987, Wade was recognized with the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2010, music historian Dick Spottswood published Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer’s First Hundred Years.
Wade Mainer is survived by his wife Julia, daughter Polly, and sons Frank, Kelly, and Randall.