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In the 1930s, North Carolina was a hotbed of early Country musicians, and Wade Mainer stood out above the rest. With his singing and precise two-finger banjo style, Wade and his band created a distinct sound that bridged the gap between old-time mountain music and Bluegrass.
Born in 1907 in Buncombe County near Weaverville, North Carolina, Mainer became a popular recording and radio personality who influenced generations of great musicians, including Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson.
“I was raised in the mountains back then and didn’t go out too much…but what there were of musicians, I would pay attention to them,” says Mainer. “I was interested in the sound of the banjo and when they’d lay there banjos down at the square dance…I’d go over and pick it up and play.”
In addition to working in local mills during the 1930s, Mainer was employed at various local radio stations early in his career. There, he recorded now-classic songs "Maple on the Hill" and "Take Me in the Lifeboat" with his brother J.E. Mainer and their group Mainer’s Mountaineers.
Wade married singer/guitarist Julia Brownin 1937. Known as "Hillbilly Lilly," Julia performed from 1935-37 at WSJS RADIO in Winston–Salem, NC. A pioneering female vocalist, Julia would later join her husband for performances on the road.
Along with his popular recordings Wade and his brother J.E. reached a wide audience with live radio programs sponsored by a patent medicine laxative called “Crazy Water Crystals.” Wade performed at Radio Stations WBT in Charlotte; WPTF in Raleigh; WNOX in Knoxville; and WPAQ in Mount Airy, among others. The sponsor kept him working but was notoriously stingy with pay causing Wade to part ways with both the sponsor and the Mainer Mountaineers.
“I didn’t think they was paying me enough at $5 per week…I left them and got me a job at the yarn mill at $12 to $15 per week…and that was gold back then!”
In 1941, Mainer’s new band, The Sons of the Mountaineers, received an invitation to perform for President Franklin Roosevelt, whom requested “Down in the Willy Garden.” “It was thrilling,” recalls Mainer.
In 1953, Wade and Julia Mainer moved to Flint, Michigan where Wade was employed by General Motors until his retirement in 1972. The Mainers continued playing music at Bluegrass and Folk Festivals throughout Michigan.
Wade Mainer has received many honors and awards during his more than 60-year career in music, including the National Heritage Fellowshipfrom the National Endowment for the Arts, in 1987; the Michigan Heritage Award and the Michigan Country Music Association and Services' Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996; and North Carolina’s Surry Arts Council Lifetime Achievement in 1998. The Mainers were also inducted into the Michigan Country Music Hall of Famein 1998.
Watch both Wade and Julia Mainer in action during Folkways: Wade Mainer and enjoy the sweet music made by the man known as the “Grandfather of Bluegrass.”