North Carolina is known for its old-time stringband music and musicians, and Wade Mainer, a musician with a distinctive voice and precise two-finger banjo style, is a living legend in the stringband music community. Mainer and his band created a distinct sound that bridged the gap between old-time mountain music and bluegrass, and a new book about Mainer’s life was recently released by music scholar and Washington radio personality Dick Spottswood, who will talk about the book and have a signing at the tribute event at Wilson Library in Chapel Hill on September 21. This event is free and open to the public.
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. Spottswood’s book, Banjo on the Mountain – Wade Mainer’s First Hundred Years, tells the story of the man who made a career in country music playing the banjo a few years before Bill Monroe’s first album became a hit.
The musical tribute to Mainer will feature Big Medicine (Jim Collier, Bob Head, Kenny Jackson, Joe Newberry); The Happy Valley Pals (Gail Gillespie and Margaret Martin, Dwight Rogers and Wayne Martin); The Lonesome Prairie Dogs (Steve Terrill, Molly Stouten, and Alan Teichman); Andy Cahan; and Joseph DeCosimo; along with other area musicians playing songs from Mainer’s catalog, which spans nearly six decades. The event will also include a reception, discussion and a Q&A session with Spottswood.
Mainer began performing professionally in 1932 with Mainer’s Mountaineers, his brother’s band, and later continued with his own group, The Sons of the Mountaineers. His heyday was during the popularity of “hillbilly music” in the 1930s and 1940s. Between 1935 and 1941, various Mainer brother combinations recorded more than 165 songs for RCA Victor, making them some of the most heavily recorded country artists of that era. But Wade left music to work for General Motors in 1953, along with many Appalachians of his generation. Since then, he has recorded a few gospel albums, and, during the 1970s, with the renewal of interest in old-time music, and with some persuasion from fans who were familiar with his early recordings, Wade began to perform in public again, accompanied by his wife, Julia Mae, a guitarist and a fine traditional singer.
Wade’s music has always been noted for its traditional repertoire and for his distinctive melodic two-finger banjo picking style, which was a personal trademark. This style became the basis for the three-finger banjo styles developed by Snuffy Jenkins and Earl Scruggs. His music is an antecedent of modern bluegrass. In 1987, Wade was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment of the Arts.
In Spottswood’s book, Wade’s life is told through his personal reflections and the wealth of documents, memorabilia and photos he has preserved from his long career in music. Spottswood spent time with Wade and Julia in Michigan, where they opened their collection of treasured keepsakes for the book.
Banjo on The Mountain was released in both paper and ebook editions in August by the University Press of Mississippi.
The Southern Folklife Collection, The Old-Time Herald, PineCone-Piedmont Council of Traditional Music, and the North Carolina Folklife Institute, are co-sponsoring this event. More information is available at www.pinecone.org.