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Country Music Pioneer Wade Mainer Dies At 104

There might be no bluegrass music as we know it without Wade Mainer, who died Monday at his home in Flint, Mich., Sept. 12 at age 104.

Here's what this amiable North Carolina native did in the 1930s that set the stage for Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and their hot new brand of mountain music:

  • He brought the banjo to the front of the band as a lead instrument instead of using it only as a backup rhythm instrument
  • He played his banjo with finger picks, for a sharp, tough sound that Scruggs developed further and popularized after WWII.
  • He sang with his bandmates in tight, beautifully arranged harmonies similar to what bluegrass bands would use in the 1940s and 1950s.
  • He included lots of gospel music in his performances.

Music scholar and collector Dick Spottswood says, without these innovations, he thinks Bill Monroe wouldn't have had much to build on to create bluegrass. Musician David Holt tells me Mainer also influenced a later generation of professionals — including Holt himself — who started performing in the '60s and '70s. Holt knew Mainer well. He says Mainer was a positive, generous person who also demonstrated how to be a super entertainer, flipping his banjo onto his back, playing it behind his neck, but always playing it skillfully.

I interviewed Wade and his wife Julia in 1990 at a banjo players' gathering in Tennessee. They were two of the most charming, centered, kind people I've ever encountered. Wade recalled "chuckling along the highway" in 1934, in a T-Model Ford, to the first-ever radio job for the band he and his brother J.E. had started. It was called Mainer's Mountaineers. Julia is a magnificent singer who recalled her own days on the radio in Winston-Salem, N.C. when she was a teenager. Before Wade died, she and I spoke briefly on the phone. Did she concentrate on her own coming misfortune? Not a bit. She chatted about music, and about Wade. She expressed thanks to me and the other journalists and musicians who'd called for being interested. In other words, as she had done before, she inspired. Wade would no doubt have liked that.

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