Wade Mainer Dies At Age 104

Wade Mainer, photo by Flint Journal

America’s oldest country star has died at age 104.

Wade Mainer died Monday, September 12, at his home in Flint Township, Michigan. As a member of Mainer’s Mountaineers, he recorded “Maple on the Hill” in 1935. It became one of the most massive country hits of the Great Depression.

“Take Me in the Lifeboat” was another popular Mainer number from this era. The group is regarded as one that paved the way for the development of bluegrass music. Mainer invented a two-finger style of five-string banjo playing that was widely influential.

He was the subject of Dick Spottswood’s 2010 book Banjo on the Mountain: The First 100 Years of Wade Mainer.

Wade Mainer was born April 21, 1907 in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. He formed his band with his fiddling brother J.E. (Joseph Emmett) Mainer (1898-1971). After rising to fame on WBT radio in Charlotte, the group recorded prolifically for RCA’s Bluebird Records label in 1935-39. He also recorded as a duo with Zeke Morris during the same time period.

He formed Wade Mainer & The Sons of the Mountaineers and continued recording for Bluebird in the 1940s. This group was responsible for his other major hit, 1939’s “Sparking Brown Eyes.” The Stanley Brothers later re-recorded several of the band’s songs.

He was performing at WNOX in Knoxville when he was invited to join the cast of the Grand Ole Opry in 1940. He declined the invitation, because it meant breaking his contract.

Mainer in the 1940s.

Wade Mainer entertained Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House in 1941. In 1943, Alan Lomax booked him on BBC radio alongside Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, The Coon Creek Girls and others. He recorded for King Records in 1947 and 1951.

When honky-tonk music swamped old-time string band sounds in the 1950s, Mainer quit music and moved to Flint, Michigan to work for General Motors, 1953-1972.

As a born-again Christian, he began performing and recording again in the 1970s, frequently with wife Julia Brown Mainer. Performing as “Hillbilly Lilly,” she was also a North Carolina country radio entertainment veteran. During this “second” career, he recorded LPs for Old Homestead Records, June Appal Records and other labels, and the couple toured on the folk and bluegrass festival circuits.

Wade Mainer staged his debut on the Grand Ole Opry in 1995. In 1997, he and Julia were featured guests at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. President Reagan conferred a National Heritage Fellowship on him on that occasion.

He was the grand marshal and Heritage Award honoree at Uncle Dave Macon Days in Murfreesboro in 2002, when he again appeared on the Opry.

His annual birthday celebrations in Michigan have become big news in recent years. He was considered to be the last survivor of country music’s “golden age,” the days of Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family and Uncle Dave Macon.



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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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