Generally Eclectic Review

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Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Sunday, November 07, 2010

“Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer’s First Hundred Years” by Dick Spottswood (University Press of Mississippi)

Wade Mainer was born April 21, 1907 and, at the time of this book’s publication, was still alive and occasionally active. Making music in front of an audience while over the age of 100 is rare, but not totally unheard-of. (Ukulele legend Bill Tapia comes to mind.) But Mainer’s accomplishment in outliving virtually all of his contemporaries is so unusual, it is sometimes forgotten that he was an important, influential figure in his heyday, who prefigured many of the innovations which have taken place in bluegrass and country music to the present day.

Indeed, when Wade Mainer first impacted the country-music scene in the mid-1930’s, bluegrass had yet to be invented. It was his fresh, new approach to the banjo that served as a bridge between the traditional, African-rooted clawhammer technique and the three-singer style popularized by Earl Scruggs in the mid-1940’s. This new book by veteran bluegrass historian Dick Spottswood is not so much a completely detailed biography (though it does offer quite a bit of significant biographical information), as it is a tribute, perhaps “celebration” might be a better word, of Wade Mainer’s long, if somewhat sporadic career.

Mainer was born in rural western North Carolina, in an area and an era in which it would be expected that a youngster would grow up to spend his entire life as a millworker. But Wade and his fiddle-playing brother Joseph Emmett “J. E.” Mainer chose another option, forming a string band which played on numerous radio stations throughout the area. Spottswood traces their career on radio and records, through numerous personnel shifts, and changes in leadership (J.E. had to leave his own band due to his drinking problems). The Mainers’ recordings not only became regionally popular, they attracted the attention of famed folklorist Alan Lomax, who invited them to Washington to perform “folk music” for President and Mrs. Roosevelt. In one of the most revealing segments of the book, Alan Lomax instructs Mainer as to which “authentic folk songs” he wants Wade and the band to perform, not all of which were part of the band’s recorded repertoire. It’s as if Lomax thought he knew more about what was folk music than the “folk” themselves, or at least felt the need to control their performance.

Spottswood traces Mainer’s subsequent career through its various ups and downs, a religious conversion which caused to leave music, his years as an autoworker in Michigan, his long and successful marriage to Julia Brown Mainer, who would become his duet partner in later years, and his subsequent comeback in the 1970s, when he began recording a long string of LP’s for the Old Homestead label. It’s a fascinating story of a man who really had very little concept of what an important historical figure he was, and was therefore almost entirely free of pretense.

In addition to Spottswood’s biographical essay, there is a more technical essay on Wade Mainer’s banjo style, which explains what it was that set him apart from other banjo players who preceded him. The second half of the slim, but highly informative volume is devoted largely to a collection of photographs, documents, and reminiscences by Wade and Julia, as well as a discography (with dates and personnel) of Mainer’s 78-RPM recordings of the 78 RPM and LP eras. I would, however, have preferred a more complete breakdown of song listings for the Old Homestead collections.

The book is only 134 pages long, but there’s a lot packed into these oversized pages. I would assume that the primary markets for a book such as this would be music historians, collectors, and libraries rather than casual bluegrass/oldtime-country fans. But I found Mr. Mainer’s story a fascinating one, and I’m sure casual readers would likewise find it so.

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