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Banjo On The Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years

By By Dick Spottswood

University Press of Mississippi, 134 pages, $30 paperback

Reviewed by John Lupton, October 2010

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The general consensus of the historians and musicologists who spend much of their time researching and writing about such things is that what we now call "country music" - or at least the recorded era of it - begins in 1922 with an eccentric Texas fiddler by the name of Eck Robertson journeying to a New York City studio and sawing away on Sally Gooden into what was, by modern standards, a primitive microphone and sound board.

Only a year before, KDKA in Pittsburgh inaugurated the radio era, and hundreds of stations began popping up across the country - especially in the South, where hundreds if not thousands of "hillbilly" musicians like Robertson were in demand to fill the new medium's insatiable demand for programming.

For North Carolina teenager Wade Mainer and his older brother J.E. (Joseph Emmett), the nascent country music business was their ticket out of a lifetime of drudgery working in the mills. Mostly self-taught, Wade developed a signature two-finger banjo style that perfectly complemented his brother's driving fiddle style and made them among the most in-demand musicians for dances and hoedowns.

Teaming up with Zeke Morris and "Daddy John" Love as Mainer's Mountaineers, they moved effortlessly to radio and soon became favorites on stations across the South. In those days, radio and personal appearances were the performers' "bread and butter" with record sales considered nearly an afterthought.

Nonetheless, as the heyday of the 1930s progressed, the Mainer Brothers managed to cut a number of enduring recordings. Eventually they split, amicably, with Wade forming his own band, the Sons of the Mountaineers. The success continued - his 1935 recording of Maple On The Hill was among the decade's best sellers, and Wade remained a popular act through the war years.

The subtitle of this book is no exaggeration, and this is no memorial. Born in April, 1907, Wade Mainer is still very much with us, and albeit on a limited scale, is still pickin' and singin' at the age of 103. He is, to put it bluntly, the last remaining great pioneer of the country music business. His legacy is not only the body of recordings made over the years (including the 1990s), but also the fact of his having been an important bridge to bluegrass, an signal influence on countless banjo pickers - Ralph Stanley included.

That Wade Mainer is not more widely known today is partly his own doing. In the early 1950s he walked away from the secular country music business, by his own account putting his banjo "under the bed," moved to Michigan and went to work for General Motors. A decade later he was convinced to get back into music by his close friends, legendary singer Molly O'Day and her husband Lynn Davis. When "old time" music experienced a revival in the 1970s, Wade once again became a beloved and in-demand "source" musician and remains so to this day.

Unmentioned above, but nonetheless essential to Wade's story is his wife of nearly 75 years, Julia. Herself a popular radio performer at the time they met and married, she took on the duties of not only raising a large family, but managing the band's business as well. From the 70s revival years to today, she has been Wade's duet partner, a powerful singer in her own right.

The charm of Spottswood's recounting of their lives and careers is that, for the most part, he lets them both tell the story in their own words. Most of the book, in fact, consists of reproductions of publicity shots, posters, sheet music, family photos and more that tell not only the personal story of two treasures of American music, but also provide an entertaining and insightful window back to the rough-and-tumble country music business that made them famous.