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American Singer-Banjo Player Wade Mainer, 104, Passed Away

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Wade MainerBluegrass music pioneer Wade Mainer passed away yesterday. He was 104 years old. Mainer's health took a sudden down turn about a week ago and he passed away Monday, September 12, 2011. He was probably best known for his work with the Sons of the Mountaineers which bridged the gap between old-time music and bluegrass. While his banjo technique was a two-finger style, rather than the Scruggs three-finger bluegrass rolls, his style was definitely an influence on Earl Scrugg's three finger technique.

Mainer was born April 21, 1907 in Buncombe County, North Carolina. Growing up in the Blue Ridge Appalachia Mountain region, his musical background was solidly rooted in the mountain music of the region. Regarded as the "grandfather of bluegrass music," Mainer performed his music for 19 years -- until 1953. After that time, he continued to perform and record gospel and religious music for another 40 years -- until 1993.

Under the name J. E. Mainer's Crazy Mountaineers, they toured the American South on live radio shows and recorded fourteen songs for Bluebird Records. Maple on the Hill, which according to the National Endowment for the Arts was their biggest hit, had originally been composed in the 1890s by Gussie L. Davis. Mainer was in his brother J.E.'s band for two years, until he left for more traditional work, which at the time was far more profitable than his musical career.

Making only five dollars a week under sponsorship, Mainer found that he could earn up to three times as much working at a yarn mill, which he described as being "gold" for the era. After leaving his brother's group in 1936, he began to perform duet work with Zeke Morris, who was a fellow band mate from The Mountaineers.

After a time working on this project, Mainer left to form the short-lived "Smilin' Rangers" which later became "Sons of the Pioneers". Zeke Morris then got together with his brother Wiley to form The Morris Brothers. Sons of the Mountaineers Mainer named this new band Sons of the Mountaineers. Its initial lineup included Jay Hugh Hall and Clyde Moody as guitarists with Steve Ledford as a fiddler. Among musicians who would join the group later were Jack and Curly Shelton, Tiny Dodson, Red Rector and Fred Smith.

The band got its start performing on the radio and recording songs for Bluebird Records and their first hit, entitled "Sparkling Blue Eyes" was recorded in 1939.[ From 1935 through 1941, Mainer recorded over 165 songs for record label RCA Victor in various lineups, ranking him among one of the most prolifically recorded country music artists of that period.

The Sons of the Mountaineers briefly stopped playing during World War II because Mainer could not afford to squander the valuable gasoline required for the journey to the radio stations. One notable exception, however, came in 1942, when they were invited to the White House by Eleanor Roosevelt. There in Washington D.C., they played several tunes, including "Down in the Willow Garden", a song personally requested by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

During this time, they also appeared in a version of The Chisholm Trail in New York. At wars' end, the band was reorganized and once again began to play at stations across North Carolina. Recordings at this time were sporadic, due to the declining popularity of the genre. In 1953, after having renewed his commitment to Christianity, Mainer left the group and exited the industry for a time. In 1953, Mainer and his wife settled in Flint, Michigan, where he found work at a General Motors factory.

Although renouncing both the music industry and his trademark instrument, the banjo, he and Julia did continue to sing at gospel revival meetings. In the early 1960s, Molly O'Day convinced him that he could use the banjo in gospel recordings, which spurred a series of religiously-theme banjo albums beginning with in 1961. He also began to record and tour with his wife. Mainer retired from General Motors in 1973. Mainer has been credited with bridging the gap between old-time mountain music and Bluegrass and musicians such as Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson have all cited Mainer as a source of influence.

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