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Country music pioneer Wade Mainer dies at 104

Wade Mainer, a country music pioneer who is credited with inventing the two-finger banjo picking style that paved the way for the Bluegrass era, has died. He was 104.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wade Mainer, a country music pioneer who is credited with inventing the two-finger banjo picking style that paved the way for the Bluegrass era, has died. He was 104.

Mainer died Monday at his home in Flint Township, northwest of Detroit, according to the funeral home where his service was to be held.

He was a member of late brother J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers, one of the most popular sibling duos of the 1930s. He made recordings for all the major labels of the day, including RCA in 1935.

"Wade Mainer is the last of the old guard from the '20s and '30s to pass on. Mainer's Mountaineers was a huge group during that time. They influenced the Monroe Brothers, The Delmore Brothers, The Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, Reno and Smiley and countless other music groups from the South," country and bluegrass artist Ricky Skaggs said in an email Wednesday to The Associated Press. "My dad loved them as well so I heard lots of Mainer's Mountaineers in my house, too."

John Ramble, senior historian of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn., said Mainer's two-finger style helped make the banjo more prominent in old-time, or early country music. Using two fingers, as opposed to the downward strumming motion of the "claw hammer" style, allowed him to be more melodic.

Born near Asheville, North Carolina, Mainer got his musical start in North Carolina's mountains and later rediscovered it in an industrial Michigan city. Concerned that country music was dying, he left the stage and the South in the early 1950s and moved to Flint, Mich., to work for General Motors. He played only in church but eventually stopped altogether, putting the banjo under his bed for four years.

Mainer returned to music after another musician convinced the born-again Christian he could use his talents to honor God. He told The Associated Press in 1991 that he got back on the circuit in 1970s after country-western star Tex Ritter bumped into one of Mainer's sons.

"Ritter said, 'He's been dead for 15 years, ain't he?" Mainer said. "A lot of people thought I was dead."

Mainer said at the time many of his friends gave up the traditional mountain music for the faster-paced, more profitable bluegrass style.

"This is the only kind of music there is that's good listening and tells a story," he said.

Rumble said by the early 1950s, Mainer's style was "becoming increasingly dated," and nobody but the biggest stars made much money. But by the time he restarted in the early 1970s, there was a renewed interest in music like his because of the folk revival.

"It's just remarkable that at his advanced age he stayed accessible," Rumble said. "He was literally a living link to pre-war country music and the first generation of professional country musicians who worked on radio and recorded."

Mainer is survived by his wife, Julia, whom he married in 1937 and often performed with him. They had four sons and one daughter as well as two grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. One son died in 1985.

A funeral service is set for Friday at Swartz Funeral Home in Mundy Township near Flint.


Associated Press writer Chris Talbott in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.