Wade Mainer

North Carolina native Wade Mainer, one of the most popular and influential figures in early country music and Charlotte's most-recorded country artist during the 1930s, died Monday at his home in Flint, Mich. He was 104.

A legendary mountain-born banjo picker, he was sometimes called "the godfather of North Carolina country music."

During the Great Depression, Mainer performed in the White House for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and in New York City with folk legend Woody Guthrie.

His last public performance in Charlotte was in 1985 at the Charlotte Country Music Story at Spirit Square.

In the mid 1920s, Mainer hitchhiked from Buncombe County to Concord where he worked in a cotton mill. Along with his older brother, J.E., Mainer landed on WBT's popular "Crazy Water Barn Dance" radio show in 1934. They became one of the hottest acts in the Southeast, making records for RCA's Bluebird series.

The Mainers' pre-bluegrass versions of such songs as "Maple on the Hill" and "Take Me in the Lifeboat" later became bluegrass standards.

Mainer sang with Guthrie in the folk musical "Chisholm Trail" on CBS in the early 1940s. The cast included folk artists Burl Ives and Cisco Houston and N.C. blues singer Sonny Terry.

In the late 1940s, when modern country music overshadowed old-time country music, Mainer moved to Flint where he worked in an auto plant.

During the folk revival of the 1960s, a younger generation of fans discovered Mainer and the old-time sounds he was playing again by then. He was popular at bluegrass festivals throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s.

Last year, the University Press of Mississippi published "Banjo on the Mountain: The First 100 years of Wade Mainer" by Dick Spottswood and Stephen Ware.

Mainer, who was in Michigan's country music hall of fame, returned to North Carolina occasionally. In a 2003 interview, he told the Observer that the mountains where he grew up always lived in the tunes he carried in his heart.

"This is where the music was born," Mainer said.

- by Joe DePriest, The Charlotte Observer

Published in Charlotte Observer on Sept. 14, 2011