About The Group
J. E. Mainer's Mountaineers were essentially, a Carolina-Piedmont-Mountain string band, a 1930's younger version of what Charlie Poole's North Carolina Ramblers or Red Patterson's Piedmont Log Rollers had been in the previous decade. The difference being that Mainer and associates were younger and had a base on radio rather than being exclusively known through phonograph recordings. J. E. and Wade Mainer hailed from the mountain area not far from Weaverville who migrated to the Piedmont area town of Concord to work in the textile mills before embarking on a musical career.
Joseph Emmet Mainer left the family home at age twelve to work in a cotton mill, but eventually settled in Concord, North Carolina in 1922. At times, when he was back in Weaverville, he worked at a sawmill owned by his brother-in-law Roscoe Banks. Brother Wade, who was nine years younger, also worked at the sawmill until he decided to leave his fifty cents a day job and go to Concord and also work in the cotton mill that evidently paid a little better. It was there that they began to play together, J. E. on fiddle and Wade on banjo. They often played at local entertainments and square dances.
Fiddle contests (which usually included competition on other instruments and bands) were popular in the Piedmont Region and J. E. organized a group which did well in the contests. After some years at this, opportunity knocked in the form of radio programs sponsored by Crazy Water Crystals. This firm based in Mineral Wells, Texas made use of crystals that could be dissolved in water which made a mild laxative. There were rival firms such as Bluebonnet Crystals and Texas Crystals which also sponsored country acts, but Crazy Water dominated the Carolinas. Mainer's Mountaineers began working for them on radio about 1934 at the Crazy Barn Dance at WBT Charlotte. Eventually they worked daily programs as well and were sent to various radio locales to promote their sponsor's product.
Another big plus for the Mountaineers came in August 1935 when they did their first recordings for RCA's Bluebird label in Atlanta. Their first release "Maple on the Hill" turned out to be one of the best sellers of the year. Actually, it was an old song, but with a new tune. Since that time almost all recordings of the number use the Mainer tune. The band at that time consisted of J. E. on fiddle, Wade on vocal and banjo, Claude "Zeke" Morris on vocal and guitar, and "Daddy" John Love on second guitar. On his solo vocals, Love sang numbers in a Jimmie Rodgers style. As a result of their first success, the Mountaineers became one of Bluebird's most recorded groups for the next six years even though they soon split into two groups. John Love went on first to record solo and then formed his own band the Dixie Reelers.
When J. E. did his second session on Valentine's Day in 1936, his band members consisted of Howard Bumgardner on guitar, Clarence Todd and Ollie Bunn who alternated on banjo and second fiddle. Ironically, Wade Mainer and Zeke Morris recorded as a duet that day by themselves.
However, in June 1936 Wade and Zeke Morris were back on vocals with J. E.'s group while other accompanists were Junior Misenheimer (banjo), Harold Christy and Beacham Blackweller (guitars). It would be the last time that both Mainers would record together. In all honesty, both Mainers had their cantankerous moments and sometimes also quarrels with both Hubert Fincher of Crazy Water Crystals and the musicians union.
Wade Mainer and Zeke Morris continued on their own until Zeke left to become one of the Morris Brothers; Wade formed his own band known as the Sons of the Mountaineers. J. E. also formed a new Mountaineers band consisting of himself on fiddle, DeWitt "Snuffy" Jenkins on banjo, George Morris (an older brother of Zeke) on guitar, and Leonard Stokes on mandolin. They worked mostly at WSOC Charlotte and then WIS Columbia, South Carolina.
They did further sessions for Bluebird on August 5, 1937 and January 23, 1938. On the January 1938 sessions Jenkins was gone and although J. E. was leader there is doubt that he actually played or sang on them. A dispute either with the union or perhaps A & R man Eli Oberstein may have been the reason. At J. E.'s last Bluebird session on February 4, 1939 he had no band, but was accompanied by Clyde Moody and Jay Hugh Hall who were borrowed from brother Wade's band.
J. E. soon had another band comprised of Price Sanders (banjo), Mitchell Parker and Gurney Thomas (guitars) and a new base at WBIG Greensboro, North Carolina. After several months, J. E. left and a few days later, the station let the band go. Soon, however, J. E. called them back (possibly just Parker and Sanders) and they went to Texas and did programs for the "Border Station WENT Monterrey, Mexico. They made numerous transcriptions there, a few of which have been released on long play albums. This band also played for a time at KMOX in St. Louis.
During World War II, J. E. kept his musical activity largely confined to playing in the vicinity of his Concord home. But once the conflict ended, he signed the Delmore Brothers, Shelton Brothers, Rex Griffin with the new Cincinnati-based King label as did many other pre-war acts. Mainer's Mountaineers was now built around J. E. on fiddle, oldest son J. E. Jr or "Curley" (B: January 22, 1924 — D: January 13, 2020) on guitar, and Thedford Glenn Mainer(B: November 20, 1927 — D: 2018) on banjo. No obituary could be found for Thedford. Of twenty-four masters cut, nineteen were subsequently released, with "Run Mountain" being the best known. They played radio mostly in Johnson City, Tennessee with the aid of other musicians such as Jim Dillon, John Cook, and the Overcash Brothers, Floyd and Otis. As years went by, two Mainer daughters Carolyn (B: January 6, 1930 — D: October 24, 2000) and Mary (B: February 27, 1932 — D: November 18, 2012) also served as band members.
In 1960, sixteen numbers from the 1946 session were released as Good Ole Mountain Music (King LP 666). Still being at least semi-active they then recorded again in June 8, 1961 when they did another album for King.
By this time Glenn Mainer had become a full-fledged bluegrass banjo picker although J. E. was still an old-time fiddler.
After this the Mainers were about as active in recording if not more so than they had been in the late 1930's. J. E with various support musicians, including at times Curley and Glenn, Earl and Jerry Cheek, and later Morris Herbert, cut albums for Arhoolie, Blue Jay, Old Homestead (issued posthumously), and especially Rural Rhythm where he did at least thirteen albums of about 20 songs each (one being a bluegrass album with Red Smiley's Blue Grass Cut-Ups). After his death, the company mixed the songs from various other albums up to a total of 20 volumes.
Marvin Eury wrote an article about J. E. Mainer in 1967 in a Kannapolis, NC newspaper. He begins by telling readers that Mainer was "born in a one-room log cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He wauit school before he was out of the "second reader" but he made his mark in country music and he performed for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. ... has played on 190 radio stations, made personal appearance in nearly every southern state, rubbed wlbows with the greats and near-greats of country and western music and still holds the record for the number of letters from one 15-minute program at radio station WIS in Columbia, SC."
Mr. Eury wrote of Mainer after he had received an award from the Mooresville Lions Club, a trophy for his contributions to country music over the past half century. It read, "Awarded to J. E. Mainer. Given for upholding country music."
We further learn that J. E. learned to read by reading the signs along the highways as he travelled to personal appearances. He never had a music lesson in his life. He learned to play the banjo and fiddle. But on top of that, he also built those instruments in his '...combination office - workshop - museum' at his home near Concord, NC. Mr. Eury noted that Mainer "...looked like a walking advertisement for his old sponsor, the producers of "Peruni" and "Color Back." His face is unwrinkled and his hair is still the same color at it was when he used to open his popular radio shows with the song, "How Do You Do Everybody? How Do You Do?"
Mainer told Mr. Eury that the Mainer cabin was situated between two mountains that were so steep, the sun only shone on the home six hours a day. Their nearest neighbor was even miles away. To get away on occasion, Mainer's dad built a sled to help them navigate the steep slopes.
The family moved to Union, SC where J.E's brother, Wade, was born. His father then bought a home in Weaversville. J.E. quit school and went to work in a cotton mill to help the family pay for their new home. Mr. Eury noted that by the time J. E. was 12, he "...already had the traveling dust in his shoes and hopped a freight train to Knoxville, TN where he developed his love for string music.
He learned to play the banjo when he was just nine, but in his heart, he wanted a fiddle. How he got that fiddle, well, let's let Mr. Eury and J. E. tell that story:
"I got me a job in Knoxville at the Brook Side Cotton Mill. One Saturday I went to a cafe where all the boys hung out. There was an old man leaning up against a telegraph pole and he was playing a fiddle. I'll never forget the tune he was playing. It was "The Drunkard's Hiccough."
Mainer's sister married Roscoe Banks, who was from the mountains and played the fiddle. Mainer said "He played it left-handed but he sure could play it." The two of them began playing square dances with Wade joining them occasionally. They started to make a name for themselves.
Mainer got the itch to roam again; hopped a train to Salisbury in hopes of finding a job, but to no avail. He then walked to Concord; he got a job at Cannon Mill Plant 6. While he was 'settled down' there, he met and married Sadie McDaniel. While at the mill, he still continued to play the fiddle. Wade came to live with them. The two formed a group with John Love of Concord and Zeke Morris of Old Fort. They would go to fiddlers' conventions and won every ribbon one could think of.
They had gotten the attention of the Crazy Water Crystal Company; they wanted Mainer's group for a program over WBT in Charlotte. Mainer said he would take it, but he wanted to talk with Lloyd C. Harmon, who was the superintendent at Cannon Mill 6. He wanted to know if his job would still be there if he couldn't make it as a musician.
J. W. Fincher, then president of Crazy Water Crystal Co., showed faith in Mainer and his group. They were being heard at 6:15am every day and again at 12:15pm. They did personal appearances every night, riding in an old 1936 model Ford. They would play just about anywhere, school houses, church halls and the like. Often time they would get back the next morning just in time before their show went on the air. They were on the air at WBT for about four years. Then their journey took them to WPTF in Raleigh where after six years, they went to WSPA in Spartansburg and then on to WIS in Columbia.
It was while they were at WIS that they set a record. They got 11, 421 pieces of mail from one 15-minute program. As of 1967, that record still stood. Around that time, his group included George Morris of Old Fort, Leonard Stokes of Richfield and Snuffy Jenkins of Rutherfordton.
Around this time, Benson - Doll, the sponsors of Color Back signed J. E. to a contract; that sent him to San Antonio, TX (Asher Sizemore and Little Jimmie also did transcriptions there) where the transcriptions they made were heard all of the world.
J. E. told Mr. Eury that "...didn't makemushc when he started in the entertainment world but had managed to buy anything he wants and paid for it with my fiddle."
In his workshop, he was making fiddles out of imported German wood. The prices for those fiddles (in 1967) ranged from $25 to $150.
In February of 1971, J. E. Mainer and his Mountaineers made an appearance at Macbride Auditorium at Iowa University. It was sponsored by Friends of Old Time Music and the University of Iowa School of Letters. Just prior to their appearance in Iowa, the group will have appeared at the University of Chicago's Folk Festival. An article cites from the book "Country Music U.S.A.":
"Performing with great gusto and abandon characterized by whoops and hollers, they evoke a tangy backwoods atmospher as they range from raucous novelty tunes to southern gospel songs. For the studen of folk music the Mainer organization's extensive traditional repertory and perpetuaion of old-time country fiddling marks them as one of the most important groups in country music history."
He recalled some of the fiddlers he faced in the past during those fiddling conventions or contests. He told Page Connell in 1967, "Curly Fox is the only fiddler I ever dreaded — and, oh yeah, Gid Tanner and his Skillet Likkers."
Then he spoke of the times passing. "A lot of the old fiddlin' players are passing out. The young ones just ain't learning. They have got this rock 'n' roll now. The old records are worn out — that's why I got this new album out now."
In addition, many of his 1930's recordings were reissued on various labels for the collector market. They also did personal appearances as far west as the Berkeley Folk Festival, northward to the WWVA Jamboree, and bluegrass festivals throughout the Upper South. It was while preparing to leave Concord for a festival in Culpepper, Virginia in June 1971 that he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Carlton Haney held his 7th Annual Blue Grass Music Festival in Camp Springs, NC in September 1971. It started off with a tribute to J. E. Mainer who had passed away earlier in the year. About 10,000 folks were expected to attend the three day festival. Other performers were to be: Earl Scruggs and his sons; the Osborne Brothers; Jimmy Martin; Mac Wiseman; Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys and also Roy Acuff and his Smokey Mountain Boys.
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