Born in a one room country shack near Weaverville, North Carolina in 1898, Joseph Emmett Mainer learned to play the banjo when he was about nine years old. His brother-in-law, Roscoe Banks, was a left-handed fiddler and J. E. soon joined him at square dances on weekends. The family made a marginal living farming in the hills. J. E. left home in 1922 and caught a freight train to Salisbury. He met his wife Sadie, got married, settled in Concord, and got work at the Gibson Cotton Mill.
In 1923 J. E.’s brother Wade joined him in Concord and the two of them began playing around for dances and shows. They added the singer and guitarist Daddy John Love. In 1932 came their big break when J. W. Fincher, president of the Crazy Water Crystal Co., heard about the group and sent for J. E. to come to Charlotte.
They went to work for the Crazy Water Crystal Company broadcasting over WBT in Charlotte as J. E. Mainer's Crazy Mountaineers and added Claude Morris (Zeke) as the fourth member of the group. The group soon played at many other radio stations including WPTF Raleigh, WWL New Orleans, and XERF Monterrey, Mexico where they appeared at the same time as the Carter Family.
After the Crazy Water Crystals sponsorship ended, RCA Victor decided to record the group, now named J. E. Mainer's Mountaineers, in 1935 for their Bluebird label. One of the most popular hillbilly country records of the 1930s was recorded at the first Mainer recording session in August 1935, a version of the 19th century song "Maple on the Hill" by black songwriter Gussie L. Davis. The record was backed by "Take Me in the Lifeboat”, one of the first recordings of the revered gospel song.
Around 1936 the two brothers split up and J. E. got Snuffy Jenkins in 1937 to play banjo for him. George Morris played guitar, Leonard Stokes was on mandolin and, later, Price Sanders and Clyde Moody became part of the group. Some of the Mainer recordings with Snuffy Jenkins' three-finger picking sound tantalizingly close to what would later be called bluegrass.
Following WWII, J. E. confined most of his playing to the Carolinas, Tennessee and Virginia. He recorded in 1946, with a band whose most prominent members were his sons J. E."Curly", Jr. and Glenn, who developed into a quality Bluegrass banjo picker. J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers had four recording sessions in 1946 that resulted in several singles and two albums. An enduring original from these sessions was "Run Mountain”.
In 1962, Chris Strachwitz of the Arhoolie label visited J. E. in Concord and subsequently cut a new album, “The Legendary Family from the Blue Ridge Mountains”. This led to the re-discovery of Mainer’s Mountaineers by a new generation of fans across the U.S. and in the summer of 1963 they appeared at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival.
Beginning in 1967, J. E. cut a series of 20 albums for Uncle Jim O’Neal’s Rural Rhythm label, guested on the WWVA Jamboree and played numerous festivals while continuing to live modestly in his country home in Concord. Two re-issues on Strachwitz’s Old Timey label of early material, along with J. E.’s album from 1946 and a pair of albums that J. E. put out helped keep his earlier material in print. J. E. Mainer stayed active in music until his death in 1971.
Source material from Chris Strachwitz, discographies, and interviews and radio transcriptions of J. E. Mainer and J. E. Mainer, Jr. collected by Jim Beaver.