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DAVID GREENE, host: Country music pioneer Wade Mainer has died. The innovative banjo player helped set the stage for the emergence of bluegrass music. Mainer died Monday at his home in Flint, Michigan. He was 104 years old.

And NPR's Paul Brown has this appreciation.

PAUL BROWN: He was a farm boy from western North Carolina. And he did what thousands of farm boys in the South did in the 1930s, found work in a cotton mill. And like thousands, he soon wanted out of the hot, dusty mill. But he was one of the few who found a way out through music and the radio.

WADE MAINER: Hello, folks. First thing we in the morning when we get up some old new guy is picking on the hollow log. Something like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

MAINER: Now, next thing we hear is something down at the pig pen, going something like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAWING)

MAINER: (unintelligible) that. That's the sound of a little pig.

BROWN: Wade Mainer put together a band with his brother J.E. to play on a station in Concord, North Carolina in 1934.

MAINER: Let's go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BROWN: In 1990, Wade Mainer recalled how they landed that gig.

MAINER: We just took our string band and went over there and told the man that we played music. And he said, well, let's hear you play a tune or two. So we played a tune or two, said could you boys make it over here on a Saturday evening. We said sure, said we'll come over here and a Saturday evening. So we loaded up the car and went over there in an old T-model Ford, chuckled along the highway till we got over there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BROWN: He quit the band because the radio sponsor didn't pay enough. But after another stint in the mills, he formed new groups and performed on stations around the South.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A SHORT LIFE AND ITS TROUBLE")

MAINER: (Singing) A short life and its trouble and a few more words to part. Short life and a troubled little girl for a boy with a broken heart...

BROWN: Music collector and historian Dick Spotswood has written a biography of Mainer titled "Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer's First Hundred Years." He says Mainer unwittingly made a major contribution to the advancement of traditional country music, by making the banjo more than just a backup instrument.

DICK SPOTSWOOD: Wade brought the banjo out a little bit. He brought it forward in the ensemble. He played some lead. He was the connecting tissue between that string band sound of the 1920s and the music that was created in the '40s that came to be called bluegrass.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORRIED MAN BLUES)

BROWN: Spotswood says it was this Mainer innovation plus his band's tight vocal harmonies, and focus on gospel music that Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys would pick up on.

SPOTSWOOD: If those people hadn't been doing what they were doing in the 1930s, there would have been no bluegrass in the 1940s. Bill Monroe wouldn't have had that to build on.

MAINER: (Singing) It takes a worried man to sing a worried song. It takes a worried man to sing a worried song. Worried now but I won't be worried long...

BROWN: But as good as Mainer was, World War II and its gasoline rationing knocked the momentum out of his career. In the early 1950s, he moved to Michigan and an auto factory job. He stopped performing all but gospel music. Nearly a decade later, he returned to secular music and his banjo and found new fans in the urban folk music revival.

Musician David Holt says Mainer's modest comeback inspired another generation of professionals, people like Holt himself.

DAVID HOLT: And he could really wow a crowd with his flipping the banjo behind his back and playing it behind his neck, as well as being a good player. He knew how to entertain a crowd, so he was influential in that way, too, to the '60s and '70s generations.

BROWN: And for decades beyond, Wade Mainer promoted the music he loved.

MAINER: We just appreciate people sticking to the old time music. And we just hope that we can do it for many years to come.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE) And Wade Mainer kept performing at festivals, at his church, and at events near his home well past his 100th birthday. Paul Brown, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOUT, LITTLE LULU")

MAINER: (Singing) Oh, Lulu...

GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, host: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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