Julia Mae Brown Mainer, old-time guitarist and singer, died on January 21, 2015. The North Carolina native and long-time resident of Michigan was a performing musician for over seventy years. Beginning her career as Hillbilly Lillie, she was best known in later years as the musical partner of her husband, banjo player and National Heritage Award recipient Wade Mainer. Wade said of Julia, in an interview quoted in Dick Spottswood’s 2010 book Banjo On the Mountain: Wade Mainer’s First Hundred Years, “[Julia’s is] a beautiful voice, don’t ever hear nobody else sing with a voice like she sings with.” Julia Mainer was 96 years old. Jim Griffith contributed the following remembrance.
The first time I heard Julia Mainer’s voice was on the Wade Mainer King LP Soulful Gospel Songs, where she sang “My Soldier Boy” and “Streamlined Religion.” Typically for this modest, self-effacing woman, her solos were uncredited on the LP. Her voice, however, was unforgettable, and I finally learned who she was.
Born Julia Mae Brown, Ms. Mainer performed over WSJS in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as “Hillbilly Lillie” between 1935 and 1937, the year she married the well-known singer and banjo player Wade Mainer. She then retired from music while she and Wade raised five children together, moving to Michigan in the meantime. When Wade retired from his job at the Ford Factory they began recording and playing at festivals together, with Julia providing solid guitar backup to her husband’s banjo.
Julia also sang duets with Wade, and every show featured at least one solo by Julia. A deeply religious woman, she specialized in gospel songs, bringing to them a powerful voice reminiscent of such great singers as Molly O’Day. One of her specialties was to adapt the recitation style made famous by the Golden Gate Quartet, and nobody who has heard her rendition of “Jonah” will easily forget the experience. For those who are fortunate enough to have known Julia Mainer, it may be her shy smile, gracious manners, genuine neighborliness, and generosity that will be even harder to forget.