Jim & Jesse – You can sometimes get what you want
“One of the greatest feelings that you have in the music business, I guess, is when you walk out onstage and start doing something, a song that you’ve had airplay on, and you hit the intro and the fans start applauding,” says Jim McReynolds, who, with his brother Jesse, has already seen his 50th year in that business come and go. “Well, you look out there and you see people singing along with you, and it just gives you a good feeling, you know, that they’re really your fans.”
The title of the Bear Family box set of 1960s Columbia/Epic recordings made by Jim & Jesse is Bluegrass And More, and it’s exactly right. Born in essentially the same place and time as Carter and Ralph Stanley, and fellow members of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor, the McReynolds brothers have spent their lives making music that confounds rigid distinctions between country and bluegrass. The fans are, indeed, theirs — drawn not (or not just) by an enthusiasm for the genre of bluegrass, but by the characteristic beauty and grace of their own lasting artistry.
In fact, for a pair of soft-spoken, almost courtly Virginia gentlemen, Jim & Jesse have been surprisingly intent on following their own path in both music and the business of music. This spring will see the release of a new album from the duo proving that, even as they near retirement, their urge to, as Jim puts it, “do what we want to” remains as strong as ever.
Jim and Jesse McReynolds were born in 1927 and 1929, respectively, and raised in Coeburn, Virginia, down in the southwestern tip of the state. Music ran in the family; their grandfather had recorded old-time fiddle music back in the 1920s, and their dad played too. They spent their teens listening to the Grand Ole Opry and other radio shows, and beginning to play and sing themselves.
Having performed occasionally before Jim went into the Army shortly after the end of World War II, they took it up in earnest on his return in 1947. Jim played guitar, while Jesse appropriated a mandolin of Jim’s; unlike an early influence, the Monroe Brothers, the tenor-playing brother sang most of the lead, while Jim developed a distinctive tenor voice that was both sweet and keening. They got themselves work at a succession of radio stations in the area before moving to Augusta, Georgia, for a year to work with their friend Curly Seckler, who had been invited to join banjoist Hoke Jenkins at WGAC there and had made the McReynolds boys part of the deal.
By the end of 1950, the pair were ready to try something new. “Some of the show dates worked out good, and some of them didn’t do all that well,” Jim remembers. After hearing of a barn dance out in Waterloo, Iowa, they got on the phone and lined up a job there. “You talk about a change in the weather,” laughs Jim, “going from Augusta to Waterloo right after Christmas, it was so doggone cold that I didn’t even want to walk outside unless I was half-starving.”
Their stay in Iowa lasted only through the spring, when they moved on to a station in Wichita, Kansas, where the two mountain youngsters were impressed by the fruited plains. “That’s a beautiful sight, just before they harvest the wheat,” Jim says. Jesse remembers that “it looked like acres and acres of gold, blowing in the wind.”
More importantly, they were encouraged by the tastes of audiences there to incorporate new musical influences alongside those of the Monroe Brothers, Roy Acuff and enthusiasts such as Jenkins who were among the first to pick up on the unprecedented bluegrass sound of Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys.
“Everybody loved the cowboy songs,” recalls Jim. “And when we started doing those things, it was quite different for us to go from just singing old country songs to those cowboy songs. But we worked on them, and we got to where we’d do ‘Cool Water’ and ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’, a lot of the Sons Of The Pioneers things, and Foy Willing and the Riders Of The Purple Sage. The disc jockeys that we listened to, occasionally you might hear one of Monroe’s tunes or a Flatt & Scruggs number, but you didn’t hear much bluegrass music out in that country.”
Even so, “we just never could break the ice out there,” Jim says, and so the brothers moved again, this time to Middletown, Ohio, where they got themselves on Smoky Ward’s WPFB show and, for the first time but not the last, on television. While there, they made their first recordings, a set of gospel songs with local singer Larry Roll cut in 1951.
Originally released on Carl Burkhardt’s tiny Kentucky label, these tracks, recently reissued on CD by Crosscut Records as Early Bluegrass Gospel Classics, were classic hymns such as “I’ll Fly Away” and “On The Jericho Road” set to guitar-and-mandolin backing. They were in the “old country songs” tradition of the Monroe Brothers and Blue Sky Boys, delivered with smooth trio vocals that reflected the sound of the “cowboy songs” they’d learned out west. They also showcased a new style of mandolin playing Jesse had developed, which took the three-note “roll” pattern of a banjoist’s right hand and adapted it to the mandolin, creating a highly distinctive, filigreed sound that would become a signature element of their music.