Jim & Jesse – You can sometimes get what you want
The following year, Jim & Jesse stepped up to the big time. Having moved to Lexington, Kentucky, the pair reunited with Seckler and Jenkins and were working the central and eastern Kentucky area when they connected with Ken Nelson of Capitol Records while both he and they were in Cincinnati.
“He listened to some songs we had on a little disc right there and said, ‘I’m going to Nashville, and if I can clear some time at the studio while I’m there, I’ll record you boys,'” Jim says. “And I guess we thought that was another put-off, or a way to get rid of us. But then we were sitting around the rooming house there and a lady came and said, ‘You’re wanted on the telephone,’ and it was Ken. He wanted to know if we could come in the next week to record.”
On June 13, 1952, the quartet, plus session bassist Bob Moore, went into the Castle Studio at the Tulane Hotel and recorded eight sides for the label with the help of Sonny James, who would become one of the most successful pop-oriented artists in country music history, but at the time was a newly-signed Capitol singer who happened to play some pretty fair fiddle. Six were originals (“We learned that if you had original material, that meant a lot to getting a record deal,” Jesse says); one was an unrecorded Louvin Brothers song, “Are You Missing Me?”, which they had gotten through a colleague in Middletown (the Louvins themselves were just getting started on MGM); and one was a Korean war song, “A Purple Heart”, written and recorded by Seckler.
Several would become Jim & Jesse classics, but “A Purple Heart” was a foreshadowing of sorts, though happily not a fatal one. By the time “Are You Missing Me?” was released as the first single, Jesse had been drafted. By the time they hit the studio again, in March 1953, Jesse was on his way to Korea, where he providentially met and played music with Charlie Louvin.
When Jesse returned from service, the duo went back to the studio once more for Capitol, but the association ended after that. By the end of 1955 Jim & Jesse had moved to Florida, where they worked an extensive circuit in northern Florida and south Georgia for the next several years. There they got once again into television, broadcasting live on a frenetic schedule that had them dashing from one city’s studio to the next throughout the week.
“That saved the day,” Jim says. “You know, a lot of us didn’t realize at that time, but it was amazing what an audience there was for television. It just opened up a market there that I never dreamed of. After we started on television, we could go to these schoolhouses and we’d do two shows. At the beginning, I kept thinking that television would wipe out personal appearances, because why would people want to come out and pay to see you in person? But I tell you, it sure changed things.”
The duo was moving on the recording front, too. In 1958, they entered into an unusual arrangement, producing their own recordings and leasing them to Nashville independent country label Starday. “They came out with these tape machines around then,” recalls Jesse, “and this guy had a little studio in his house. He had this echo thing on his tape machine, and boy, he really used it. Jim and [banjoist] Bobby [Thompson] took those songs and went to Nashville and shopped around, and the only people that wanted them was Don Pierce at Starday, so we let them have them.”
Those recordings, most of which are available on a King Special compilation (Border Ride, 1995), featured the young Thompson, then developing his own brand of what would become a profoundly influential “melodic” banjo-picking style, and fiddler Vassar Clements, who Jim laughingly says “put some notes on some of that stuff that I don’t know if they’ve ever been duplicated.”
Still, even as their bluegrass recordings were becoming widely admired and imitated, Jim & Jesse were being pushed by the demands of their television schedule to take a more eclectic approach to repertoire and instrumentation — in short, to appeal more directly to the country music fans whose viewing made the difference between a successful and unsuccessful show.
“We had to learn new songs,” Jesse says. Jim adds: “If a record was popular, if Ray Price or somebody had a hit record — and back then, it was all just country music — so we figured, if we were going to work on television, we would have to sing what was popular at the time. So we just started coming up with all these country songs.”
“Every time a record would come out and make a hit, we’d learn it,” Jesse agrees. “We kept up with what was going on. We knew everything Ray Price did with the fiddle and steel guitar, and Buck Owens came out just after that with ‘Under Your Spell Again’ and started doing all those things, and I thought, boy, that steel guitar and everything, it just — to me, still, it was some of the best music that ever was.”
The formula was a winning one, and by the early 1960s, the brothers had obtained the sponsorship of Martha White, were taping television and radio shows for syndicated broadcast throughout the deep South, and had signed with the Columbia label. After two hard bluegrass albums were issued on that label, they switched to the then-new Epic division, in part because they felt they would get more attention as the only bluegrass-oriented act there, since Flatt & Scruggs were approaching the zenith of their career on the parent label.