McReynolds, Jim and Jesse
Jim and Jesse McReynolds
Jim and Jesse McReynolds and their group the Virginia Boys are a top-drawing bluegrass band with origins in Virginia’s Clinch Mountains. The McReynolds brothers—who have been performing together since the early 1940s—are honored regulars on the Grand Ole Opry, where they play and sing an array of bluegrass, country, and even rockabilly tunes. As Irwin Stambler noted in the Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, Jim and Jesse “came to the foreground as one of the best Bluegrass troupes in the country” after the 1960s folk revival brought a surge of interest in stringband music. Since then the indefatigable entertainers have been a staple of bluegrass jamborees, Opry concerts, and folk festivals. In the Country Music Encyclopedia, Melvin Shestack contended that Jim and Jesse unquestionably rank “among the royalty of bluegrass performers.”
The McReynolds brothers were born with musical blood in their veins. Their grandfather was one of the best-known traditional fiddlers in all of southern Virginia and their parents also played professionally. Both Jim
Photograph by Jon Sievert/MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/Venice, CA
Jim McRcynolds (born February 13, 1927, in Coeburn, VA; married; wife’s name, Arreta), guitar, vocals; Jesse McReynolds (born July 9, 1929, in Coeburn, VA; married; wife’s name, Darlene; children: Keith, Michael, Randy, Gwen), mandolin, vocals.
Bluegrass and country musicians and songwriters, 1940—. Made radio debut on WNVA, Norton, VA, as the McReynolds Brothers and the Cumberland Mountain Boys, 1947; signed with Kentucky Records, 1950; moved to Capitol Records, 1951; changed name to Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys; moved to Columbia label, 1960; had first Top Ten hit, “Diesel on My Tail,” c. 1965; became regulars on the Grand Ole Opry, 1964; have made numerous live appearances in the United States and abroad, including tours of Japan.
Addresses: Record compony; —Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140.
and Jesse started picking as young children, with Jim on mandolin and Jesse on guitar. Somehow neither boy could master his instrument at first, so they switched—Jesse took up mandolin and Jim began guitar. Soon they were masters, and Jesse in particular seemed never to stop practicing and experimenting with new licks.
The brothers formed their first band in the early 1940s, earning engagements at local establishments in the Clinch Mountain coal country. In 1947 they made their radio debut in Norton, Virginia, as the McReynolds Brothers and the Cumberland Mountain Boys. Their sound and picking style was influenced by Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and other pioneers of bluegrass, but the major catalyst for their music was the “singing brothers” phenomenon that flourished in the South during mid-century.
In 1950 the brothers left the South and moved to Wichita, Kansas, where they worked under contract to radio station KFBI. They adapted their music to suit Midwestern tastes, adding accordion and steel guitar, and incorporating such flat-country standards as “Home on the Range” into their repertoire. After a year they returned east to Kentucky and Virginia and renamed their band the Virginia Trio. They cut several records during this period, first with Kentucky Records and then with the larger Capitol label.
The early Capitol recordings feature fine sidemen such as Hoke Jenkins on banjo and Curly Seckler on guitar, but are most notable for Jesse’s mandolin playing. He had developed two new techniques for mandolin—crosspicking and split-string playing. The first, crosspicking, adapted Earl Scruggs’s three-finger banjo licks to mandolin, using a straight pick instead of fingers. The second technique involved a complicated fingernail fretting that allowed the musician to introduce additional harmonies into his songs. According to Marilyn Kochman in The Big Book of Bluegrass, these innovations of Jesse’s “tremendously expanded the capabilities of the mandolin by adding new dimensions to its sound.”
The band was quite prosperous by 1952, but history intervened. Jesse was drafted for military service in the Korean War. Shortly after his discharge two years later, the brothers earned a contract with radio station WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia, where they played as Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys. WWVA had a strong signal, and sent its bluegrass music to an ever-growing audience throughout the South. This exposure led to the biggest break for the McReynolds brothers—a sponsorship by Martha White Flour, the company that made Flatt & Scruggs famous. The brothers and their group began appearing occasionally on the Grand Ole Opry. During this period the sidemen included Don McHan on guitar, Bobby Thompson on banjo and the talented Vassar Clements on fiddle.
Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys were poised to capitalize on the major revival of interest in bluegrass during the early to mid-1960s. They cut several quality albums with the Starday label, including Country Express and Bluegrass Hall of Fame, and were able to move to the Columbia label under its country subsidiary, Epic. Several of their best Epic albums are still available, most notably Bluegrass Classics. The group was also asked to perform at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and 1966. The brothers’ greatest honor came in 1964, however, when they were invited to become regulars on the Grand Ole Opry, the summit of success for any country or bluegrass band.
Under the influence of their Opry stints, Jim and Jesse began to perform more in the country vein in the mid-1960s. They had their biggest hit with a song in this style, “Diesel on My Tail,” which made it into the country Top Ten. The advent of summer bluegrass festivals in the early 1970s opened up new markets for their traditional work and they returned to classic blue-grass. Their later lineup included Keith McReynolds, one of Jesse’s sons, on electric bass.
In the Tradition, their 1988 release, featured a reunion with banjo wizard Allen Shelton, who had left the band more than 20 years before, to pursue a career as a pipefitter. The album also enlisted the artistry of Glen Duncan on fiddle, Roy Huskey on bass, and Charlie Collins on guitar. Critics were thrilled with the collaboration. Victory Review called the album “a clear and successful effort to recreate their classic sound,” and Blugrass magazine concluded that it was “such a rich experience that it is difficult for the reviewer to even begin to discuss it.”
Jim and Jesse celebrated 25 years on the Grand Ole Opry in 1989 by recording Music Among Friends, an album of previously unreleased material. The brothers were joined on the album by a stellar cast of bluegrass and country artists including, Porter Waggoner, Emmy-lou Harris, Bill Monroe, and Ricky Scaggs.
In 1994, Bear Family Records released Bluegrass and More, a compilation of 136 recordings that the McReynolds made for Epic Records between 1960 and 1969. The five-disc CD set spans Jim and Jesse’s entire career and covers the diversity of their early experimentation with mainstream country, vocals, and instrumentals as well as bluegrass and gospel. Included in the discography is “Berry Pickin’ in the Country,” their 1965 album of Chuck Berry classics, and their Top 20 hit, “Diesel on My Tail.”
Although the group has undergone numerous personnel and recording label changes in its forty-plus-year existence, the bond between the McReynolds brothers appears as strong as ever. Jesse told Marilyn Koch-man that he thinks the band has survived because he respectfully defers to his brother when the two disagree. “We compromise a lot with each other,” he said. “When two people get together to do an arrangement, someone has to give somewhere. It’s easier for one leader of a band to work at things than for two.”
Jim and Jesse have had a profound influence on the younger generation of bluegrass musicians. They have been a vital link between the original bluegrass bands of Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs and the current crop of newgrass innovators. According to Bill C. Malone in Country Music U.S.A., Jim and Jesse have achieved fame as much for their beautiful vocals as for their pioneering instrumental work. Malone concludes: “Jim and Jesse brought a mellow, soft tone to bluegrass singing, and a receptivity to songs from other genres, that gave them an audience which extended well beyond the borders of their adopted musical field.”
20 Great Songs by Jim and Jesse, Capitol.
Country Express, Starday.
Bluegrass Hall of Fame, Starday.
Bluegrass Special, Epic.
Bluegrass Classics, Epic.
Berry Pickin’ in the Country, Epic.
Diesel on My Tail, Epic.
Jim and Jesse, Epic.
Old Country Church, Epic.
Country Music and Bluegrass at Newport, Vanguard.
Sacred Songs of the Virginia Trio, Double J Productions.
Country Express, Starday.
Homeland Harmony, Double J Productions.
Music Among Friends, Rounder.
Bluegrass and More (compilation), Bear Family, 1994.
Also recorded All-Time Great Instrumentals, Saluting the Louvin Brothers, We Like Trains, Mandolin Workshop Hilltop, Jim and Jesse Today, and Y’All Cornel Bluegrass Humor With Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys.
Jesse McReynolds has also issued solo recordings, including Jesse McReynolds: Me and My Fiddles, Atteiram, and Jesse’s Guitar Pickin’ Showcase, Double J Productions.
The Big Book of Bluegrass, edited by Marilyn Kochman, Morrow, 1984.
Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
Malone, Bill C, Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1969.
Billboard, February 20, 1988.
Bluegrass, February 1988.
Boston Globe, October 24, 1991.
Boston Herald, December 27, 1991.
Country Music, November/December 1992; March/April 1994.
Country Music Roundup, July 1991.
Victory Review, April 1988.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Rounder Records publicity materials.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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