Celebrating Jesse McReynolds
By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
July 21, 2009 - 12:05 pm
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
I hope Jesse McReynolds realizes how deeply we feel toward him and his music.
The applause for him was loud I'm sure at the recent Summer Pick Inn Party at Gallatin, Tenn., a festival gathering that also served as an 80th birthday party for a bluegrass mandolinist who diverged from Bill Monroe's style and created his own crosspicking sound.
But I couldn't be there, nor could many Cafe readers. So this is a belated birthday card on behalf of fans around the world.
This affection is personal appreciation as well as an admiration for professional skills. You don't keep cranking more than 60 years in show business, especially in bluegrass, unless you truly love the music and the people. The feeling is mutual.
Like many baby boomer bluegrassers, I grew up listening to Top 40 Rock 'n Roll radio in the 1960s and crossed over to the grass in the early 1970s. I was at college and rabidly infatuated with a Saturday morning bluegrass show on public radio when the Jim & Jesse show came to town.
Most of what I knew about live bluegrass came from Nitty Gritty Dirt Band concerts, and I was spinning their LPs often.
Jim and Jesse showed me what a traditional bluegrass show was about, and I liked it. Instead of cosmic cowboy outfits, they wore western style suit coats and ribbon ties. Their appearance was like something from the 1950s. Since I was a child in that decade and subconsciously recorded all I saw in my mind, their manners and approach triggered a feeling akin to finding an old friend.
Here was a mandolin player featured front and center, too. I'd yet to hear Monroe in person. Jesse created a rippling wave of notes the likes I'd not heard on a mandolin before. I would learn later that it was called crosspicking. But at the time, with the ears listening unimpeded by pre-conceived notions, I simply considered it a wonderful sound.
Of course, they had the smooth vocals, incredible brother harmonies and a great band, too. The audience went bonkers on every Vic Jordan banjo break. Most of us were in our infant stage as bluegrass fans and Earl Scruggs playing on the Bonnie and Clyde movie soundtrack helped birth us.
What surprised and mystified us is that when we went wild after a good song, the band would step up into the mics and sing another verse and chorus or take another round of breaks on the instrumental. It was the country music encore form, the performer acknowledging the fan instantly. We were used to begging rock stars for encores at concert's end. These guys chatted with the audience at intermission and signed LP covers after the show.
So I started noticing Jim and Jesse music on the radio more often, noting songs like "Hard Hearted." And I noticed they turned up on the playlists of true blue small-town country music stations, too, especially with songs like "Give Me Forty Acres and I'll Turn This Thing Around."
Jesse and his late brother Jim, of course, were first and foremost Grand Ole Opry stars and country music recording artists. Jim was one of the greatest tenor singers ever. They'd sang and recorded Chuck Berry tunes in an earlier decade when embracing an African-American's music wasn't popular in politically conservative country circles. They'd also experimented with drums and other musical styles in their recordings.
Sam Bush has cited Jesse as one of the newgrass music pioneers.
All I knew at that time, though, was that they sounded good and they had the bluegrass drive and instrumental virtuosity, plus songs with lyrics that meant something to me. Bluegrass festivals were becoming popular then as country became pop, so the Virginia Boys were leaning back to the traditional sound.
I was in the music business, too, when I next heard Jim & Jesse live in the late 1970s. They were stars, while I was mixing sound for a bar-playing band having lots of fun but making almost no money and doing no recording. We made a rare appearance for us at a mainstream bluegrass festival and they were among the headliners.
These guys were the real deal, heroes.
But what I remember most is politeness and kindness. My interaction was minimal. But one of our band guys played at festival's end in the fiddler's roll call. It was led by Jesse, who can play fiddle and play it well. My buddy was nervous being onstage with him and his hot young Virginia Boys fiddler, Blaine Sprouse. He was soothed though by Jesse's friendliness to all the fiddlers and his comforting way of organizing things.
Sure it was a professional show for pay. But you could tell, he sincerely enjoyed it and his fellow musicians. I liked him more than ever after that.
In the 1980s, I heard Jim & Jesse play several years in a row at the Shady Hills Bluegrass Festival near Neosho, Mo. Jesse was always smiling as he autographed record covers and he'd answer questions politely. It was like visiting with family.
But one performance at Shady Hills sticks forever in my mind.
I was sitting on the hillside in my lawn chair when I watched the Jim & Jesse bus roll down the hill and park behind the stage. An hour or two later, they climbed off the bus and hit the stage for their first show of the festival. They had the usual good sound.
But then I noticed Jesse's mandolin breaks taking off and going nitro. One then another. And then he played an even more amazingly fast and complex, yet beautiful, solo. When it was over, he was smiling extra deeply. He turned to a band mate beside him and remarked in a voice barely audible over the microphone: "It's been awhile since I've heated up like this."
From that moment on I realized why the longtime bluegrass faithful who preceded my time on the circuit revered his unique mandolin playing.
Jim and Jesse kept touring non-stop and recording. Live bluegrass shows by the greats are somewhat scarce in my home area. But they came, and they were pillars of my bluegrass existence.
At one show I bought a bunch of their LPs on their Old Dominion label. I was blown away by the wonderful bluegrass on these re-issued recordings, the singing and the musicianship. And there were a few obscure cuts with Emmylou Harris joining the brothers to make a trio. Her voice sounded wonderful with theirs'—I wish they had done a whole album or two together.
In 1991, they released the CD "Music Among Friends" on the Rounder label. Some life changes had me in the deep feeling mode, and that recording played often at my house. The album had numerous guest appearances by people such as Emmylou Harris, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Ricky Skaggs and more. The songs were a mix of new and chestnuts. It also had a wonderful Jim & Jesse original, "Thanks for the Trip to Paradise."
This album was nominated for a Grammy Award in the bluegrass category and it should have won that year, but it didn't, probably due to ignorant elite Nashville executives. I'm still bitter about that. But you never saw any signs of that from Jesse, the gentleman.
I'm not friends with anyone in the McReynolds family, so I don't know all their ups and downs in personal life. I'm sure there was plenty of both.
They simply kept on making great music.
A few years before Jim's death late in 2002, the Jim & Jesse show came to a small theater in my town, a place where bluegrass acts going West often picked up a routing date.
I hadn't heard the boys in awhile and I went expecting a good show but one a little tired from the road years.
Instead, they had a killer band of seasoned bluegrass veterans and Jim & Jesse themselves were in top form. They blew our ears back and pinned them to the wall. New songs and old, it sounded as good as I'd ever heard them, if not better.
How do they do that? I guess with professionalism and talent.
Then afterward Jesse stood in the lobby and autographed photos and CD covers patiently for each person.
I haven't heard his show live in the year's since Jim's death. But I can't help but admire how he plays on, makes new music and brings younger family members into the fold.
Jesse McReynolds' musical influence is deep and his personal presence enduring.
Happy Birthday to one of the greatest and most original bluegrass stars ever, and please, carry on.