A New Song

Jesse McReynolds, of Jim and Jesse fame, known for pioneering the rolling, graceful style of bluegrass mandolin playing called crosspicking, is the longest running member of the legendary Grand Ole Opry.

Don Harrison interviewed Jesse McReynolds for the April 2015 issue of Virginia Living, and that interview is republished below. Scroll down for performance videos from Jim and Jesse.

Jesse McReynolds, the mandolin player, is as nice a man as you’d want to meet. He’s humble, soft-spoken, quick with a joke and a compliment. But when you ask the bluegrass legend if he thinks Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys—the band that he led with his late brother for a half-century—has been given proper due, he shakes his head and gets a little serious. “I think we’ve been forgotten a little bit. But we were as successful as anyone.”

Born in Carfax, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mountain community between Coeburn and St. Paul in Wise County, Jesse, 85, taught himself several instruments over the years, but the one that stuck was the mandolin. His unusual “crosspicking” style and strong lead baritone, along with older brother Jim’s exquisite high tenor harmony, won Jim and Jesse a recording contract with Capitol Records (and various other labels, including their own), Grammy nominations, a permanent spot on Nashville’s vaunted Grand Ole Opry, a plank on the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Walkway of Stars and, in 1997, the National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Along the way, J&J and the Boys included within their ranks some of the genre’s most revered musicians, including fiddler Vassar Clements and banjo virtuoso Allen Shelton. “We went everywhere,” McReynolds recalls. “Europe, Africa, Japan three times. We traveled every state but Alaska; that’s the one we missed.” As a performing unit, Jim and Jesse straddled the worlds of country duet singing and hot bluegrass. They were also media-savvy, transitioning seamlessly from a hectic, cross-country radio career to syndicated television.

They were also among the most exploratory of all the first generation bluegrass acts—recording an energetic grassed-up album of Chuck Berry covers (Berry Pickin’ in the Country), revving up the trucking music genre (“Diesel on my Tail”) and, along with traditional gospel hymns and mountain ballads, covering everyone from John Prine (“Paradise”) to the Monkees (“Last Train to Clarksville”). In 1969, Jesse appeared on a Doors album: “People see my name on The Soft Parade album and they ask, ‘You really played a mandolin on that?’”

There has been much tragedy too. When Jim died in 2002 from throat cancer, McReynolds had already suffered the death of his first wife, Darlene, and eldest son Keith, who played bass with Jim and Jesse; he was also being treated for prostate cancer. Musically, the veteran had to start all over. “People knew Jim and Jesse,” he recalls. “They didn’t know the first thing about Jesse McReynolds. They expected me to replace Jim. But you don’t do that.” His second wife, Joy, a former music journalist, reminded him that Jerry Garcia had been a big Jim and Jesse follower. So, with some friends, he cut a tribute called Songs of the Grateful Dead in 2010. “It’s probably the most popular record I’ve ever done,” he says.

The small, slight McReynolds, who underwent cardiac surgery last year (months later, he was one of the headliners at the Richmond Folk Festival), claims to “not be doing too much,” but he still performs on the Opry every week (celebrating his 50th year as a member) and is in the middle of an intriguing studio collaboration with multi-instrumentalist David Grisman and bluegrass band leader Del McCoury. Jesse recently joined Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and the rest of country music’s royalty in paying tribute to the legendary Bristol Sessions on a new compilation CD, Orthoponic Joy. It’s only fitting that Jesse is there: His fiddling grandfather Charles, with the Bull Mountain Moonshiners, participated in those historic 1927 sessions, known as “the big bang of country music.”

I recently sat down with Jesse Lester McReynolds, in the comfortably rustic offices of the Pick Inn, a wedding and event venue that he owns with his wife in Gallatin, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville. He still keeps the music of Jim and Jesse alive, recently releasing a CD of vintage radio shows, as well as a disc of songs that the duo cut for their own Old Dominion record label in the ’70s. Each set is a potent reminder of the brothers’ rich and singular contribution to American music.

“Jim and I got along pretty good,” Jesse says, looking at a large photo of himself with his late brother hanging on the wall. “We were raised up to respect each other and just work together on things. If we had a disagreement on something, we’d just sort of drop it and wait until it went away. And it went on for 55 years that way.”

 Which one got into music first, Jim or Jesse?

We sorta did it together. Music was everywhere. My uncles, they played some. I still have my grandfather’s fiddle. I get it out and play it sometimes. Our brother-in-law, Oakley Greer, he married our oldest sister, played fiddle and was more modern than my grandfather was. He played “Turkey in the Straw,” “Red Apple Rag,” things like that and [pushed] us to keep practicing. He gave us gospel songs to learn and encouraged us all he could.

Did you learn from your grandfather?

No. I’d just watch him play maybe an hour or two at a time when we’d visit him. He lived way back in the woods past where we were. You’d have to walk two, three miles more to get to him [laughs].

What was it like growing up in Carfax during the Depression?

I wonder sometimes how we survived back then. We didn’t have running water, no electricity, just a little spring in the back …. we had about a hundred acres, I think. Our home place is still there, We still try to keep it up a little bit.

Have you ever thought about turning it into a Jim and Jesse museum?

We talked about it. In the mountains, it’s very hard to get a road built wide enough even to get a car up there. We’ve got the family cemetery. Our folks are buried there. Jim, too.

How were you and Jim different?

Jim was more of a businessperson than he was a musician. He took care of the business end, and I took care of the music part of it. We didn’t plan it; it just happened that way.

You worked with other brother acts, like the Louvin Brothers, who didn’t get along so well.

I met Charlie Louvin in Korea when I was in the Army. We formed a little band there together. I learned that he and I had a lot in common. He did the lead singing for the Louvin Brothers like I did with Jim and Jesse. He and [brother] Ira fought a lot; they had their own personalities. Ira was a guy who was hard to figure out. From one hour to the next, he might change to be a different person.

Did you and Jim ever look at them and say, ‘Glad we aren’t like them.’

Well, we got along pretty much the same way that they did, except they were much more extreme with it. Every time we’d do a show together, Jim would always tell me, ‘We should have done better.’ He never was satisfied with how we performed, and Ira was the same way with Charlie. In a way, Jim was a perfectionist.

He was one of the classic high tenor singers. Your harmonies could trigger goosebumps.

Oh, yeah. We started out singing together when we were real young. First time, they had a contest at the high school in St. Paul there, my dad and uncles played there some. It was an annual event. We sang and did one song and won first prize for duet singing. The prize was a bag of flour [laughs].

Your brother always seemed so mellow on stage.

I would look at him, and he would not put that much effort into singing. It would just come natural. You see that picture over there [points]. That was him. He really didn’t put any action into it. He would just stand up, open his mouth, and it would come out.

You began your career around the same time as the Stanley Brothers, who came from Coeburn.

We started in 1946, after Jim got out of the Army. Then Ralph [Stanley] got out around the same time. They were more into old-time music, and that’s been very successful for Ralph. We listened to different types, more of the modern people, like the Monroe Brothers, Blue Sky Boys, Delmore Brothers, the Louvins, all the brother duets .… Right about that time, the Stanley Brothers was getting together and I was offered the job playing fiddle with them in their first band. I didn’t take it. But I could have been their first fiddle player [laughs].

When did you pick up the mandolin?

I started playing in 1947. Jim played it six months, and I played guitar. One day, he said, why don’t you play mandolin, and we’ll switch? He didn’t pay that much interest in playing a lead instrument, though. I always wanted to play extra stuff rather than just learning the chords to play. I was always searching, wanting to do something different. I tried to play like Bill Monroe at first, because everyone was playing like Bill Monroe in those days. But I found out that his style wasn’t as simple as people think it is.

Bill Monroe was known to be territorial. Did you get along?

Bill was always nice to me. We played a lot together. Bill always respected my playing, gave me some good compliments, maybe for not playing like him; I don’t know. Earl Scruggs [banjoist for Flatt and Scruggs] influenced me, my style of playing, more than Bill did. I thought, maybe I could learn to play the mandolin in a style like this. So I started working on the cross-picking. I didn’t know forward from backward on the roll, I didn’t know [Earl] was playing forward, I was playing backward.

You’re recognized today as an innovator on the instrument.

I innovated by trying to create something new. I still do that. When I pick up the mandolin now, I don’t play a tune, I start rubbing up and down the neck to find a new sound. There are some great mandolin players out there that can play rings around me, but I don’t try to play like anybody else. I didn’t call my style ‘cross-picking,’ you know. Someone from New York or somewhere heard it and give it that name.

Jim and Jesse performed a lot of traditional material. But those old songs can be quite dark.

Jim used to always introduce “Knoxville Girl” by saying, ‘This is a song about a fella who loved a girl so well that he took a stick and beat her to death.’ Music was more life-like back then, death and sickness .… people talked about it, sung it.

You signed to Capitol Records in 1951 but not as Jim and Jesse.

When we first started out, we were the McReynolds Brothers and the Cumberland Mountain Boys. And nobody could spell it. When we got the deal with Capitol, Ken Nelson [producer] said it was too long and we needed to change the name. So that’s when we turned everything around and put Jim first and called it Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys. Because we were from Virginia. And then, two months after we signed, I got drafted and we lost two years.

When you picked up the Martha White Company as a sponsor in 1960, things changed.

I reckon it was the biggest break we had. If you didn’t have a sponsor in those days, you couldn’t make it. [Martha White sponsored their radio and TV shows, and Jim and Jesse did commercials and personal appearances for the brand.] They sponsored Flatt and Scruggs, too. It was because of Martha White that me and Jim became members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1964.

How did the Berry Pickin’ in the Country LP come about?

We were always looking for something else to do. Billy Sherrill, our producer, he got the idea of doing an album of Chuck Berry covers. We got quite a bit of criticism for that at the time because it was the ’60s and racial tensions were pretty high, we were living at that time in Montgomery, Alabama. The only thing I regret was that we didn’t go all the way and get Chuck Berry to play guitar on it. He wrote the liner notes.

How did people react to you when you played with the Doors?

Bluegrass promoters [would] call Jim and say, ‘What in the world is Jesse doing playing with those dope fiends and playing that crazy music?’ But if somebody asks me to do something and it fits, I’ll do it. Paul Rothchild, the Doors’ producer, got ahold of me while I was visiting my parents in Virginia. I thought it was Jim or somebody pulling my leg because he said, ‘Hollywood calling’ [laughs]. He said, ‘We’ve got a recording out here with a group, and we need a mandolin player on it.’ He also wanted a fiddle player, so me and Jim Bohannon [J&J’s fiddler] went out there.

Did you know who the Doors were?

Not really. They were just another rock-and-roll band to me. I didn’t know they were that popular. A couple of the members were there in the studio. I never did meet Jim Morrison. And after seeing that movie about him, maybe that’s good [laughs]. They played the tune for me, “Running Blue,” and I asked where do you hear a mandolin on this thing? But right in the middle of it, we went into this hoedown.

You’ve gotten other members of the family involved in your music.

Yeah, I had four kids. They said they wanted to travel with me a little bit, and I said, if you’re gonna come with me, you need to be singing and playing some. Keith, he built this place [the Pick Inn]; he played bass with me for 15, 16 years or more. He died from Multiple Sclerosis. But now his son Garrett is playing with me. He’s been with me eight years now or more. He sings as close to Jim as anybody I’ve found.

Thanks to your Grateful Dead tribute album, you’ve found a new audience.

Yeah, I’m on the Grateful Dead channel all the time [laughs]. I didn’t listen to the Grateful Dead that much. I met Jerry Garcia one time, out in California. My wife has practically everything they put out, and so she helped me go through all the songs.

How do you bridge those worlds—the Opry and the Dead?

Nowadays, I go onstage at the Opry and ask, ‘Have we got any Grateful Dead fans here?’ And people will start looking at each other and saying, ‘What? What does he mean? He’s got a bluegrass band’ [laughs]. And then I’ll go into “Black Muddy River” and get a standing ovation.

And now you are the longest-running member. How has the Opry changed?

It’s hard to figure which direction they’re going. The Gaylord Company [the owners] whatever they do, they got to make money with it. I guess they are trying to keep up with the trends. I don’t even know what it takes to get on the Opry anymore. You used to have to have a hit song. JimAndJesse.com

Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys will perform at the Carter Fold in Hiltons in June as part of the Crooked Road’s Mountains of Music Homecoming Festival. For more information, go to CarterFamilyFold.org

This article originally appeared in our April 2015 issue.

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