One of the risks of having a bluegrass musician write about the music and its personalities is that the writer will focus on those who play his or her instrument. At the risk of trying the reader’s patience (“What, another mandolin player profile?”), this month’s column discusses the music of brothers Jim and Jesse McReynolds, with a focus on Jesse, the lead singing and mandolin playing half of the duet. They, together with their band the Virginia Boys, made up one of the best bluegrass brother groups of all time. Members of the Grand Ole Opry since 1964, and perennial festival favorites, Jim and Jesse featured smooth brother duet harmony singing and Jesse’s wonderfully inventive crosspicking mandolin style. From their beginnings in the 1940s, Jesse’s mandolin playing was instantly identifiable and it remained that way. Because his style was difficult to execute well, Jesse didn’t have to worry about a lot of imitators. Brother Jim died in 2002; Jesse is now 93 years old. The music they made together is timeless.
The McReynolds brothers were born to a musical family in the late 1920s. They grew up in that corner of southwestern Virginia that has produced so many legendary musicians, including the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers. The brothers began performing in the mid-1940s in the brother duet style then popular. By that time, Jesse played mandolin and fiddle (although Jesse’s excellent fiddling was rarely heard in the early days) and Jim played guitar. Most of their recordings and performances through their long career featured Jesse singing the melody and Jim singing a high harmony part. Jim’s harmony vocals were very distinctive-soaring above the lead, clear and beautiful. Their voices blended very well and their polished duet harmony quickly made them popular around southwestern Virginia. Jim and Jesse were great admirers of the Louvin Brothers’ singing and songwriting, and they recorded and popularized in bluegrass many of the wonderful Louvin Brothers songs during their career.
By the late 1940s, Bill Monroe’s was the dominant bluegrass mandolin style, although brother duet stylists like Bill Bolick of the Blue Sky Boys were still playing their versions of the older pre-bluegrass mandolin styles. But Jesse very soon began to go his own way on the mandolin. Inspired by the hot three finger banjo picking of Earl Scruggs and others who were beginning to play in that style, Jesse worked out a mandolin version of the bluegrass banjo picking pattern, or roll. Jesse did it all with one flat pick, instead of the thumb pick and two finger picks favored by the banjo players. Like the banjo style, Jesse’s style surrounded the notes of the melody with a cascade of harmony or drone notes, usually picked at high speed. Jesse explained in an interview in Frets Magazine that his picking pattern was one downstroke followed by two upstrokes; for example, pick down on the third string, then up on the first string and up on the second string. Jesse said that he usually left the first string unfretted, as a drone string, like the fifth string of the banjo. Sometimes he played the pattern on the fourth, second and third strings. This style of flatpicking is called crosspicking, and it was to be popularized on guitar by George Shuffler’s recordings with the Stanley Brothers.
Jesse also pioneered another novel mandolin technique, called split string. The mandolin has four pairs of strings, usually tuned and fretted in unison. Jesse learned how to fret the outer string of a pair with his pinky fingernail to make a harmony with the other string of the pair. Bill Monroe achieved a somewhat similar effect by retuning the strings of a pair to harmonize with each other, but Jesse’s technique allowed him to turn the harmony on and off during a song without retuning. If anything, the split string technique was even harder than crosspicking, and Jesse said in the Frets interview that split string worked best on slow songs.
Jim and Jesse first reached a national audience in 1952 when they began recording for Capitol Records. “Are You Missing Me” and “Too Many Tears” showed off Jesse’s rapid fire crosspicking and he debuted his split string technique on his mandolin kickoff to “Just Wondering Why.” These songs also showcased Jim and Jesse’s compelling duet harmony.
From the beginning, Jim and Jesse had talented side men in the Virginia Boys. Among those who passed through the band were fiddlers Vassar Clements and Jim Buchanan, banjoists Hoke Jenkins (nephew of pioneer three finger picker Snuffy Jenkins), Allen Shelton, and Vic Jordan. Indeed, some bluegrass history was made later in the 1950s when Jesse (on fiddle) and Vassar Clements recorded a twin fiddle arrangement of Jim and Jesse’s tune “Dixie Hoedown.” On banjo was Bobby Thompson, who, along with Bill Keith, later popularized the melodic banjo style. “Dixie Hoedown” contains what is believed to be the first recording of melodic style banjo in parts of Bobby Thompson’s banjo breaks. Bobby also played some melodic licks on “Border Ride,” discussed below. (As an aside, Thompson later noted that in the late 1950s nobody seemed interested in his melodic banjo picking so he gave it up until the early 1960s when he heard the stir that Bill Keith was making playing melodic banjo with the Blue Grass Boys.)
As Jim and Jesse’s popularity grew, the band was heard for a time on radio, at station WWVA on the Wheeling (West Virginia) Jamboree (heard throughout the east and the midwest) and on television shows in Florida and Alabama. Jim and Jesse also began recording for Starday records in Nashville and acquired Martha White Flour as a principal sponsor. Martha White had been a long time sponsor of Flatt and Scruggs and was instrumental in getting that band on the Opry. For Starday Jim and Jesse recorded “Dixie Hoedown” as well as “Border Ride,” a mandolin instrumental that demonstrated Jesse’s versatility as a picker and composer.
In the 1960s, Jim and Jesse rose to greater heights. Early in the decade, they signed with Columbia Records and released two classic albums on Columbia’s Epic subsidiary label. Those albums, “Bluegrass Special” and “Bluegrass Classics,” are essentially a greatest hits collection, featuring some of the finest work Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys ever did. These records should be heard in their entirety, and it’s hard to single out any tracks as especially worthy. However, several of my personal favorites include “She Left Me Standing On The Mountain,” “Grave In The Valley,” “Blue Bonnet Lane,” “Why Not Confess,” “Take My Ring From Your Finger,” and Jesse’s instrumental “Stoney Creek,” which seamlessly blends his blazing mandolin crosspicking with very inventive straight picking.
Jim and Jesse reached the pinnacle of country music success in 1964 when, as noted above, they were made members of the Grand Ole Opry. And they were recognized as important folk artists as well, performing at the Newport Folk Festival beginning in 1963.
Several other of their Epic recordings merit mention: “Cotton Mill Man,” a protest song that was banned in some mill towns, and “It’s A Long, Long Way To The Top Of The World,” which, with its country sound, pointed the direction their music was to take in the middle and late 1960s. In addition, in a nod to the popularity of rock and roll, they recorded an album of bluegrass versions of Chuck Berry songs, including “Johnny B. Goode.” One of their biggest hits, “Diesel On my Tail,” with its country sound, dates from this period.
As bluegrass festivals proliferated during the 1970s, Jim and Jesse returned to a more bluegrass sound, although their rock and country tunes remained popular with their many fans. I remember sitting in the audience for a Jim and Jesse set at a festival in the 1980s as a fan repeatedly bellowed requests for “Diesel On My Tail.” During the 1980s and 1990s, Jesse recorded and performed with the bluegrass supergroup, The Masters, with fiddler Kenny Baker, resonator guitarist Josh Graves, and banjoist Eddie Adcock.
Jim and Jesse recorded some of the most beautiful duet harmony singing and some of the most exciting bluegrass mandolin picking heard in the music. Their peers in bluegrass recognized them for the great musicians they were. Sonny Osborne once said that there were four mandolin stylists-Bill Monroe, Jethro Burns, Sonny’s brother Bobby Osborne, and Jesse McReynolds, high praise from someone who knew what he was talking about. In recognition of their substantial contribution to bluegrass, Jim and Jesse were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor and received many other honors and awards. Their influence is heard today in the work of younger musicians like Jeremy Stephens, who is best known for his superb banjo and guitar work and singing in the band High Fidelity and in his solo work. But Stephens is also a master of the McReynolds cross picking mandolin style, helping to keep this wonderful sound alive for the next generation.