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Bluegrass masters do it again

By Jon Weisberger, March 1999

Jim McReynolds is so soft-spoken and modest that it's easy to forget that he and brother Jesse have been recognized by peers, fans and critics alike as two of the best and most influential musicians in country music for half a century.

Indeed, even though the duo is celebrating the 35th anniversary of their induction into the Grand Ole Opry and the release of an important new box set ("The Old Dominion Masters" on Pinecastle), the gentlemanly Virginian seemed content to reminisce about their early days and the growth of the bluegrass style to which they have contributed so much.

Though Jim and Jesse, now 71 and 69 respectively, were born and raised in southwest Virginia at the same time as and just one county over from Carter and Ralph Stanley, their tastes and music took a very different turn from the latter's raw "mountain music" sound.

"Carter and Ralph went after Bill Monroe's sound, especially with Pee Wee Lambert on the mandolin," Jim recalls. "We always loved Bill's music, but when we were growing up, what we really loved were the Blue Sky Boys, the Bailes Brothers and the Delmore Brothers, and I guess we took more after them."

Influenced though they were by the smoother vocal style of these acts, the McReynolds' had some closer models as well.

"Our grandfather (Charles) was a fiddler, one of the best in the area, and our brother-in-law was a fiddler, too. He loved to play those old hoedowns, and he really liked Fiddlin' Arthur Smith's style; he worked real hard to learn it. When friends and family came to visit, the music would start right up - mostly fiddle tunes, so there was a lot of dancing."

Jim and Jesse turned serious about their music in the late 1940's, after Jim returned from military service. With Jim on guitar and Jesse on mandolin, they hired a bass player and fiddler (the legendary Marion Sumner) and began performing on Norton, Va.'s WNVA.

"When we started working, we just tried to get our own sound," Jim says. "If you don't create your own identity, you're just behind someone else."

Like many other country artists during that period, Jim and Jesse spent the next several years moving about from station to station, using their broadcasts to advertise personal appearances in the listening area until they played out the territory or got a better offer elsewhere.

Their travels took them as far from home as Waterloo, Iowa and Wichita, Kansas, where they broadened their repertoire - and style - by singing western and cowboy songs in the style of the Sons Of The Pioneers and the Riders Of The Purple Sage.

Another move took them to Middletown, Ohio, where they made their first recordings for a small, local label in 1951 before signing with Capitol Records the following year. They recorded 16 classic sides for the label before Jesse was drafted into military service in Korea.

When the brothers resumed their musical career in 1955, things began to really fall into place.

"When we reorganized the band, we went to Wheeling, W. Va. to work on the (WWVA) Jamboree, but that didn't work out very well, so we moved down to Florida and went to work on the Suwanee River Jamboree in Live Oak. We were on the move a lot in those days," Jim laughs.

Yet though they didn't know it, their career pattern was about to change, thanks to the explosive growth of television.

Jim and Jesse were among the first bluegrass acts to have a television show, starting with a half-hour slot on Tallahassee's WCTV in 1956. Their engaging presence and soaring harmonies quickly brought them additional shows at other stations in the region and further recordings for the Starday label.

By 1960, they developed enough of an audience to win a sponsorship offer from the Martha White flour company, bringing the brothers even greater renown and a measure of financial security.

"When you worked for Martha White," Jim explains, "it didn't stop when you finished the show. They supported personal appearances with giveaway items, coupons, posters and a lot of promotional help. They started bringing us to Nashville, too, for guest appearances on the Grand Ole Opry."

At the same time, the McReynolds' signed with Columbia Records, moving to the label's subsidiary Epic not long afterward where they had several charting singles, including 1967's Top 20 "Diesel on My Tail."

"They had just started putting country acts on Epic, and since Flatt & Scruggs were already on Columbia, we thought we would stand out a little more on the other label."

The move turned out to be a good one, and the brothers' career - and music - prospered, as they recorded dozens of bluegrass classics for the label.

In 1964, they became members of the Grand Ole Opry and moved to the Nashville area, where they have remained ever since.

Through most of the 1960's, Jim and Jesse continued recording for Epic, producing a huge body of work that ranged from an entire album's worth of Chuck Berry songs done bluegrass style to a tribute to the Louvin Brothers to hot instrumentals that remain some of the most beautiful - and difficult - ever recorded.

Yet, despite their popularity and critical acclaim, changes in the business eventually ended their tenure with Epic.

"When they got into the Nashville Sound," Jim says, "it was almost impossible for us to get airplay on country radio. It was strange; they absolutely would not play bluegrass records on the shows, yet as soon as the advertisements came on, it seemed like all you'd hear would be a banjo and a fiddle."

When a brief stint with Capitol didn't improve the situation, the brothers took the unusual step of creating their own label, Old Dominion.

"We were pretty well into the bluegrass festival circuit by then and selling lots of albums and tapes at our shows, so we just started doing things. We'd just go into the studio and cut songs the way that we wanted to. That way, we could have something to sell while we were touring, and the people seemed to really enjoy them. And we thought, too, that maybe we could lease these recordings to someone, the way we did with Starday, so even when we didn't need to release an album, we'd go ahead and record and just put material in the can."

Those recordings, made from 1972 on, form the basis of the new box set, "Old Dominion Masters."

The set contains material from the first eight albums the duo made for their own label. It's a fitting way to celebrate the remarkable achievements of the brothers - though they're not content to rest on their laurels as they continue making frequent personal appearances.

"Bluegrass is definitely on the upswing," Jim concludes. "There's more work in bluegrass today than ever. There are some impressive new bands out there today; I listen to them, and it makes me want to practice that much harder. I guess that's the thing about bluegrass; you're always playing someplace new, meeting new fans and making new friends. I'm happy we could have been a little part of making all that happen."