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Jim & Jesse provide sweet memories

By Tom Netherland, June 2003

Way back when Carter Stanley died, his brother Ralph could easily have retired to something other than the music business. But Ralph paused, gathered his senses and did the sensible thing.

Gone were the Stanley Brothers, enter Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys. We live, we die. Either way the show must go on.

On Dec. 31, 2002, the elder half of another bluegrass brothers group, Jim & Jesse's Jim McReynolds, died at 75. Given a gradual decline in health while waging battle with cancer, his death came as no great surprise.

But Jesse McReynolds paused, gathered his senses and did the sensible thing. Gone were Jim & Jesse and The Virginia Boys, enter Jesse McReynolds & The Virginia Boys. The show goes on.

Jim & Jesse's final album, the appropriately titled "'Tis Sweet to be Remembered," serves as one last look at new recordings from the native Virginians.

The brothers' ever-present laconic, Southwest Virginia style emerges from its first track and carries through to the end.

But the pair's final recordings also look forward to life without Jim.

"I intended (the album) to reflect on the both of us, really," Jesse McReynolds says by phone from his Nashville-area home. "We've been in the business for so long. We started this when Jim had some throat problems, but we had no idea it was anything that serious. Timing-wise it seems like we sort of planned it as a tribute to Jim."

Recorded last year, only two tracks ("Tennessee" and "She's Running Wild") feature Jim's vocals, both of which were re-mastered previously released songs. Jim plays guitar but does not sing on seven others. Three songs including the title track, "Standing at the End of My World" and "Cora is Gone" do not feature Jim at all.

"Actually it turned out pretty good because Matthew Allred, Jim's son-in-law, had been singing with us," Jesse says. "He knew most of the songs and had been singing third parts for us. When Jim got to where he couldn't sing, why, he started singing his part. He didn't have a hard time learning because he had been with us long enough to know the words to most of the songs. He did pretty good."

Elsewhere, Jesse's grandson, Luke McKnight, and Charles Whitstein filled Jim's role of singing harmony to Jesse's lead on most of the album's 12 tunes.

"I was pretty happy with how it came off, despite that Jim wasn't able to sing on much of it. I think the other boys done a good job on it."

Thing was, though, Jesse says that even though his brother was often too ill to sing, they were encouraged to think that he would overcome his illness.

"We didn't know really up until the last six months that he had cancer. They kept saying that it could be treated, and he'd be OK, but unfortunately that didn't happen."

Losing Jim McReynolds was a profound puncture to bluegrass. It meant the end of one of the genre's most harmonious duos of all time, and it meant the loss of one of bluegrass' most underrated rhythm guitarists and harmony singers.

The Coeburn, Va. natives recorded some of the genre's most indelible records of the past 50 years. Their biggest charted single was 1964's "Diesel on My Tail," but charts do not reflect the quality of their output.

For example, Jim & Jesse's 1967 recording of Robert Mitchum's "Ballad of Thunder Road" on Epic Records sounds as strong today as it did upon its release.

But before getting to that stage, they started off years before by performing in Appalachian Virginia as the McReynolds Brothers, hitting radio stations in the southeast and Midwest.

Under the moniker, Virginia Trio, they first recorded for Kentucky Records in 1951.

By the following year, they were recording for Capitol Records as Jim & Jesse. Their band was known as the Virginia Boys.

During the decade, radio station barn dances were popular in various locales. The brothers played the circuit in such places as Wheeling, West. Va., Knoxville, Tenn. and Danville, Va.

In 1960, Jim & Jesse were recording for Epic, putting out "Bluegrass Special" and "Bluegrass Classics."

They joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1964. They first hit the country charts that same year with "Cotton Mill Man" and later with "Better Times A-Coming."

Their classic album from 1965 of rock legend Chuck Berry covers, "Berry Pickin' in the Country," remains a must-have classic for any self-respecting bluegrass fan. To hear Jim & Jesse's tightly wound vocals and Jesse's leads on the mandolin on Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" and "Maybelline," are worth whatever handsome price an original copy of the album commands.

"We had a pretty good career," Jesse says, "but I told (Jim) the last time we discussed that, that we had a pretty good career for 55 years together. I don't know of any other brother team that stayed together that long."

Jesse recalls his and Jim's first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry as momentous and with fondness. A pivotal event in the development and advancement of their career, their debut on the venerable live radio show remains a vivid memory for the 73-year-old.

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