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Jim & Jesse provide sweet memories

By Tom Netherland, June 2003

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"The first time we played the Opry, we was living in Georgia," McReynolds says. "Martha White came down and started sponsoring our TV show in that area. That was in 1951 or '52. They told us that when they started sponsoring our TV show they wanted to start bringing us to Nashville, book us on the Opry as guests."

In those days such a stroke of good fortune amounted to as big a break as could be had.

"Then they gave us the morning radio show on WSM. We still worked the Opry as guests for a long time. The first time we went on, it was a thrill to be on there, really unbelievable that it was happening. Ernest Tubb introduced us."

"We met a lot of people there that night...a lot of them that's not there anymore," McReynolds says, still mindful of the level of anxiety and genuine nervousness both he and his brother experienced that night. "When you get on that stage it runs through your mind all the people who had stood there - Hank Williams, Red Foley - the biggest stars in the music business. We were just two country boys from Virginia. What are we doing here?"

Laying the groundwork for a great career, that's what. Consider just how large a deal that was. Jim & Jesse were country boys, mountain-reared deep in the hills of economic-deprived Southwest Virginia.

"My earliest memory (of listening to the Opry) was when my brother-in-law bought a radio, the first radio in the whole community, a battery radio that you had to take the battery and have it charged every week," he says. "We'd go down and listen to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. I guess the main part of the Opry we would listen to was Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe."

Most of us take for granted our various linkages to the world at large nowadays, but think about coming up in a time and place where there were few radios and telephones, no such thing as televisions or computers, and very little if any electricity. Well, those who were fortunate enough to own a telephone and especially a radio quickly became quite popular in the community.

"People would gather around, and when there was only one radio in the community, that was the guy who had all the company," McReynolds says. "My dad had a little old car, a '36 Ford that had a good radio in it. We'd go out and set in the car and listen to the Opry. I remember he finally took the radio out of the car and put it in the house. Had to take the battery out and put it in the house."

Nashville and the Opry seemed about a million miles away to each of the McReynolds brothers while growing up.

"It did. That's the reason why when we got there I got to thinking how we just lived through it and thinking, I'm here with these people now. To see that they was just ordinary people like me it sort of surprised me, especially getting to meet people like Bill Monroe and getting to know them. That meant a lot."

Likewise, the trove of music that Jim & Jesse left in their 55 years together as professional musicians not only means a lot but indeed serves as building blocks that helped make bluegrass.

When Jim died, though, a great number of folks within the tight-knit bluegrass community wondered whether Jesse would continue to perform or just retire.

"I was really determined to (continue) more than when we was together," Jesse says. "I had talked to him 2 or 3 times about, well, we've been doing it for 55 years and were we going to continue to travel? I was experiencing some health problems there, too, missed a couple of shows. I thought well, we could quit the road and semi-retire, still do the Opry."

Jesse reconsidered and decided that retirement at this time would be premature, that the road still held something for him. So in grand Southwest Virginia strength of character and style, he continues, as Jesse McReynolds & The Virginia Boys.

"I'm at the point where I could retire if I wanted to, but I don't want to do that," he says. "I'm determined now to do it for a couple of years anyway and see what happens. From now on I can think about how long I'm going to do this. As it is right now, I have no plans to do anything, but to keep doing what we've been doing."

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