Jim and Jesse play their brand of country – May 2001
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Jim and Jesse play their brand of country  Print

By John Lupton, May 2001

Jim and Jesse McReynolds have been mainstays of the country music business since 1947, and the lineage goes back even farther than that. Their grandfather, Charles McReynolds, was among the musicians recorded by Victor Records executive Ralph Peer during the summer of 1927 in the sleepy Virginia-Tennessee border town of Bristol during a series of sessions that rocketed "Pop" Stoneman, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers to fame on the Victrolas of post-Lindbergh, pre-Depression America.

Jim McReynolds was born that same year, with Jesse following two years later. As the country music business began to coalesce around Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry in the years following World War II, Jim and Jesse formed their own band, the Virginia Boys, and set out upon a career that would make them bluegrass legends.

Jim and Jesse are still going strong more than a half-century later with a country album, "Our Kind of Country" and Jesse and Bobby Osborne combining forces on "Masters of the Mandolin," both released in April on Pinecastle.

But as Jesse now says, they didn't necessarily start out looking to be bluegrass stars in the mold of the music's founder, Bill Monroe.

"A lot of people were doing (bluegrass) at the time, we had the Stanley Brothers doing it...and a lot of the bands were doing pretty much straight Bill Monroe things. Actually, the first recording contract we got, we weren't even going to use a banjo on it, we knew back then that if you recorded the banjo and anything that type of music, you weren't gonna really get big in the record business. But when we went to record then, we found out that the guy who had pitched us to the record label (Capitol) made the banjo a big issue, so that's how we used the banjo on our first recording session more than we intended to."

"Our Kind Of Country" features them out in front of the regular Opry Stage Band as they cruise through a selection of vintage country tunes done in the walking-bass, "shuffle" style that was the hallmark of the '50's era in Nashville.

"Masters Of The Mandolin" is a collection of bluegrass instrumentals and vocals that highlight the parallels between Jesse and Osborne's careers - both superlative vocalists and mandolinists, and both members of legendary bluegrass "brother acts."

In fact, Jesse says, it's the tradition of "brother duets" that has fueled his and Jim's careers more than the urge to follow in Monroe's bluegrass footsteps.

"We liked all kinds of music. We learned songs from the Delmore Brothers and other brother teams back in the country era - the York Brothers, the Bailes Brothers, people who didn't necessarily play bluegrass music, that's who we actually sort of set our style after. Between them, and the Monroe Brothers and Mainer's Moun-taineers and the Carter Family...we sort of mixed a little bit of it and then tried to create our own style of music."

During the '50's and '60's, Jim and Jesse widened their reputations and appeal as hosts of their own popular regional television show, and the songs they chose to record on "Our Kind Of Country" reflect the charts of the time - "Under Your Spell Again," "Heart Over Mind," "Invitation To The Blues," "Heart-aches By The Number" and more.

Not to mention the writers and singers who made them staples on country stations across the country, people like Buck Owens, Mel Tillis, Roger Miller and, in particular, Ray Price.

"We worked some shows with him back then," Jesse recalls, "We started working for Martha White Mills (the flour company that sponsored the McReynolds and the Grand Ole Opry). They did a lot of package shows, and they used us on them, and we worked a lot of shows with Ray. We traveled with him on a few things."

Making contacts with the cream of the Nashville songwriting crop was an important step in the right direction as well, and their version of "Heartaches By The Number" (which was among Price's biggest sellers) pays tribute to the song's legendary writer, Harlan Howard.

"We met Harlan when we first came to Nashville. He gave us a song called 'The Grass Is Greener In The Mountains', and we did it on one of our first albums."

Moreover, though, knowing what was currently popular on radio was critical to the McReynolds brothers in maintaining the freshness and quality of their own television and stage shows.

"At the time we were doing all of that, we were doing television shows in north Florida, south Georgia, Alabama, and we had sort of kept up with all the songs that were going on the radio...we kept up to date with the material, you know, so that was the top music in that era. We learned all those songs, and we done 'em actually with a bluegrass band, more or less, and that's when we used electric bass a lot. That's one reason we used electric bass. We did such a variety of things for our TV show, rather than just straight bluegrass. Back then, it was all just country music, anyway. It wasn't called 'bluegrass and country'."

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