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

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For the last few years, Jesse's own grandson, Luke McKnight has been a part of the Jim and Jesse stage show, and Jesse can't hide the note of pride that creeps into his voice as he talks about Luke's participation on three of the dozen tracks on "Our Kind Of Country."

"That's one thing that really encouraged me to stay on the road more, because I'm trying to get him started, he's doing real good, and people love him everywhere we go. But it takes time for things like that to happen, and hopefully he'll take his own band one day and carry on what we got him started in. He's 19 now. Actually he's doing more singing sometimes on stage than I do. If I don't feel right, or something, I just back off and let him take it. He knows all the songs, and he sings as close to me as anybody I've ever heard, I guess, and he and Jim sing good together."

Working with his grandson has obviously been an experience he treasures in the later years of his long career, but finally getting to do an album with longtime friend and contemporary Bobby Osborne proved to be an unexpected treat as well.

Though life on the bluegrass circuit can lead to a multitude of friendships, it's not always easy to find the time to sit down and play music together. With his brother Sonny (who produced), the career path of the Osborne Brothers took many turns that paralleled those of the McReynolds, aside from the obvious fact that both were brother acts.

For example, both experimented for a time with adding drums and electric instruments to their basic bluegrass format as a means of keeping within hailing distance of mainstream country music, and it caused more than a little grumbling among bluegrass diehards.

It's also worth noting that the part of Eastern Kentucky where the Osbornes were born and spent their early years is not all that far from the McReynolds' Virginia homeland.

"I enjoyed working with Bob, I got to know him a lot better after we started working on this project, and I didn't know we had so much in common, being a brother team and him on a brother team too. We talked about doing this for a long time...if we're going to do it, age might be a factor after a while, so you might as well go ahead and do it."

The classic core of country music seems to undergo periodic challenges from the forces of pop music. In the '50's, it was Elvis. A decade or so later it was the "Nashville Sound," and the '70's brought us the notion of John Denver and Olivia Newton-John as "country music stars."

The rock-and-roll "Hot New Country" of the last few years may turn out to be a passing fad, or it may not, but Jesse McReynolds thinks the core audience for the classic country sound will always be there - or at least, the crowds he and Jim play for still love it.

"There's nobody doing the hard-core country like Ray Price and Buck Owens did, the straight thing...I gather from when we do these songs on stage, we have a lot of fans out there that used to be country music fans back when it was country like that, and they recognize these songs, you know."

He talks about the apparent shift of a large part of the traditional country audience to one of the few places left where they can still hear "the real thing" - the bluegrass festival circuit.

"We have one friend down in Mississippi that uses a country group on all his bluegrass festivals and had Gene Watson on the last one, and he kept that audience there...he closed the show out, and nobody left. They stayed there until it was over, and they really enjoyed it. That's where the country fans have gone, I think. There used to be hard-core country fans. They didn't leave it, I think the people left them...I just think there will always be a market for this. It won't sell nothing like a million copies or anything, but I think there is an audience out there that will buy it."

After a couple years of semi-retirement, mainly playing the Opry (and during which Jesse wrestled with his health), Jim and Jesse seem to understand more than ever that their destiny is out on the road, in all the fire halls and on all the festival stages that comprise the bluegrass circuit.

"We figured our fans are out there on the road," Jesse says. "If we want to play to them, we have to go out on the road to them long as we can, you know. We've cut down some, I had a few health problems, but I'm getting better on that. We bought us another bus, and we're gonna probably work for two or three more years, anyway."

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