Jim and Jesse play their brand of country

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'."

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."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com