You know how it is when you go to the grocery store for just one thing and leave with a whole cart full of stuff? My interview with the legendary Jesse McReynolds was the very same.
Jesse was the headline act at “Mr. Big’s 15th Annual Bluegrass Family Reunion” in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, August 2016. The eighty-seven-year-old mandolin player still has incredible dexterity in his hands. You’d be hard-pressed to guess his age by watching him perform.
Jesse is the remaining member from the band “Jim and Jesse,” a brother duo that performed regularly at the Grand Ole Opry from 1962 until November 2002, just one month before Jim’s death. Jesse still performs regularly at the Opry. These facts alone are enough for the making of a very interesting book. Jesse McReynolds’ life has been as rich and full as the Appalachian Mountains of his home.
As the interview started, I asked Jesse when he first realized that music was interesting to him. His answer opened up a whole cart full of information.
“I don’t remember music not being in my life,” he explained as he pointed to a fiddle case lying on the bed in the hotel room where we were talking. “That fiddle was my grandfather’s. It was the one he played in ‘The Big Bang of Country Music’ back in 1927.”
The “Big Bang of Country Music” is more commonly known as “The Bristol Sessions.” These were recording sessions produced in Bristol, Tennessee, by The Victor Talking Machine Company over a two-week period in August 1927. The Sessions produced some legendary artists like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
“My grandfather played the song ‘The Girl I Left Behind’ in those sessions. I was asked to perform when they made the show ‘Orthophonic Joy: 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited’ a couple of years ago with Vince Gill, Dolly, and some others. I played that same song with that same fiddle.”
Jesse was born July 9, 1929, to Claude and Savanna McReynolds, almost two years after his grandfather’s famous performance in Bristol. He was the youngest of four siblings who grew up in the community of Carfax, a mountainous area eight miles from Coeburn, Virginia. Music became an interest for him, in part, out of necessity. There were no radios, no electricity, and little to do on those mountains. He learned to play the fiddle at age fourteen when he was injured in a car wreck that almost took his left foot. After a month-long hospital stay, he was still confined to bed. While he recovered, he picked up his grandfather’s fiddle and started trying to play it.
“My momma was pretty patient. You know how bad a fiddle can sound when you’re first learning it. She never said anything. She just let me play.”
Electricity found its way to his mountain when he was fifteen years old. Jesse and his brother were employed by the power company to pull rolls of wire up the mountain, using their horses, because trucks couldn’t get to those places.
“There weren’t any roads, just paths. We pulled the wire for them. We had sleds that we pulled with the horses, and we used them.”
He laughed at me when my eyes grew wide at this thought.
“I have told people that when I gave directions to my house, I said: ‘Go up this road and that leads to a path that leads to a squirrel trail that leads to a tree that leads to a knot hole.’ That’s about how you got to my house,” he chuckled.
“Have you ever read the ‘Foxfire’ books? Well, that was my life; that’s how we lived. We raised our own corn and meat. We lived off the land. Daddy worked in the mines and made a little moonshine. I remember the revenuers coming in and searching our house a few times, but they never found Daddy’s still.”
When I asked how he kept the still from being found, Jesse told me that his daddy was a good “hider.”
“There was a grocery store about a quarter mile down the hill. That’s where we’d go get things like flour and sugar. We used scrips. That’s what the mining company gave to people for money in their stores.”
I am not sure how long I talked to Jesse before I realized that we had hardly touched on his music. His life’s story was just as intriguing as his career. I suggested that a movie should be made about his life. In his quiet humility, Jesse looked down and grinned.
“I’ve had a few people say that. I don’t know. I think lots of people lived that way—it’s not that special.” I reminded him that maybe a lot of people did grow up that way, but not a lot of people became musical legends who lived that way.
He just grinned again.
WATCH JIM AND JESSE MCREYNOLDS PLAY “PARADISE”
SEE MORE JESSE MCREYNOLDS PHOTOS HERE