In a world full of creative musical artists, only an elite few are honored as true innovators in their style and technique. Jesse McReynolds, also known as “Mr. Mandolin” or “Ironman of Bluegrass,” is one of the elite. He is known in the bluegrass world for his “cross-picking” or “split-string” style mandolin playing.
Cross-picking has more of a “rolling pattern” like a three-finger banjo, and the melodies are more chordal in their pattern. If that doesn’t make sense, listen to Jesse’s performance of his original song “Okeechobee Wind” (see below), and you’ll get a taste of it.
Jesse was friendly, humble, and candid during an interview in August 2016 at Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where he headlined for “Mr. Big’s Bluegrass Family Reunion.” Jesse was accompanied by stellar artists: Corrina Rose Logston Stephens on fiddle, Jeremy Stephens on banjo, Buddy Griffin on guitar, and Becky Coffey on upright bass. The show thrilled fans, old and young, with nostalgic charm and electric performances from the eighty-seven-year-old legend.
It was a car accident that brought about his learning to play fiddle at age fourteen (see Part 1 for the full story), but Jesse eventually became a very skilled multi-instrumentalist, with mandolin being his main instrument. His repertoire has come to include not only bluegrass, but country, gospel, pop, rock, movie themes, show tunes, and classical pieces as well.
“At first, Jim played the mandolin and I played the guitar. Pretty soon, we decided to switch.”
His earliest performances were for his “kinfolks” on Saturday nights around his home in Carfax, Virginia. Oakley Greer, Jesse’s brother-in-law, encouraged the brothers to learn harmony singing. They started playing some shows with a local boy whose dad invited them to play at his “beer joint.”
“We would play in school houses where they would show movies. They’d show a couple of movies a night, and we’d play little thirty-minute sets in the breaks between the films. I’ll never forget this one show in Mud Creek, Kentucky. Someone rented a barn and paid us $100 to do a show in it.”
Jim was called to serve in the army from 1945 to 1946. Once he returned home, the brothers began their professional career in 1947. They were first billed as “The McReynolds Brothers” but were encouraged to change their band name to “Jim & Jesse” because of the large number of brother acts at the time.
“Martha White( Mills Company) was a sponsor of the Grand Ole Opry. They were producing radio shows in Northern Florida and Southern Virginia, looking for talent. We played on a radio show in Norton, Virginia, at the time. They invited us to come play at the Opry.”
Jim and Jesse first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in 1962. By 1964, they were asked to join the Opry. They were fill-ins for Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs when they toured. Bill Monroe, known as “The Father of Bluegrass,” became one of Jim & Jesse’s friends.
“He was always nice to us,” Jesse recalled of Bill Monroe, “but he was closer to Jim than me.”
Their long and illustrious career involved the brothers recording for various labels, including Columbia, Epic, Capitol, Opryland, CMH, Rounder, and their own, Old Dominion. “Cotton Mill Man,” “Diesel on My Tail,” “Are You Missing Me,” and “Paradise” are a few songs regarded as Jim & Jesse classics.
Other notable highlights were honors such as Jesse’s 1979 Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental Recording with Vassar Clements. In 1992, Jim & Jesse received a Grammy nomination for their effort “Music Among Friends.” Three other Grammy nominations were given to Jesse throughout the years for various work with other artists. In 1993, Jim & Jesse were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Associations Hall of Honor. The prestigious National Endowment for the Arts awarded the 1997 National Heritage Fellowship Award to the brothers for their contribution to American music. Jesse received an International Bluegrass Music Association nomination for his 2005 recording “Bending the Rules.”
Jesse has been featured on more than fifty recordings in his career. Jim passed away in December of 2002; he had appeared at the Opry less than a month before his death. Jesse still makes guest appearances at the Opry.
In 2010, Jesse released Songs of the Grateful Dead—A Tribute to Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter. This recording was warmly received by the music world. Currently, Jesse is working on an album of fiddle music that centers around his Grandfather Charles’s 200-year-old fiddle that was played at the original Bristol Sessions in 1927. Various artists such as Travis Wetzel, Glen Duncan, and Michael Cleveland will be featured on the recording as well.
My lasting impression of Jesse will not be his incredible musical accomplishments or his legendary career; it will always be his humility. Jesse was equally enthusiastic when talking about his early farming years in the Appalachian Mountains as he was about his musical accomplishments. He spoke of his hard working father who was a miner and his mother who offered support and patience as he taught himself to play the fiddle at age fourteen.
“There wasn’t much else to do but work in the coal mines or go to Detroit and build cars.”
When asked if his father was glad that his boys chose music instead of the normal two options, he replied, “I guess we were all surprised that the music turned out so well.”
An entire generation of bluegrass fans are glad his music turned out so well too.
WATCH JESSE MCREYNOLDS PLAY HIS ORIGINAL “OKEECHOBEE WIND”