Bluegrass Hall of Fame inductee Jesse McReynolds, the oldest cast member
of the Grand Ole Opry, has died at age 93.
He was noted for his revolutionary, complex “crosspicking” style of mandolin
playing as well as for his years of recording and performing in the star
brother duo Jim & Jesse. His guitarist-singer older brother Jim McReynolds
was born in 1927 and died on New Year’s Eve in 2002.
Jesse McReynolds was born July 9, 1929 near Coburn, Virginia.
Jim & Jesse’s grandfather was fiddler Charlie McReynolds, who recorded as a
member of The Bull Mountain Moonshiners at the famed 1927 Bristol Sessions
where Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family were discovered.
Their coal-miner father, Claude, was also a fiddler. Mother Savannah played
guitar, banjo and harmonica and taught them to sing gospel songs in harmony.
The brothers established their performing partnership in 1947, following Jim’s
hitch in the Army. They began their broadcasting career on WNVA in Norton, Virginia.
During the next few years, they held radio jobs in Johnson City, Tennessee; Lexington,
Kentucky; Charleston, West Virginia; Augusta, Georgia; Waterloo, Iowa; Wichita, Kansas
and other towns. During their first dozen years as professionals, Jim & Jesse performed
on 14 radio stations in 10 different states. They had their first recording session
Following radio stints in Asheville, North Carolina and Versailles, Kentucky,
Jim & Jesse were signed by Capitol Records and brought to Nashville to
record in 1952. The fiddler on the sessions was James Loden, later to become
Country Music Hall of Fame member Sonny James. The standout tune of these recordings
was one of their trademark songs, “Are You Missing Me,” penned by The Louvin Brothers.
Jesse was drafted and entered the Army to serve in the Korean War. While he was
home on leave in 1953, the brothers recorded “Air Mail Special,” “A Memory of You”
and other tunes for Capitol.
With Jesse’s military service completed, the duo joined the cast of WWVA’s Wheeling
Jamboree in 1955. But the team truly began to prosper the following year when the brothers
moved to Florida. They broadcast for several years on WNER’s Swanee River Jamboree
in Live Oak and became television stars with their own shows in Tallahassee
and Pensacola. By the late 1950's, their programs were also being broadcast
on TV in Montgomery, Alabama; Albany, Georgia; Dothan, Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi.
Jim & Jesse recorded for Starday Records in 1958, then signed with Columbia’s Epic
Records division on Music Row in 1962. This is the label where their biggest hits occurred.
Bluegrass music gained popularity on the folk circuit during this era. Jim & Jesse
performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and 1966.
On the strength of such high-profile engagements and the major-label contract,
the Grand Ole Opry invited Jim & Jesse to become members of the
show’s cast on March 2, 1964. Throughout their Opry tenure—and indeed, throughout
their career—the McReynolds brothers were widely respected for their courtly manners
and gentlemanly ways.
Four months after their Opry induction, Jim & Jesse’s first charted single was
1964’s “Cotton Mill Man,” which also became a signature song.
“Better Times A-Comin’” followed it onto the charts as a top 40 hit in 1965.
Their eyebrow-raising LP Berry Pickin’ in the Country was also released in 1965.
It contained their bluegrass arrangements of Chuck Berry’s rock ’n’ roll classics.
This record typified their willingness to experiment. Jim & Jesse also dabbled in
Latin, electric country, gospel, cowboy and other genres. In 1969, Jesse McReynolds
played mandolin on The Doors rock LP The Soft Parade.
The brothers scored their biggest country hit
with 1967’s “Diesel on My Tail.” Other memorable Epic recordings included
versions of Robert Mitchum’s “Ballad of Thunder Road” (1967),
Tom T. Hall’s “Greenwich Village Folk Song Salesman” (1968),
Ray Pennington’s “Yonder Comes a Freight Train” (1968) and Hank
Snow’s “Golden Rocket” (1970). They returned to Capitol and charted
with Elizabeth Cotton’s folk classic “Freight Train” in 1971.
Jim & Jesse veered into a harder-edged bluegrass sound in the 1970's. Their Virginia
Boys band included such stellar alumni as Vassar Clements, Allen Shelton,
Bobby Thompson, Carl Jackson, Vic Jordan, Glen Duncan, Randall Franks,
Chick Stripling and Jimmy Buchanan. The group was wildly popular
on the bluegrass-festival circuit for three decades.
The brothers launched their own syndicated TV series, The Jim & Jesse Show,
in the early 1970's, They formed their own Old Dominion and Double J record labels
and released a number of LPs, cassettes and CDs on these in the 1970's, ‘80's and ‘90's.
In 1977, they created their own annual bluegrass festival and maintained it well into
They were nominated for a Grammy Award for the 1992 CD Music Among Friends. They were
inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 1993. They received a National Heritage
Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1997.
The death of Jim McReynolds in 2002 marked the end of the 55-year run of the
longest lasting brother duo in country history. Jim & Jesse were also notable for
having the longest running fan club in the annals of country music.
Following his brother’s passing, Jesse McReynolds continued to tour, record and
appear on the Opry. In 1990, he had been part of a recording and touring “supergroup”
called The Masters that also included Josh Graves, Kenny Baker and Eddie Adcock.
He created a new instrument called the mandolobro, which was tuned like a mandola
and had a resonator-guitar body. It was featured on his CD Jesse McReynolds Introduces
His other solo albums included New Horizons (2004), Bending the Rules (2004),
A Tribute to Brother Duets (with Charles Whitstein, 2005) and Dixie Road (2007).
In 2010, he released a tribute album to the songs of The Grateful Dead.
He was variously dubbed “Mr. Mandolin” (for his innovative, virtuoso playing)
and “The Ironman of Bluegrass” (for the 65+ years of his career). Solo and with
his brother, Jesse McReynolds recorded more than 50 albums.
Jesse McReynolds was preceded in death by his parents, Claude Matthew McReynolds
and Prudence Savannah Robinette McReynolds; loving first wife of 41 years, Darlene
McReynolds; son, Keith McReynolds, brother, Jim McReynolds, sisters, Stella McReynolds
and Virginia Greear and great grandson, Andrew Keith McReynolds.
He is survived by his loving second wife of 27 years, Joy Tipton McReynolds; daughter,
Gwen McReynolds; sons, Michael K. McReynolds and Randy Q. McReynolds; eight grandchildren
and three great grandchildren.
Funeral Service will be 11:00 a.m. Wednesday, June 28 from the chapel of Alexander
Funeral Home & Cremation Center with Brother James Bell and Randy McReynolds officiating.
Entombment will follow in Sumner Memorial Gardens Mausoleum. Visitation will be Monday,
June 26 from 4:00-8:00 p.m., Tuesday, June 27 from 2:00-8:00 p.m. and Wednesday,
June 28 from 9:00 a.m. until the time of service.
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