You may not see a play or a sexy biopic about Jesse McReynolds any time soon. The career of the country and bluegrass music legend, best known for his work with his brother in the duo Jim & Jessse, has been long and steady, unmarked by the requisite crossover into rock ‘n’ roll (although he’s flirted with it) and turn to the dark side needed to sell tickets.
But there’s another reason you won’t see such a production: McReynolds, who just turned 80, is still at it, and he shows no signs of stopping. “I’m 80 going on 50,” he said. “Retirement’s not in my vocabulary.”
He isn’t on the road for 200 dates a year as he once was, but McReynolds still keeps busy between Grand Ole Opry appearances, the summer festival circuit and his wife’s wedding site rental business at their home in Tennessee. (He took a break from cleaning up a reception pavilion last week to talk with this reporter by phone.)
McReynolds grew up in southwest Virginia, the same part of the country that produced the Carter Family, surrounded by “hillbilly music.” His grandfather and father both played, and he remembers making music with the family, including brother Jim McReynolds, listening to the radio and attending concerts by the Carters and Bill and Charlie Monroe. “Country music was our entertainment,” he said.
McReynolds first picked up the fiddle before moving to the acoustic guitar. In the ‘40s, after serving in the military during World War II, Jim McReynolds came home and bought a mandolin. As the brothers worked out their sound, it became clear the two should swap instruments.
Soon, McReynolds was developing his own sound on the instrument, playing rolling banjo-style runs with a single, flat pick in what came to be known as the “The Jesse McReynolds style.”
Backed by their band, The Virginia Boys, Jim & Jesse set out to make a name for themselves en route to landing on country music’s most prized stage: The Grand Ole Opry. “We’d just go to radio stations and try to get a morning radio show, so we could advertise our show dates at school houses and theaters,” he said. “We played a lot of these small mountain towns throughout Eastern Kentucky and Virginia.
“We’d work the radio stations until we didn’t make a enough money to survive, so we’d go back home and work on the farm for a while.”
After a stint on the “Wheeling Jamboree” in Wheeling, W.V., the brothers headed south to Florida, where they landed a job with a new TV station and sponsorships with Ford Tractor Co. and Martha White Mills Flour Co., which also sponsored the Grand Ole Opry. In 1961 Jim & Jesse were opening at the Opry, and three years later, they became members.
Over the years the duo and their band made records for industry giants Epic and Capitol, scoring a No. 18 hit on the Billboard charts in the late ‘60s with “Diesel on my Trail.” While Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys was primarily a bluegrass and country outfit, it didn’t stop them from branching out, playing the music of Chuck Berry and others outside the genre, but always in a bluegrass style.
In the late ‘60s, producer Paul Rothchild invited McReynolds to Los Angeles to play on The Doors’ “Soft Parade” album. “They had this song called ‘Runnin’ Blue,’” McReynolds recalled. Rothchild told him, “I could hear a mandolin on it.”
“I don’t know where [he] heard the mandolin, but I did it,” McReynolds said. “I guess I got more publicity out of that one session than anything else in my career.”
The brothers were both diagnosed with cancer in 2002. Jesse’s was caught early enough, but Jim died later that year.
McReynolds has carried on the family tradition, though. On his latest recording, “Family Harmony,” released this year on his own label, McReynolds’ backing band includes three of his grandchildren. “It’s great. They don’t me give no trouble,” McReynolds said. “They grew up listening to me, and they knew pretty much how my music is supposed to go with the harmony and all, so they fall and in and just do it the way it should be done.”
Today, McReynolds records and releases his own music, books his own shows and runs his own Web site. He is working on an album of Grateful Dead songs, which will include an original composition by himself and Dead songwriter Robert Hunter.
McReynolds said it’s a good time for bluegrass music, but he’s not sure where it’s headed. While many of today’s premier bluegrass acts seem set on breaking the sound barrier with their picking, McReynolds said he tries to keep his music grounded. “If you play something the average fan can’t sit down here and understand a little of what you’re doing, you’re not really going in the right direction,” he said. “We keep it as simple as we can. If someone wants to learn one of our songs, it’s not that difficult.”