Many people have been exposed to music in their own families when they were children. A few took that experience and turned it into their life’s work, establishing their own musical identity. No finer example of this accomplishment exists than Jim and Jesse McReynolds, who were inducted into SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall of Greats in 1987. Their musical career has continued through six decades and over forty five years. They are recognized, not only as great musicians, but as gentlemen in every meaning of the word.
James Monroe “Jim” McReynolds, was born on February 13, 1927, and Jesse Lester McReynolds on July 9, 1929, near Coeburn, Virginia, the city they still refer to as home. They came from a wonderful musical heritage. Their grandfather, Charles McReynolds was a fiddle player, who recorded with his Bull Mountain Moonshiners for Victor in 1927. Their father, Claude, played fiddle and his brothers banjo and guitar. While their mother. Savannah Prudence, did not play an instrument, she loved Gospel singing. Jim and Jesse have shown this same love in the Gospel songs they have recorded, many learned from her.
The early influences on Jim and Jesse’s music were the Carter Family, whom they were able to observe when they played in Dwina, Virginia, and the brother duets of the thirties and forties. The Delmore Brothers and the Bailes Brothers became their favorites. The Louvin Brothers would also prove very influential on Jim and Jesse’s future years, as they became very good friends, and Jim & Jesse have recorded many songs that were written by Charlie and Ira.
Jesse learned to play the fiddle and mandolin from a brother-in-law, but when they first started playing, Jim played the mandolin and Jesse guitar. They won an amateur contest in St. Paul, Virginia, performing as a duet. Even at that early time, it was their vocals with Jesse singing lead and Jim tenor, that gained them recognition. Their plans for a career in music were temporarily postponed when Jim was drafted into the U. S. Army in 1945. When he returned in 1947, he had with him a new Gibson A-50 mandolin. They formed a band with Jim, mandolin, Jesse, guitar, Jim Farmer, fiddle, and Jay Hughes bass, called The Cumberland Mountain Boys. They played a radio show on WNVA, Norton, Virginia. Just a short time later Jim took the guitar and Jesse the mandolin, the instruments that they play today. The first reunion of the Cumberland Mountain Boys took place on June 13, 1992, at Jim and Jesse’s Fourth Annual Bluegrass Festival in Elizabethton, Tennessee.
They played at radio stations in Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Tennessee, winding up in Augusta, Georgia in 1949. Jim and Jesse were following the same pattern that had been used by the early radio entertainers, playing a radio program and making personal appearances in that listening area. When a sponsor left them, or the attendance at their concerts dropped off, they would move to another area, a new station. This constant movement allowed them to gain many new fans in each area and would prove very important later in their careers.
Jesse began to experiment with his mandolin playing, intrigued by the constant sounds produced by the thumb and first two fingers of Hoke Jenkins, a banjo player who used all “backward rolls.” Using a flat pick, Jesse was able to duplicate the constant sound of multiple strings, creating a new way dubbed crosspicking and now recognized around the world as the Jesse McReynolds’ style.
They moved to the Great Plains in the early 1950s, where they played as the KFDI Ranch Boys, doing cowboy songs much in the style of The Sons of the Pioneers. The name The Virginia Boys came into use when they were joined by Larry Roll on WPFB, Middletown, Ohio. They recorded ten Gospel songs for Gateway Records in Cincinnati in 1951, released on single records as “The Virginia Trio.” These were re-released on Ultra Sonic LP 52 titled Sacred Songs of the Virginia Trio around 1961. The first recording of Jesse’s new mandolin style, “Just A Little Talk With Jesus” and other songs clearly showed the progress he had made. Larry Roll sang lead, Jim, tenor, Jesse, baritone, and their vocal blend, even at this early stage of their musical development, demonstrated great power.
Jim and Jesse received their first big break in 1952 when they signed with Capitol records. Producer Ken Nelson suggested they use the name Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys. Hoke Jenkins was the banjo player. Sonny Loden “James,” who would go on to become a pop and Country music star, played fiddle, with Bob Moore, bass. One of the legendary figures of Bluegrass Music, John Ray “Curly” Seckler, also appeared on these recording sessions, singing lead on his own song, “Purple Heart,” with Jim tenor and Jesse baritone. The emerging sound of Jim and Jesse was very strong on, “Are You Missing Me,” written by Ira and Charlie Louvin, and “Air Mail Special,” written by Leon Rusk and Ossie Godson. Many single record releases from these sessions, the Capitol album (DTBB 264) Twenty Great Songs By Jim and Jesse, released in 1970, and the 1985 Rebel of Canada LP (REB 851) Air Mail Special: Early Recordings, 1952-1955 came from these sessions.
Jim and Jesse were members of WCYB's “Farm and Fun Time” in Bristol, Tennessee when Jesse was inducted into the Army on December 2, 1952. He served his country in Korea, where he managed to keep playing music since Charlie Louvin was also serving in the same area. Jesse returned home in 1954 and The Virginia Boys resumed, playing the radio station trail. They appeared on the “Midday Merry-Go-Round” in Knoxville, the “World’s Original Jamboree,” in Wheeling, West Virginia, and finally moved to Florida, where they played on radio and television shows in Savannah and Albany, Georgia. The version of the Virginia boys in 1957 had some wonderful talent in addition to Jim and Jesse. Bobby Thompson played banjo, Vassar Clements was on fiddle, Don McHan played electric bass, and “Chick” Stripling danced and did comedy.
Jim and Jesse produced their own recording sessions then leased them to Starday Records in 1958, with the first releases in 1959. These songs have been released many times on single records and in albums. While working in Valdosta, Georgia in 1960 they entered into an association with Martha White Mills, the same company that sponsored Flatt and Scruggs. Martha White was their main television sponsor in four southern states, and they also made audio tapes for a fifteen minute radio show broadcast at 5:45AM, Monday through Friday on WSM, Nashville, Tennessee.
The exposure that they received through television and radio shows, plus the added effect of working for Martha White, led to a contract with Columbia Records, where they recorded songs for single records that were released in January and October, 1961. The situation with Columbia failed to meet expectations, so when offered the opportunity to switch to Columbia’s Epic label, they quickly accepted. The first two albums on Epic (LN 24031) Bluegrass Special, released on January 26, 1963, and (LN 24074) Bluegrass Classics, released on September 16, 1963, lived up to their titles. Many consider them some of the finest Bluegrass Music ever recorded. Band personnel at that time were Allen Shelton, playing some wonderful banjo, Jim Buchanan, Mr. Smooth on the fiddle, Don McHan, playing guitar, singing lead and harmony, and David Sutherland, also known as “Joe Binglehead,” playing bass. David appears in the picture on the cover of “Bluegrass Special,” but Junior Huskey played the bass on that LP. David did play the bass on Bluegrass Classics. The great duets of Jim and Jesse provided, as always, a strong point of these albums, with Don McMan adding either lead or baritone for the trios. They recorded other fine albums on Epic: (LN 24144) Y’All Come, Bluegrass Humor With Jim And Jesse And The Virginia Boys and a Gospel LP (BN26107) The Old Country Church.
On March 2, 1964 Jim and Jesse achieved the dream of every country and Bluegrass musician, when they became regular members of WSM's Grand Ole Opry. Their Epic recordings were very successful, but in order to achieve even higher sales, they added electric guitar, steel guitar and drums to their recordings. Their single of “Diesel on My Tail” was their biggest seller ever, reaching number 18 in Billboard Magazine charts in 1967. Throughout their “country” recordings, however, the duet singing of Jim and Jesse dominated the sound. When the Bluegrass festivals began to grow in popularity, Jim and Jesse returned to the sound they had developed and recorded on their early Epic Albums.
Jim and Jesse have continued with their music, recording for their own labels, “Old Dominion,” “Prize,” and have had releases on Rounder Records and several other labels. Jesse’s son, Keith, joined the group playing electric bass and singing baritone in the early eighties, and continued until he was diagnosed as having Multiple Sclerosis. They worked for a period of time with fellow Grand Ole Opry Star, Charlie Louvin, where each would perform with their own band, then combine for a grand finale with some great harmony singing, featuring a lot of Louvin Brothers songs. Alien Shelton returned to Jim and Jesse in 1983, playing the five string Dobro and later switching back to his first love, the banjo. He has since departed. The Virginia Boys in November, 1991 were Raymond McClain, banjo, Mike Drudge, electric bass and, rejoining for the third time, was the great fiddler Jim Buchanan.
Throughout their career Jim and Jesse never lost sight of their personal goals to establish their own musical identity. They have maintained an untainted image of two of the nicest people to ever play music. Jim’s outstanding good looks could have earned him the title “The Best Looking Man In Bluegrass,” if ever such a contest were held, but he would still be the same “ole Jim.” When they sing on stage, Jesse’s eyes will dart to and from the audience, while Jim will lean ever so slightly towards the microphone, his eyes slowly moving from one section of the people who came to listen to another. The blend of their voices remains just as wonderful today as it was when they started their careers so many years ago. They have survived longer than any other brother duet act in the known history of music.
They have been honored for their many contributions to music, in addition to the SPBGMA award already mentioned. They were installed in the Walkway of Stars in the Country Music Association’s Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1981, and are members of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. Their Rounder compact disc (0279) Music Among Friends was nominated for a Grammy in 1992. This album took almost three years to complete and their friends included Bill Monroe, Curly Seckler, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, “Tater” Tate, Mac Wiseman, and many others. On September 23, 1993 Jim & Jesse joined the Bluegrass Hall of Honor at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky. They have taken the musical lessons they learned at home as children, to the greatest heights possible. The McReynolds’ musical heritage that was passed down from their family has been well taken care of, and will continue to thrive in the hands of Jim & Jesse and Their Virginia Boys.