Jim and Jesse: Fifty Years on the Grand Ole Opry

Jim and Jesse: Fifty Years on the Grand Ole Opry

By Art Menius for Bluegrass Unlimited 1992

As the winter of 1963-1964 warmed to an end, Jim & Jesse, the McReynolds Brothers, rode the crest of the musical success that had seemed so elusive just a few years before. For three years Martha White Mills had been sponsoring Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys on television shows syndicated throughout Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. The folk boom had created a young, urban audience for their kind of music and the opportunity for Jim & Jesse to perform at the famed Newport Folk Festival.

On 1 December 1960 Don Law had signed them to Columbia Records, returning the pair to major label after having been dropped by Capitol in 1955. The release of their second Columbia single, “Beautiful Moon of Kentucky”/”Diesel Train,” on the first of October 1961 coincided with their first guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s clear channel AM 650, WSM. Jim & Jesse had sung “Nobody But You” during Ernest Tubb’s segment.

By the time Jim & Jesse were assigned to Columbia’s Epic division early in 1962, they had assembled one of the strongest bluegrass aggregations of all time with Allen Shelton on banjo, songwriter Don McHan playing lead guitar and singing harmony, Jim Buchanan, barely 21 years old, playing fiddle with a depth beyond his years, and Dave Southerland anchoring the group on bass. Providing the perfect outfit for Jim & Jesse’s smooth vocals and complex instrumental work, over the next three years they would wax a stream of classics including “Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes,” “I Wish You Knew,” “Are You Missing Me,” “Why Not Confess,” “Take My Ring From Your Finger,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” and “Cotton Mill Man.” Many of these titles were collected on Jim & Jesse: The Epic Bluegrass Hits (Rounder SS20).

Working with such producers as Law, Frank Jones, and Jerry Kennedy, it marked a period of inspiration and innovation within the format of bluegrass music. With strong recordings for a major label, an exceptional band, TV exposure supported by one of the Opry’s leading advertisers, and a devoted regional following, the call-up from their early ’60s base in Prattville, Alabama to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry seemed logical, if not inevitable.

“A.O. Stinson was in charge of all Martha White’s advertising on TV,” Jim McReynolds recalls. “He’d take us in there [to the Opry] for a guest appearance from time to time. Somewhere in my files we have a copy of a letter that Cohen Williams, who owned Martha White, wrote to [Opry manager] Ott Devine expressing their interest in our group and that they would love to see us on the Opry.

“You get somebody like Martha White that’s spending their money with the Grand Ole Opry and WSM and after he wrote that letter, it wasn’t long until Ott had called us one day and asked us to have lunch with him. He told us that they had decided to make us members of the Opry.”

Around 25 years had passed since the young McReynolds boys, already schooled in mountain music by their family, began listening to the magical sounds coming over WSM. “Our brother-in-law had an old battery-type radio, and he lived down the road from us not too far,” Jim remembers. “We’d go down to the house on Saturday nights, and people would just gather around, in the early days of radio, and listen to the Grand Ole Opry. Back then I guess Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe were two of the biggest names there was on the Opry. It was just mountain type music. People were doing a lot of Carter Family songs.”

Jim & Jesse absorbed the sound of the brother duets so popular in the late 1930s, won a talent contest at St. Pauls, VA in 1941, and with then conclusion of the Second World War began their musical careers. A seemingly endless chain of radio stations took them from Georgia to Iowa. When the pair signed with Capitol Records in 1952, they began recording with a full bluegrass unit. Despite the high quality of their Capitol sides, the group lost its momentum when Jesse was drafted for service in Korea. There he met, of all people, Charlie Louvin of the Louvin Brothers, the most successful brother act of the 1950s.

When Jesse returned to the states, they started all over again, briefly joining the World’s Original Jamboree on WWVA in Wheeling, WV, before heading south to north Florida. There Jim & Jesse got into television and began recruiting such future stars as Bobby Thompson and Vassar Clements for the Virginia Boys, while recording for Starday. Then 1960 brought the contracts with Martha White and Columbia that led to the Opry stage.

Jim & Jesse officially joined the Grand Ole Opry on 2 March 1964 and made their first appearance as members five days later. The impact on the band proved immediate. “It was a time when you got on the Opry, you’d made the big leagues, moved up from the farm to the majors,” reports their friend Mac Wiseman, who joins Jim & Jesse and Buck White here for a rendition of “Little White Church.”

“There’s a lot of exposure and, of course, prestige there with the Opry,” explains Jim. “It got us on a lot of bookings and some package shows that we never would have accomplished any other way.”

“It meant a lot more airplay on our records,” interjects Jesse. “I’d noticed that before we got on. Those shows we were working down in Georgia and Alabama, we could add ‘Grand Ole Opry’ and that helped the people who were booking us on shows a lot. They could use our name as a Grand Ole Opry act.”

Membership in the Opry provided not only prestige, but entree into a support network. “They had a news release thing that they were always sending out to all the disk jockeys,” Jim notes. Back then on Friday nights WSM had a “Mister DJ USA” thing that Grant Turner was in charge of. Grant would take the DJ and the artist out to dinner after everything. We went on several of those, and we got to know those guys. It’s just personal contact that meant a lot. No other way [than being members of the Opry] could you get involved in stuff like that.”

Recorded for Epic on the very day they signed with the Opry and released 5 weeks later, the Billy Sherrill produced “Cotton Mill Man” gave Jim & Jesse their first chart hit, reaching #43 on the Billboard Country & Western charts. Six further Epic singles would climb the hit parade for Jim & Jesse.

“Back then,” Jim says, “you could talk to a promoter, especially of country package shows, and the first thing they’d hit you with was ‘what have you got in the charts?’ In the middle ’60s or so, when we recorded ‘Diesel on my Tail,’ we were just trying to get sort of into the country vein so we could get some airplay. Without some kind of record getting into the charts, you could just about forget those packages and big country shows.”

Featuring the familiar Jim & Jesse harmony with more uptown instrumentation, “Diesel on my Tail” proved their most successful release, climbing to Billboard’s #18 during a 16 week run in the spring and summer of 1967. The distinctiveness and reliability of their vocal mastery gave Jim & Jesse the freedom to experiment with country, rock, and Latin material without losing their loyal audience.

Another given with Jim & Jesse has proven to be a crackerjack band. From their 1950s Capitol sessions with such artists as Hoke Jenkins, Sonny James, Tommy Jackson, Curly Seckler, and Tommy Vadin to the 1987 Rounder sessions with Shelton, Glen Duncan, Charlie Collins, and Roy Huskey that produced In the Tradition (Rounder 0234), Jim & Jesse have always surrounded themselves with the best. That’s included such luminaries as Thompson, Buchanan, and Clements, Carl Jackson, Joe Meadows, Vic Jordan, Jim Brock, and, today, Jimmy Campbell and Raymond McLain.

“We’ve always felt it was important if you had a banjo player or a fiddler that can really cut it. You’ve got to have everybody that can pick well,” Jim says. “We’ve learned that if you look around a bit, you can find good musicians for the same price as musicians who might not be that good. I listen to a lot of people when I’m on festivals. When I hear someone who’s doing something a little unusual, I check it out. Then you’ve got the personality to check out.”

One of Jim & Jesse’s youngest discoveries, Carl Jackson, repaid his mentors by producing this album. “I guess the first time we met him, we were playing a show pretty near to where he lived [in Mississippi]. His parents brought him out, and I think he had played somewhere down near Jackson in a dressing room with Earl Scruggs. So his dad could see how much energy he was creating. We used him as a guest on some of our stage shows down in that area,” Jim recollects.

“He was fourteen years old when we needed someone to help us through the summer, and his dad said if we wanted to use him we could, that we were the only group he’d trust to let him go out with, a fourteen year old boy.”

That was in 1968. Before he turned twenty-one, Jackson had recorded for Capitol and succeeded John Hartford on Glen Campbell’s TV series. While never forgetting his bluegrass roots, Jackson developed into one of Nashville’s more respected sessionmen, songwriters, and producers.

Besides producing and playing banjo or guitar on every track, Jackson assisted Jim & Jesse in recruiting performers and shaping Jim & Jesse’s 25th anniversary project. At first, Jesse explains, “The idea was we’d go back and get all the Virginia Boys, but Bobby Thompson can’t play anymore, and Shelton didn’t want to.” So they made the decision to “build it around us and the people we’ve worked with and some of our friends,” as Jim describes it.

During February of 1989 work began with Ben Hall engineering at his Home Place Studio in Nashville. Getting people to agree to be part of the project proved a lot easier than co-ordinating schedules.

“To get people in town or when they’re free, it’s not easy,” notes Jesse. “You just have to get people when they have time in Nashville when they’re off the road. We could have gotten a lot more Opry people if we’d had time.”

“Carl helped get a lot of the people. Tony Rice–Carl got him while he was in Nashville,” Jim says. “He’s in the studio with people all the time. Carl got Emmylou Harris to come in and do it. He got Ricky Skaggs to come in and Jerry Douglas and Buck White. We got Buchanan and people like that and Bill Monroe. Jesse got Porter Wagoner to do it. I talked to Mac.”

And so it all came together: Carl Jackson and Vic Jordan, who last worked with Jim & Jesse during the summer of 1989, split the banjo work. Jim Buchanan, recent Virginia Boy alumnus Glen Duncan, and their current fiddler Jimmy Campbell shared the fiddle slots. Veteran session man Roy Husky, Terry Smith of the Osborne Brothers, and Mark Schatz from the Tony Rice Unit provided the bass. Jerry Douglas slid into the Dobro work, while Rice augmented the guitar playing of Jim and Carl on a couple of cuts. And throughout Jesse McReynolds demonstrated his versatile and so distinctive mandolin picking.

Because, as Jesse puts it, “Allen was such a great part of the sound we had in the early years” on the Opry, Jim & Jesse lifted a recording of “Long Journey Home” from a mid-1980s session they cut with Shelton, Jackson, and Huskey.

Rather than put together a greatest hits re-recorded package, Jim & Jesse used their talented friends to cut a number of songs they’d never recorded previously. “Most of the material we picked according to the people we had to help us,” continues Jesse. “Like with Mac, we did ‘Little White Church’ because he was one of the people credited with singing that. With Porter, we did his song, ‘I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name.'”

“We worked a lot with Porter down in Florida before we went on the Opry,” Jim points out. “We’ve done so many of his songs. In fact. we used to do everything Porter Wagoner came out with. We’d start doing it on TV. He always been a good supporter of us and the music.”

For Bill Monroe they picked one of their favorites from his enormous repertoire, “Wicked Path of Sin.” “I’ve always heard him say, I think, that that was the first song he ever wrote,” Jim adds. “The thing we did with Seckler, ‘We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart,’ comes from Flatt & Scruggs. We picked a song that would go with whoever was helping us that particular project.”

“Ricky worked with Ralph Stanley,” Jesse comments. “That’s the reason we did ‘The White Dove.’ I think ‘The White Dove’ came out about as good as anything we have on there.”

In typical Jim & Jesse fashion, they didn’t limit the project just to superstars and superpickers. Ray Kirkland, who paid a visit to the studio, was invited to sing the baritone part on “I Cried Again.” “He worked with us a long time back when Allen and Jim Brock played with us [the mid-1960s]. Ray played bass with us,” Jesse recalls. Kirkland went on to work with the Osborne Brothers, Jimmy C. Newman, and Grandpa Jones.

“We’d like to make a special recognition on the song, ‘Going Back to Virginia,'” Jesse notes. “Ralph Owenby wrote the lyrics and Don McHan put the music to it. Ralph passed away last October [1989]. He had the charter bus company in Bristol and did all our bus work.”

“He was a real good friend,” adds Jim, “and he got to hear it before he died. I can get the picture from the song. He grew up in the same place we did.”

Not with all the miles and the shows and the public acclaim have Jim & Jesse forgotten where they grew up in southwestern Virginia near Coeburn. So what does it mean to a couple of Virginia boys to have grown up to spend a quarter century and counting as stars of the Grand Ole Opry?

“A lot of traveling, that’s what it means for one thing,” Jim quips. “I guess it means we may have done a few things right to be able to stay there that long. The people at the Opry are easy to work with. It’s pretty much just a big family of country entertainers.

“As we look back over the years, it really doesn’t seem like it’s been that many years. If you stay busy and enjoy something, time seems to fly by. We’ve been around this business forty years, and compared to those who have a hit out and then are gone, we have a lot to be thankful for.”