Jim and Jesse McReynolds ~ a biography
Deep in the mountains of southwest Virginia still stands the white aging farmhouse Jim & Jesse first called home. Raised in the small community of Carfax, located near Coeburn, VA, the boys grew up in a family steeped in traditional mountain music. This background made it natural for them to follow in the footsteps of their grandfather Charlie McReynolds, who was one of the first to record for RCA in Bristol, VA in 1927.
Their harmony was exceptional, a rarity some say only brothers can produce. Jim’s enhanced high tenor combined with Jesse’s deep lead and unique mandolin style set this duo apart in the world of traditional music, now termed Bluegrass. Very early in their career, Jesse developed a “McReynolds style” technique on the mandolin, combining his invention of “crosspicking and split-string playing”, which distinguished his picking from others. Many have imitated, but few have successfully mastered his unique style of fast execution of intricate melodic patterns.
In 1952, Jim & Jesse debuted on their first major label, Capitol Records. Since that time, they have recorded for various labels including: Columbia, Epic, again for Capitol, Opryland, CMH, Rounder, and their own, Old Dominion. In 1960, their first single for Columbia, “The Flame of Love” backed by “Gosh I Miss You All The Time” spent weeks climbing the top 100 national charts. “Cotton Mill Man”, “Diesel On My Tail”, “Are You Missing Me”, and “Paradise” are a few songs regarded as Jim & Jesse classics.
They were backed by their band, The Virginia Boys, always top-notch musicians featuring various traditional acoustic instruments: guitar (Jim), mandolin (Jesse), five-string banjo, fiddle and bass. During their career they had toured all 50 states with the exception of Alaska, and have traveled worldwide including: Canada, Mexico, Japan, Europe, The British Isles, and Africa in 1985, for the U.S. State Department.
In the late ’50’s and early ’60’s, most of their live weekly radio and television shows throughout the southeast, were sponsored by Martha White Mills. They also sponsored a portion of The Grand Ole Opry, and invited Jim & Jesse as guest hosts. This led to their membership on March 2, 1964 and their move to Gallatin, TN, near Nashville, in 1964.
Their numerous honors include induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame’s “Walkway of Stars”, the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame, IBMA’s Hall of Honor, and Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame. Individually and collectively they garnered many Grammy nominations. They also received the National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, presented by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jane Alexander at the The White House, September 23, 1997. This is our nation’s most prestigious honor in folk and traditional arts.
The year 2002 was a difficult one for Jim and Jesse. Both brothers were diagnosed with different types of cancer. Jesse’s battle was successful, Jim’s was not. He passed away on December 31, 2002, ending the longest active professional brother duet in country music history – 55 years.
Jesse has carried on the Jim & Jesse tradition and has since gone on to play throughout the world with the Virginia Boys. And the beautiful music that originated from the brothers in the mountains of southwest Virginia back in 1947 remains as timeless as ever.