February 13, 1927-December 31, 2002 by Eddie Stubbs, Grand Ole Opry Announcer, Nashville, Tennessee

The longest active professional brother duet in the history of bluegrass and country music is now silent. On New Year’s Eve, word came of the passing of Jim McReynolds, 75, one half of the popular Jim & Jesse duo, a pioneering first generation act in bluegrass music.

James Monroe McReynolds was born on February 13, 1927 in the tiny community of Carfax, berween Coeburn and St. Paul, Va. Musical instruments were always abundant in the McReynolds family, and both Jim and his younger brother Jesse started playing music at a very young age. Both sides of their family played and sang the old-time traditional mountain music. In fact, their grandfather Charles McReynolds, a fiddle player of note, recorded at the historic RCA sessions held in Bristol, Va. in 1927.

When Jim & Jesse were learning to play and sing, the brother duet acts in country music were extremely popular. They listened to the radio shows and bought 78 rpm records of such pioneers as the Delmore Brothers, the Monroe Brothers, and the Blue Sky Boys, and sought to emulate their styles. With Jesse plauing mandolin and singing lead and Jim providing the tenor harmony and guitar accompaniment, the two brothers came up with a vocal blend that was uniquely their own.

Jim & Jesse in 1947

Following Jim’s discharge from the United States Army, he and Jesse made their professional debut a few months later in the spring of 1947 on WNVA in Norton, Va. This tenure lasted only a few months and was the beginning of a long succession of radio jobs. They appeared on stations in Charleston, W.Va., Bristol, Va., Forest City, N.C., Augusta, Ga., Waterloo, Ia., and Wichita, Kans.

They would spend close to a year in 1951 working at WPFB in Middletown, Ohio. While there, they made their first commercial recording for the Kentucky label with Larry Roll and were billed as the Virginia Trio. The ten titles were all gospel and represent some of the smoothest trio singing of the time in bluegrass and country music.

Following stints in Spruce Pine and Asheville, N.C., Jim & Jesse moved to WVLK in Versailles, Ky., to become members of the Kentucky Barn Dance in 1952. While there, they received their first big break when they got a contract with Capitol Records. Up to this time, they had been billed as the McReynolds Brothers. At the suggestion of their producer, Ken Nelson, they changed their professional name to Jim & Jesse because there had been so many brother duos in country music, coupled with the fact that Capitol had recently signed the Louvin Brothers.

Jim & Jesse them moved to WCYB  in Bristol, Va., where they stayed only two months until December 1952 when Jesse was drafted into the Army and served in the Korean War. In the meantime, Jim played music professionally in Rome,Ga.                                                                                                   

After Jesse’s military discharge, the brothers continued recording for Capitol until 1955. Their output on the label included such classics as “Are You Missing Me,” “Just Wondering Why,” “Air Mail Special,” “My Little Honeysuckle Rose,” and “A Memory of You.”

The boys did a three-month stay at WDVA in Danville, Va., where the times were so bad that Jesse had to pawn his mandolin in order to pay the hotel bill where they were living at the time. The station-hopping continued to Burlington, N.C., and then on to WNOX in Knoxville, Tenn., and later at WWVA in Wheeling, W.Va. The times got somewhat better when the brothers moved to WNER in Live Oak, Fla., and appeared on the Suwannee River Jamboree.

By 1956, Jim & Jesse were appearing on television in Tallahassee, Fla., and subsequent shows were added in Savannah, Ga., Dothan, Ala., Pensacola, Fla., and Valdosta, Ga., where they later moved. They signed with Starday Records in 1958 and recorded several tunes which became standards, including “Hard Hearted” and “Pardon Me,” along with the instrumentals “Dixie Hoedown” and “Border Ride.

Jim & Jesse traveling to tour dates on their bus.

In 1960, Martha White Flour began sponsoring Jim & Jesse on television, and the following year they moved to Prattville, Ala., and also made their first guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. A recording contract with Columbia produced such classics as “Gosh I Miss You All The Time” and “Diesel Train” before they migrated over to Epic where they would enjoy their biggest commercial success. In the early 1960’s, the Jim & Jesse sound really crystallized with Allen Shelton on banjo and Jimmy Buchanan on Fiddle, producing the classic albums “Bluegrass Special,” “Bluegrass Classics,” and “The Old Country Church.”

After many guest appearances, on March 2, 1964, Jim & Jesse fulfilled their life’s dream to become members of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. Their records continued to sell at a steady pace, but as the bluegrass and country music fields became separate industries, Jim & Jesse had to adapt to keep up with the times. They added electric instrumentation to their recordings and hired musicians who could double on both acoustic and electric instruments. They also had many BILLBOARD country chart hits including the well-known “Diesel on my Tail.”

They continued with their own syndicated television show for a number of years and recorded a lot of material including and album of Chuck Berry tunes as well as an LP saluting their good friends the Louvin Brothers.

In the late 1960’s, the bluegrass festival movement was starting to take hold and by the ’70’s, it was going strong. Although they continued to be well received on country music package shows, their primary source of show dates was from the bluegrass audience at festival appearances where they received pioneering reverence.

Jim and Jesse went back to Capitol for one album before doing an LP for Opryland Records wihich produced their classic recording of John Prine’s “Paradise.” They later started their own label, Old Dominion, where they produced and recorded their own music on their own terms. In the 1980’s, they recorded albums for CMH and Rounder as well as Old Dominion, all of which were well received.

In addition to having toured extensively throughout the United States and Canada, Jim & Jesse also appeared in Japan, England, France, Germany, Finland, Holland, and Africa. The legendary Decca Records producer Owen Bradley once said, “There’s nothing wrong with being in a groove, but if you stay in a groove too long, you’ll end up in a rut.” Fortunately, Jim & Jesse never had to worry about this. They recorded many different types of material, along with numerous concept albums including tributes to Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe. 

In 1993, the brothers received bluegrass music’s highest honor when they were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor. They later went to the White House in 1997 to receive the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship Award from then First Lady Hillary Clinton.

Accepting the National Heritage Award in 1997. L to R: Hillary Clinton, Jim McReynolds, Jesse McReynolds, Jane Alexander

Jim & Jesse’s last several releases have been on the Pinecastle label. One of their most recent projects was “Our Kind of Country”, an entire album revisiting the classic shuffle beat sound of country music that was so popular in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. It is indeed ironic that their forthcoming release, slated to be out in March, was planned in advance to be titled “Tis Sweet to be Remembered.”

The duet of Jim & Jesse is certainly one of the most famous in the realm of bluegrass and traditional country music. Even into his early ’70’s, after a more than fifty-year career, Jim never lost a thing musically or vocally. His solid rhythm guitar coupled with his pure clear tenor voice, whether singing harmony or as a soloist, was always right on. Jim’s dry sense of humor and wit made us laugh whether telling a joke at the expense of a band member or about someone else he knew. He was a man who always had time for others.

Poise, professionalism, dignity, and class are four words that you’ll never hear used to describe a current act in today’s country music. Jim & Jesse, however, embodied these traits both musically and professionally, on stage and off. Jesse ran the band, while Jim took care of the business end of the operation. As a business agent, he was superb. He was always fair with promoters, and was as honest as the day is long with everyone. There were several venues where the Jim & Jesse show appeared annually for 35 or more consecutive years. Jim possessed excellent communication and customer relations skills which only added to other’s admiration of himself and the act. He would never do anything that would bring harm or disgrace to himself, the family name, the act, the music, or the Grand Ole Opry – all of which were extremely important to him.

In 2001, Jim started experiencing voice problems. After visiting numerous doctors and specialists, he was advised not to sing. In April of 2002, he underwent thyroid surgery and cancer was found, and it had spread to the lymph nodes. Jim was off the road until June, but resumed with Jesse and continued undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. His condition worsened and he developed brain tumors.

Through it all, JIm never lost his dignity. His last appearance was at the Ryman Auditorium on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry on Saturday, November 23, 2002. He had to be helped to the stage, and even though he couldn’t sing, sitting on a stool, he played rhythm guitar flawlessly. His appearance, as always, was neat, clean, and pressed to the highest degree as he smiled with pride helping to make the music he loved for the last time.

Sadly, on December 19, Jim’s wife Arreta, died suddenly of a massive heart attack. Jim started hospice care the next day. His death came December 31, at 7:40 p.m. at  the Sumner Regional Medical Center in Gallatin, Tenn. His daughter Janeen was by his side.

Funeral services were held at the Alexander Funeral Home in Gallatin, on January 4, with burial taking place the next day at the Robinette Cemetery, a small family cemetery on top of a mountain at the McReynolds’ homeplace where Jim was born in Carfax, Va.

At times like this, people often ask “Who’s going to fill their shoes?” The answer is no one – as no person can ever fill the void of a life that has been taken from us, let alone a talent like that of Jim McReynolds.

We are happy to report that Jesse plans to keep the band going. As he said in a four hour tribute to Jim that aired on WSM on January 2, “If I had gone first, I would have wanted Jim to keep going.”

Bill Monroe once said, “A record is forever,” meaning that it is a permanent document that will be around somewhere for generations to come. Thankfully, almost everything Jim & Jesse ever recorded since 1951 is still in print, which is a testimony to the impact they made and their greatness. There is much there for listeners to enjoy, and their music will continue to serve as a benchmark for those learning to play and sing bluegrass and traditional country music.

We can all learn from Jim & Jesse whether we play music or not. Just to look at their publicity photos and album covers shows that they represented class in its finest form. They took their music from small rural schoolhouses to some of the most prestigious venues in this nation and abroad. They made many sacrifices and nearly starved numerous times in the early years, but kept going because they believed in the music and themselves. We should all be grateful and thankful for every appearance they made, every radio show they did, every television show they made, every song they recorded, and every mile they rode, many of which were on two-land roads before the days of interstates. Just think how much richer our industry is musically and personally because of their contributions. We should never forget.

Jim & Jesse at the “Legends of Bluegrass” Festival in Columbia, Mississippi

Reprinted by permission Bluegrass Unlimited magazine 1 800 BLU-GRASS

All rights reserved. Copyright February 2003

Thank you for sending your e-mails.