Jim McReynolds of Jim & Jesse, Dead at 75

Jim McReynolds, the older half of the Grand Ole Opry duo Jim & Jesse , died Tuesday (Dec. 31) in Gallatin, Tenn., of cancer. He was 75. His death brings to an end one of the most durable and influential brother acts in bluegrass and country music.

James Monroe McReynolds was born Feb. 13, 1927, in Carfax, Va. His brother, Jesse Lester, arrived two years later. The brothers’ grandfather, Charles McReynolds, was a fiddler who recorded with the Bull Mountain Moonshiners for Victor Records on the famed Bristol sessions that launched the recording careers of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.

In 1947, after serving a two-year term in the Army, McReynolds returned to his home state and, with his brother, secured a daily 15-minute radio show on WNVA in Norton, Va. Over the next five years, they worked at stations in Johnson City, Tenn.; Charleston, W.Va.; Augusta, Ga.; Waterloo and Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Wichita, Kan.; and Middletown, Ohio.

The McReynolds, joined by singer Larry Roll, made their first records in 1951 in Middletown, performing as the Virginia Trio. The next year, they began recording for Capitol Records, backed by a studio band that included James Loden who would soon go on to solo fame as Sonny James. One of their early cuts for Capitol was “Are You Missing Me.” While the song did not chart, it went on to become a bluegrass classic and a staple in their stage shows. In October 2002, remastered versions of these recordings were released under the title First Sounds: The Capitol Years.

Like most major acts of their time, Jim & Jesse and their band, the Virginia Boys, were regulars on a succession of radio “barn dances”– among them Farm and Fun Time on WCYB in Bristol, Va.; the Wheeling Jamboree on WWVA in Wheeling, W.Va.; the Midday Merry-Go-Round on WNOX in Knoxville, Tenn.; and the Suwanne River Jamboree on WNER in Live Oak, Fla. They were one of the first bluegrass acts to be sponsored by Martha White Flour, a company best known for its long affiliation with Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs & the Foggy Mountain Boys.

In 1964, Jim & Jesse, by then recording for Epic Records, scored their first chart hit with “Cotton Mill Man.” The same year, the brothers became members of the Grand Ole Opry. While Jim & Jesse would continue to chart intermittently until 1986 (when they had the minor hit, “Oh Louisiana”), their biggest single came in 1967 with “Diesel on My Tail.” It went to No. 18.

Although legitimately categorized as a bluegrass act, Jim & Jesse were known for their musical openness. They recorded an entire album of Chuck Berry songs in 1965, Berry Pickin’ in the Country. Jesse, who developed a “cross-picking” mandolin style he modeled on Earl Scruggs’ banjo technique, was drafted to play on the 1969 Doors’ album, The Soft Parade. The duo revisited its country roots in 2001 with Our Kind of Country, an album of standards recorded with members of the Grand Ole Opry staff band.

Jim & Jesse were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor in 1993. In 1997, they were awarded the National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Jim McReynolds’ wife, Arretta, died Dec. 19, 2002. In addition to his brother, McReynolds is survived by a daughter, Janeen. A memorial service will be held Saturday (Jan. 4) in Gallatin, Tenn. Burial will be in Virginia.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.