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.
Jesse McReynolds and his brother Jim debuted on Capitol records in 1952, though they recorded for many labels since. “Cotton Mill Man”, “Diesel On My Tail”, “Are You Missing Me”, and “Paradise” are a few songs regarded as Jim & Jesse classics.
Magical vocal harmonies, Jim’s guitar playing, and Jesse on mandolin, backed by their band The Virginia Boys, always a crew of top notch musicians. They toured the world, had Radio and TV shows, and in 1964, they joined the Grand Ole Opry.
Jesse had his first exposure to Rock fans playing on The Doors Soft Parade album, on the track “Runnin’ Blue”.
In the 70’s they did a bluegrass take on Chuck Berry’s music, that was a big hit for them.
They continued to play through the 80’s and 90’s, and get awards and honors, even getting a 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.
In 2002, both brothers were diagnosed with cancer. Jesse was able to beat his, and sadly, Jim did not. He passed away on December 31, 2002, ending the longest active professional brother duet in country music history – 55 years.
Jim carried on, and has played around the world with new incarnations of The Virginia Boys.
A few years ago…. Jesse learned from Sandy Rothman that Jerry Garcia had been a fan of Jim and Jesse, and used to tape them off the TV! Jerry and Sandy went to see them play even, but Jerry was too shy to do much more than ask for an autograph. At Sandy’s urging, and as a gift to his wife Joy, a longtime Deadhead, Jesse started this project…
Joined by some of Deadheadland’s favorite people, including David Nelson (David Nelson Band, New Riders of The Purple Sage, Wildwood Boys) and Stu Allen (guitarist from Melvin Seals and JGB, The Schwag, Front Street) – Jesse McReynolds & Friends Songs of The Grateful Dead is a gorgeous album that belongs in the collection of every Deadhead. The lusciousness of Jesse’s vocals and mandolin are enhanced by Stu and David’s guitar work.
Plus – one of the biggest treats on the album is a new song – by Robert Hunter and Jesse McReynolds! “Day by Day” – this alone makes the album a must have!
Jesse will be playing this weekend at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa California. In addition to playing a Jesse and Friends set on both Friday and Saturday (sure to be full of Grateful Dead songs and bluegrass standards, and a few of Jesse’ own songs too!) – Jesse will also participate in the special tribute performance to Jerry Garcia and Bear (Owsley Stanley) – along with David Nelson, Steve Kimock, the members of Moonalice and many others, they will be performing the classic album History of the Grateful Dead Volume 1 (Bear’s Choice). NOT TO BE MISSED!!!
I recently had a chance to talk with Jesse on the phone, about the record and the upcoming show. He was a great guy to talk with, and I look foreword to meeting him in person this weekend at the Harmony Festival! Here is the interview:
DEADHEADLAND: Hello, Is this Jesse McReynolds?
JESSE MCREYNOLDS: Yes it is,
DEADHEADLAND: Well this is Brian from Deadheadland, good morning!
Jesse: Hi Brian how you doing?
DHL: great! I guess it is afternoon for you in Nashville?
Jesse: Well, yes it is, though we have a little sunshine for a change
DHL: good, we had the sun break through a bit today in the SF Bay Area
Jesse: good! I look forward to being back there soon
DHL: I look forward to seeing you at the Harmony Festival.
Jesse: Last time I was there was for the Rex Foundation show… good times there!
DHL: Were you familiar with the music of JG and RH before you started preparing for your CD?
Jesse: Oh yes, and I had heard quite a bit of it, really, and I almost had the opportunity to work with them on time in Texas, they had a big festival near Austin Texas, I got to play over their sound system, that’s really the closest I ever got to meeting them that one time… back in the 60’s or 70’s some time, I don’t really remember what dates… we were playing in a quite a few different venues at that time with a bluegrass band, of course we had done the Chuck Berry tunes back then, and it had done pretty good for us, so it got us booked on a few different types of shows than just bluegrass festivals
DHL: Jerry sure exposed lots of Rock and Roll fans to bluegrass as well!
Jesse: yeah I was honored when I found out from Sandy Rothman, he (jerry) was a fan of ours and he and Sandy used to come to our shows a lot, before he had started the Grateful Dead band. And Jerry was into bluegrass as much, or wanted to be, back then.
DHL: Since you’ve made this recording you have been performing for a lot of Grateful Dead audiences, performing with Dark Star Orchestra and others…
Jesse: Yes, I played with them in Nashville, then I uh, I did the Philadelphia folk festival, of course they had a variety of people on that and then I did the Rex Foundation, I did that with David Nelson. David played with me on the album, gave a big boost to the whole thing.
DHL: I look forward to hearing you play with David Nelson!
Jesse: Yeah, David’s got a great band, and I really enjoyed playing with them at the Rex benefit, so I look forward to being with them again.
DHL: How do Deadheads compare to the Opry fans?
Jesse: Well I think the Deadheads are more dedicated to the music. The people in Nashville, they haven’t went to over-enthused about the project, I can’t get them to play it on the radio here, they say the songs are too long. Of course we have a variety of artists come in, tourism, for the Opry, so um, we have a lot of Grateful Dead fans come into Nashville, and they know about the project. And I do a few songs from the project. But otherwise they don’t really go over great. Opry fans come from all over, they come from every state, and every type of music, and they come on tours, and the Opry is part of the tour.
DHL: Do you like to jam or improvise?
Jesse: Oh yes, I do that with David – when we did the Rex Foundation show, I did “Standing on the Moon” and they said let’s really jam it out at the end and I really enjoyed doing that. In fact I always listen to a lot of Grateful Dead, I like the channel on the TV there, the Grateful Dead Channel (Sirius XM), and I’ve heard so many styles of music that they have done, and when they do some of the jams, it is really amazing how well they do it and how well it is arranged. So, yeah, I do that quite a bit!
DHL: the variety is one of the reasons deadheads love them so much!
Jesse: Yeah, I think heard it said on the XM channel, when they did songs like “Deep Elem Blues”, and songs we consider bluegrass standards, like “Going Down The Road Feelin’ Bad”, yep, that one, I sorta grew up listening to those songs. Probably some of the reason is those songs aren’t very complicated to do. Though some of their songs, they get pretty deep into it, the chord progression on everything. Of course when I grew up, the music I played, bluegrass, is pretty straight you know. So it’s a little different, when I get into some of their music. But I try and work it out in a way where um, it will be accepted. That’s why I enjoy working with David, because he knows those songs, and how they’re supposed to go, and he gets the band to really do it right.
DHL: at Harmony Festival, you’ll do your own set, and then you are part of the Tribute to Jerry and Bear
Jesse: yeah, I’m gonna be part of the tribute band, they got a bunch of people, it’s gonna be a long jam!
DHL: How are you preparing?
Jesse: I’m here, and when they want me to do something, I’m just here learning the music, and they sent me some of the songs they want me to learn. One of them was “Black Peter” I think, and they sent me a list a few songs they want me to do. I think I ordered the CD’s with the songs on it, so I know what is happening pretty much. Though they’ll probably come up with songs I am not too familiar with, I can sit in on a jam pretty good, easily play along pretty well.
DHL: I’m sure you have the chops to jump right in!
Jesse: Yeah, I‘ve played a few different things, I did the soft parade with The Doors back a long time ago, that was when I heard that kind of music, and I just listen to a lot of it, and try to not stay in the box, y’know. I like all sorts of music, so I am really looking forward to jammin’ with these folks out there.
DHL: I didn’t realize that was you on The Doors album. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard it.
Jesse: Yeah, I was on the song “Runnin’ Blues”; I think they re-released it a few years back, I got a lot of calls from people who saw my name on it, they said “I can’t believe you played with The Doors!” Yeah, I never turned down anything I’ve been offered to do!
DHL: What’s next?
Jesse: Well I’ll just wait and see what happens, this is the best project I’ve done in years, and so, I’m not sure what I’ll do next. I’ll play this one as long as it holds up, as long as people enjoy it. And hopefully I’ll get to play a lot of festivals, I did Del Fest, and the Appalachian Uprising in Ohio, and then the Harmony Fest [next weekend] – then back to Maryland to play with Professor Louie & the Crowmatix in July sometime. I got quite a few coming up where I’ll be playing things from the album.
DHL: Are you playing all Jerry/Hunter songs?
Jesse: No no, I’ll be mixing up different things, and I’ll do some things that they’ve done, with the acoustic band like “Sittin’ on Top Of The World” – we did our arrangement on that, and “Going Down The Road Feelin’ Bad” and “Deep Elem Blues” and some of the old standards that Jimmy did.
Jesse: Y’know me and my wife, my wife’s a devoted Grateful Dead fan. I tell people out here my wife’s a Deadhead and they don’t know what I mean, but like I told ya, Nashville is sometimes a little behind! But I’m getting a few more shows here in Nashville, featuring the Grateful Dead music, hopefully I’ll get them to recognize it, be more familiar with the music
DHL: Did your wife being a Deadhead encourage you to do this project?
Jesse: Oh yeah, she helped me pick some of the songs. We used to travel a lot together, and when we were going on the road, we listened to a lot of Grateful Dead music, so I was really exposed to a lot of it then.
DHL: Good road music! I look forward to seeing you out here at Harmony! it’s been real nice talking with you…
Jesse: I appreciate you callin’ – am I gonna see you at the Harmony Festival?
DHL: Yes! I’ll be the guy with long hair in a tie-dye t-shirt
Jesse: (laughs) oh yeah, I think we’ll have some shirts there, from the Rex Foundation; I’m trying to support the organization, y’know. They’re nice people.
DHL: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me Jesse!
Jesse: Thank you, I appreciate it, look forward to seeing you!
Jesse will be at Harmony Festival this Friday, June 10th,
as part of the tribute to
Jerry Garcia and Owsley “Bear” Stanley!
Other upcoming dates for Jesse McReynolds:
Fri. & Sat. 10 & 11 Sonoma County, CA (Harmony Festival – Jesse to appear with David Nelson!) www.harmonyfestival.com
Sat. 18 Bean Blossom, IN (Bill Monroe’s Music Park: Bluegrass Festival) www.beanblossom.org
Wed. 22 Summersville, WV (Bluegrass Festival) www.aandabluegrass.com
Sat. 10 Westminster, MD (Jesse to perform with “Professor Louie & the Crowmatix”)
Th. 14 Mineral, VA (Bluegrass Festival) www.aandabluegrass.com
Sat. 30 Gallatin,TN (3rd annual Pickin’ For Pets! ~ fundraiser for Sumner Humane Society ~ at the Pick Inn) info
Tues. 13 Owensboro, KY (Bill Monroe 100th Birthday Celebration at RiverPark Center) www.bluegrassmuseum.org
Th. 22 Bean Blossom, IN ( Bill Monroe’s Music Park – Festival) www.beanblossom.org