Jesse McReynolds, American Revolutionary
Legendary mandolinist coming July 15
Happy July everybody! We’re really in it now, summer’s in full bloom, the tomatoes are ripe, the lightning bugs and mosquitoes are out full force. July 4 always seems to be the opening blast of serious, steamy summer here in Middle Tennessee. Hopefully you still have all 10 fingers after those backyard fireworks.
It’s the time of year when even the least overtly patriotic among us fly the Stars and Stripes and even the least introspective think about what it means to be an American.
I was thinking about that a few days before the Fourth, when the Todd Squared folks – Todd Mayo and Todd Jarrell – producers of Bluegrass Underground for PBS, threw a party at Maybelle Carter’s former home in Madison, Tennessee, just outside Nashville. Even in an area covered with country music sacred ground, the place where one of the real founders of country music and country’s first guitar hero lived and died is hard to top.
The celebration was a showing of Havana Time Machine, the concert/documentary/cultural exchange we shot for PBS’ Great Performances series in and around Havana back in April. Featuring Raul Malo and the Mavericks, Eliades Ochoa, Roberto Fonseca, Yvette Cepeda and more, it airs nationally Oct. 6. Set your DVRs.
The American Revolution was 241 years ago. Cuba’s was less than 60, and the scars remain, as could be seen among supporters of the current administration’s dialing back of recent travel freedoms. Politics asides, there was one image we filmed in Cuba that came to mind this July 4. It’s a billboard, emblazoned with the words, “La Revolucion es Invincible” (“The Revolution is Invincible”) accompanied by a photo of beautiful little girls practicing ballet. I suppose it’s propaganda, but that image distills the entire experience of working with the Cuban people – not the government, the people.
Everyone we got to know, even a little – the musicians, the Cuban crew, Josue Lopez, our “fixer” who maneuvered through the bureaucracy for our production, and the people we met in markets, parks, bars (lots of bars) and the grand finale concert, all seemed to have that distinctly American gene, that New World thing people in the Americas all seem to share. We’re all part of bloodlines that left the Old World and old lives behind, some more recently than others, all of us immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, people who came here and made something new – new lives, new governments, new inventions. You can still see that in Cuba, a nation of McGyvers who somehow, despite crippling poverty, the long-running embargo and a government that is, at best, inefficient, have never let any of that stop them from creating incredibly powerful music, art and life. It never mattered who was running the place, whether it was Spain or Batista or Meyer Lansky or Fidel and Raoul. The creative, joyous spirit of the Cuban people has always endured. That revolution is truly invincible.
Which brings us to another famous bearded revolutionary – Jesse McReynolds. Don’t miss your chance to see this legend up close & personal in one the world’s coolest venues, get your tickets here. I’ve been writing about music for almost 40 years and the number of times I have called someone a genius can be counted on your fingers and toes (providing you suffered no Independence Day mishaps). To me, a genius isn’t just someone who is insanely great, but someone who is at least a tiny bit insane, someone who can look at the same thing thousands of other people have looked at, but who sees it completely differently. Jesse and his brother Jim formed a bluegrass band just a few years after Bill Monroe did, but while every other bluegrass mandolin player was slavishly copying Mr. Bill, Jesse came up with a completely unique method of playing mandolin, inspired by the rolls Earl Scruggs played on the banjo, creating a chiming, arpeggiated sound on the mandolin like a crystal waterfall. Here’s an early song featuring that style, the 1952 version of “Are You Missing Me?”.
No one did that before him and very few have been able to even come close to copying him in the 60-plus years since. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Ronnie McCoury, mentioning Jesse in a recent interview we did that will be part of Bluegrass Unlimited’s August cover story on Bobby Osborne: “I’ve always said the three major stylists in bluegrass are Bill Monroe, Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne. Jesse had the hardest (technique) and very few have ever copied him.”
While Jesse’s most famous solos have been in what has come to be called “McReynolds style,” he’s also a master of straightahead bluegrass mandolin, including his lightning version of the Latin American standard, “El Cumbanchero.” Here’s a version from about 10 years ago, when he was just a kid in his 70s.
He turns 88 on July 9, but he has never stopped pushing the envelope. Back in 1965, long before anybody even thought of the word “newgrass,” Jim & Jesse & The Virginia Boys released Berry Pickin’ In the Country,” an entire album of bluegrass arrangements of Chuck Berry songs. In 1969, Jesse appeared as a sideman with Jim Morrison and the Doors on “Runnin’ Blue,” a mashup Otis Redding tribute mixing R&B horns with hoedown mandolin. Weird as it is, Jesse sounds great, smoothly moving from major to minor modes. You can find it on Soft Parade and here.
In 2002, tenor-singing Jim passed, ending the record-holding, longest-running brother duet in country music (55 years). Jesse, the lead singer, kept the Virginia Boys going, keeping all those classic songs alive. In 2010 he released a tribute to The Grateful Dead, including a wonderful version of “Black Muddy River” that Jerry would have been proud of. Here’s a live performance shortly after the album’s release
In recent years, he’s gone all the way back to when McReynolds music meant a fiddle band, The Bull Mountain Moonshiners, that recorded for Ralph Peer on those Big Bang sessions in Bristol Tennessee/Virginia that also gave the world Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family (yes, sooner or later everything in bluegrass and country music leads back to Maybelle Carter). Here’s an excerpt from my interview with Jesse for the Bluegrass Unlimited piece I wrote about the GRAMMY-nominated Carl Jackson -produced Orthophonic Joy Bristol sessions tribute album: “His uncle, banjo picker William McReynolds, and his grandfather, fiddler Charlie McReynolds, both recorded at the Bristol sessions as part of the Bull Mountain Moonshiners. For his version of their recording, “Johnny Goodwin/The Girl I Left Behind,” McReynolds plays the same fiddle his grandfather played for Peer in 1927.
“It was less than 20 years ago that I found out my grandfather had played on the Bristol sessions, when they started to be popular again and they came out with these (reissued) recordings. I had my grandfather’s fiddle. I got it from my uncle, the youngest brother, when he passed away. Then when I found that they were doing this, Carl Jackson kind of insisted that I be a part of that tune that my grandfather did and I had the only instrument that anybody had that played on the original sessions… I’m glad I got to be a part of that project and play in the McReynolds tradition of music. I been at it for 68 years or so.”
Today, that’s over 70 years, but Jesse McReynolds is still at it, still on the road, leading one of his best bands since Jim passed, featuring banjo player Jeremy Stephens, a great player who can emulate Allen Shelton’s unique bounce, a signature of the Jim & Jesse sound, and fiddler Buddy Griffin, one of the finest all-around musicians I’ve ever known.
But of course, the biggest reason to come to the cave on July 15, other than escaping Tennessee’s mid-July heat, humidity and skeeters, is spending the day with Jesse himself. At 88, he’s still passionate about what he’s doing, still lives and breathes music. Apart from the fact that you’ll be enjoying a great afternoon of classic bluegrass in the world’s most naturally beautiful bluegrass venue, you just may be inspired in your own life to keep doing what you love and finding new, even revolutionary, ways to do it, no matter how old you are. It’s a McReynolds tradition. Viva Jesse! Get your tickets today!
Doors open at noon; the music starts at 1 p.m. with the infectious country swing of The Farmer and Adele, and, luckily for you, a few tickets remain.
We’ll see you Underground.
– Larry Nager, Cave Host