Meet Jesse McReynolds, Iron Man Of Bluegrass


BY BRENDAN SKWIRE When I tell people I’ve never been to the Philly Folk Festival and never plan to, I invariably hear “but you’re a bluegrass fan, and there’s always at least one bluegrass band at the Philly Folk Fest.” This is true… but I’m picky about my music, and generally not willing to pony up the bucks to sit through a bunch of bands I don’t care for just to hear 45 minutes of music I like. But this year, I may have to make an exception, because bluegrass legend Jesse McReynolds is making his first appearance in Schwenksville for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Until his brother died in 2002, Jesse was the mandolin playing foil for his high-singing brother and fellow bandleader in the groundbreaking bluegrass band Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys [pictured, below right]. While the band played traditional music with the best of them, the two brothers were deeply influenced by rock and roll, country, and other pop music: old radio shows feature surprising selections by Buck Owens and Hank Williams, and the band later put out albums like “Berry Pickin’ in the Country”, a tribute to Chuck Berry. Today, Jesse’s 81 years old, and carrying on the traditional bluegrass music he and his brother made famous, while continuing to leave his own mark on the music. I got a chance to catch up with Jesse this week.

“I got called into the Folk Festival about two weeks ago,” Jesse told me, “but the last time I played the Philly Folk Festival was about 20 years ago. I’ve been doing a lot more folk fests lately though, played up in Maine and Connecticut last year. I’ll tell you, they’re a lot bigger in terms of the variety of music.

That variety is what drives McReynolds. “I listen to all kinds of music really, I respect all of it,” he said. “Chuck Berry was a big influence on me, and Jim and I did an entire tribute to his music in the bluegrass style. It got me interested in doing more stuff like that, because it was totally different from bluegrass.”

“Drive” is a particularly apt word to describe Jesse McReynolds, who I’ve seen perform almost every year: he may be 81, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he literally sprints out onto the stage, jumping around and moving like a man at least 30 years his junior. “For the last 25 years, I’ve been drinking BarleyLife, a mixture of barley juice, kelp, and other stuff. It keeps me very energetic, so I stick with it. The fact is, the people who put the stuff out did a story on me when I was 80 years old. Called me “the Iron Man of bluegrass”.

This weekend at the Festival, listeners can expect to hear a lot of Jesse’s unique style of mandolin crosspicking, a style he developed by studying the way bluegrass approach to the banjo. It’s a style practiced by very few others. “When David Grisman started his mandolin style, he got a lot of people into it. And young kids’ playing is so great, I hear some start out at 14 or 15, and a few years later they’re waaaay further out than me. But you know, one thing I told Ronnie McCoury [mandolin player for the Del McCoury Band], I told him I heard that whole Blugrass Mandolin Extravaganza CD and not one McReynolds lick.” Not that McReynolds is looking for imitators. “Yeah, people like me and Frank Wakefield have a lot in common, we do our own thing. But I advise new players to create what they can, to do something new. There are lots of great mandolin players. Write a lot of tunes.”

Jesse’s still got that spirit of innovation, and hopes to bring some advance copies of his new CD, Songs of the jandjpr.jpgGrateful Dead, a tribute to Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. “This new project of the Grateful Dead’s music is going to be put out by Woodstock. The official release is October 5, but I’ll have some for the festival. We’re doing 12 songs by the Dead, and then one I wrote with Robert Hunter. I’m playing with David Nelson from New Riders of the Purple Sage and Sandy Rothman from the Jerry Garcia Band. It puts me in another field, and I hope to be touring with some of those bands soon.”

With a set list that spans nearly 50 years, the Folk Festival audience can expect some old and new. “We still do some of those 50s songs sometimes. That was when our band had been together longer than other group we’d had before, doing radio and four TV shows every week. We taped them once a month, just go in and tape about five or six 15 minute shows. I’ve still got lots of those radio shows, too, transferred to cd. Jim and I ended up with most of the tapes, radio station after station, and it came back to us as reel-to-reel tapes. One project with 24 songs, one problem I had was that when it came to commercials they were left out of the series. I’m still in the process of putting out a cd of that great stuff.”

On this particular folk fest tour, McReynolds will be backed by the Horst Brothers. “My grandchildren, who are in the current band, are branching out themselves with the McReynolds Tradition. They’re booked for Kentucky this weekend, so I’m bringing the Horst brothers in, I’m just going to fly up there.” Jesse’s looking forward to his first visit to the Festival in two decades, and with a guarantee of some of the hottest bluegrass around, folk and bluegrass fans are eager to see him too.

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