Bluegrass fans under the age of 50 could be excused for not understanding the crucial role radio played in the development of our music. Those under 30 won’t even recall a time when their favorite music wasn’t just a click away, or the agony of waiting a week or more for mail order LPs to arrive.
In the 1950s and early ’60s, radio was the only way for a lot of folks to hear bluegrass music, especially those in rural areas. The format was quite different in those days, and in the southeastern US where the music first bubbled up, brief live musical segments were the most common way that bluegrass was presented. Just about every band of note worked a daily 15 minute radio show in some sizable city, usually in the mornings, which they leveraged to book shows in that region at nights and on weekends. The biographies of seminal bluegrass artists are rife with details about how and when they switched stations as program directors tried to lure them away if they were successful, or they had saturated the market for live appearances in the region.
Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys followed this path, moving in 1964 from WBAM in Montgomery, AL to WSM in Nashville to appear on the long-running Martha White sponsored morning show. But before they jumped, they had retained tapes of programs recorded on the air at WBAM.
This 24-track project, originally a two-LP set released in 1978 on Jim & Jesse’s Old Dominion Records, is now available from Rural Rhythm Records as Radio Shows. It captures the band at a musical high point in 1962, with Allen Shelton on banjo and Jim Buchanan on fiddle, both in their prime. Jesse McReynolds had developed his distinctive cross-picking style on mandolin, and Jim’s high tenor was soaring. Don McHan was on second guitar and occasional lead vocal, and David Sutherland was on bass.
The relaxed presentation and “howdy neighbor” delivery is a big part of the charm here, as is the inclusion of several songs not captured on disc from the McReynolds anywhere else. Jesse rips up a version of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Breakdown, though minus the second part where the C chord replaces the F. There are also a pair of stellar banjo tunes (Bye Bye Blues and Beer Barrel Polka) that highlight Shelton’s swingy banjo, and two terrific fiddle tunes from Buchanan (Snowflake Breakdown and Cheyenne). These days it’s hard to imagine a prominent act performing so many songs associated with other artists, but odds are none of these guys expected that those radio shows would be preserved at the time.
Among the songs are several that Jesse had written, or that he and Jim had recorded, along with some old time favorites. Diesel Train was a popular song for Jim & Jesse at the time the shows were recorded, one they had written, as was How Do You Talk To A Baby, a lovely song Jim sings. From the old songbook comes Banks Of The Ohio, Precious Memories, Sitting On The Top Of The World, There’s More Pretty Girls Than One, and Foggy Mountain Top.
From the Flatt & Scruggs catalog comes Don’t This Road Look Rough And Rocky, and from Autry Inman, I Cried Again.
For old time bluegrass lovers this is a must-have collection, as it would be for dedicated Jim & Jesse fans. Younger musicians will get a feel for how it was done in the ’60s, both in the picking and singing. It’s really good stuff.
Many thanks to Rural Rhythm for dusting this one off and presenting it in digital form for succeeding generations of bluegrass aficionados.
Radio Shows is available from popular digital download sites, and on CD wherever you purchase bluegrass music.