Jesse McReynolds was born on July 9th, 1929 in Coeburn, Virginia. The country was facing the great depression, and southwest Virginia was no exception to the hardship faced by many at the time. As was the case throughout several moments of struggle in America’s history, troubled times brought forth great instances of creation and art. In the instance of a young mandolinist trying to emulate the three-finger roll of Earl Scruggs banjo playing over clear channel radio, a new, unique style was born.
My intention here is not to present a bio or a run-down of Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys, as their musical achievements have been well-documented through time. I simply wish to write from the perspective of a modern-day bluegrass mandolinist who has reaped the benefits of having Jesse McReynolds on the playing field. I hope to impart the significance of a musician who found a way to always push the boundaries of a musical genre on his instrument, while still retaining a strong sense of tradition – yet even a tradition that he helped create. Jesse has always been searching for new, expressive ways to play the mandolin – whether it be crafting a new twist on an old song, gathering material from unlikely places to mold into his music, or most importantly writing his own music to play, a practice that he still continues to date.
The term “cross picking” has become synonymous with Jesse’s playing style, although the technique has been done on other instruments in several styles of music. That approach even made brief appearances in Antonio Vivaldi’s mandolin compositions of the eighteenth century, but Jesse McReynolds made cross picking a musical reality, and gave us a vocabulary that will carry forward in time across the world of mandolin playing – and he didn’t stop there!
Another equally trademarked trick of the mandolin in Jesse’s hands is his split-string playing technique, where you literally take the fingernail of your pinky finger and fret an additional note within the pair of stings that are tuned together. This gives you far more harmonic possibilities. Jesse uses this often while playing back-up and on slow tempo pieces, such as his mandolin masterpiece, Okeechobee Wind. It can’t be stated enough the impact that he has made with raising the bar of creativity on the mandolin. Even players that don’t follow his suit or style of picking will attest that their greatest goal as a musician would be to have such an individualistic style on their own instrument, in the same manner that Jesse does.
This past Fourth of July was the time to celebrate Jesse’s 90th birthday at The Grand Inheritance, home of banjo player, and former Virginia Boy, Mike Scott and his wife Brenda. The Scotts host a yearly get-together with family and friends for the Nashville-area music community, and top the night off with jamming and a fireworks show. This year was to be a special occasion marking the big upcoming birthday for Jesse. The setting couldn’t have been better, with several musicians in attendance to honor the bluegrass legend; while there were far too many to list, some directly involved with the evening’s program were Carl Jackson, Larry Stephenson, Aubrey Haynie, Roland White, Bob Minner, David Harvey, Keith Williams, Mike Bub, Canadian cross-picking mandolin guru Bob Burch, Raymond and Ruth McLain, The Marshall Family, The Price Sisters, yours truly, and of course Jesse McReynolds and Mike Scott. The mood was fairly informal, yet in quite a formal setting, with a stage show environment and audio sound run by Nashville great Steve Chandler.
Jesse was in sharp form with his cool demeanor and friendly smile, seated in a captain’s chair at the front of the room next to the massive mandolin-adorned birthday cake. It didn’t take long, however, before Jesse took center stage with his signature Stiver mandolin and unique way of playing it. After performing Dixie Hoedown and a few other original tunes, all other mandolinists in attendance were invited up to join the show and pick together in tribute to the guest of honor. Jesse and Roland White would lead the way and call out the tunes, while they were also more than eager to pass around solos and give everyone their time to play in a relaxed manner.
The house band and guests took a break just after dark to go out on the beautiful lawn and enjoy the city of Gallatin’s fireworks. As the fireworks drew to a close, most of the musicians and listeners returned to the dining hall where the music started again, becoming even more informal and fun. The grounds were filled with love and respect for a great man and his music, and for his giving of a lifetime’s worth of talents.
For me personally, it was a special place and occasion, and a memory which I will hold in high regard for the rest of my life. Happy 90th, Jesse!