There’s something to be said for adhering to tradition. Yet, there’s even more to be said for those who established that bedrock template in the first place. Those pioneers who are still with us — and making music still — are owed our absolute appreciation because if it wasn’t for them, there would be no one to follow in their footsteps, nor any lessons to be learned for anyone attempting to take the music forward.
At age 90, Jesse McReynolds retains a hallowed stature as one of those individuals who brought country and bluegrass into the modern mainstream, and even well beyond. Best known as half of the seminal duo Jim & Jesse, a popular recording group Jesse founded with his brother Jim in the late ‘40s, he’s been making music ever since. The pair hit their stride in the early to mid ‘50s after being signed to Capitol Records, and then continued to play and record until Jim’s death in 2002. Today, they boast the same revered reputation as the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Doc Watson, Del McCoury, and other members of that first generation of modern musicians spawned in the mid 20th century. Like his contemporaries, McReynolds pursued that passion into his later years.
With his latest album, The Bull Mountain Moonshiners’ Way, he brings his legacy full circle by recreating the music originally recorded by his family and forebears during a series of field sessions in 1927 that later came to be known as The Bristol Sessions. For the musicians involved, it was the first opportunity to share their music with a wider audience, and for Jesse’s grandfather and great uncle, it helped establish a sound and style that Jesse would always admire and appreciate.
It’s significant then that Jesse not only sought to recreate the flavor and finesse of that early music, but also to do so using an actual fiddle and banjo played at the Bristol sessions. He also enlists a knowing group of backing musicians to delve into some 16 archival offerings. Most of the songs are well ensconced in the public domain — Turkey in the Straw, Soldier’s Joy, Bonaparte’s Retreat, Sally Johnson, and the like — but the verve and vitality that shines through this array of mostly instrumental pieces gives each offering an ageless quality that makes them as appealing today as they were when initially produced more than 90 years ago. Jesse himself takes center stage with a combination of craft and creativity that remains undiminished by the decades past.
Some 70 years into a prolific and proficient career, he still sings and plays with an enthusiasm that would make most younger musicians blush with envy. A masterpiece, The Bull Mountain Moonshiners’ Way caps a career that’s clearly still far from finished.