Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys,
Radio Shows
(Rural Rhythm, 2014)

Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys were part of bluegrass' original generation. Having forged a sound that expressed their own distinctive approach to hillbilly brother harmony singing, they signed with Capitol Records in 1952. The product of a family steeped in Appalachian musical traditions, Jim McReynolds played guitar and Jesse invented an unusual, cross-picking syncopated style on mandolin. Practically everything they picked and sang was mesmerizing, and they held their own against the legendary likes of contemporaries Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs and the Osborne Brothers.

For a time in the 1960s they brought electric guitars and drums into the mix and scored some country hits. But their hearts were always in bluegrass and its acoustic textures, and that's what they were playing around the time of Jim's death on Dec. 31, 2002. He and Jesse, who had been performing together for 55 years, won just about every award the genre bestows upon its most revered artists. If it was something about which never a discouraging word was heard, the subject may have been the music Jim & Jesse created together. Since then, Jesse has carried on the family tradition, though straying once in a while into odd projects such as Songs of the Grateful Dead (which I reviewed here, with some discouraging words, on 22 January 2011).

Besides Capitol, the McReynolds brothers recorded for Columbia and Epic. When their run on the major labels was over, they formed their own record company, Old Dominion. That label issued Radio Shows as a two-LP album in 1978. Rural Rhythm has reissued it on one CD, the first of a series of Old Dominion Jim & Jesse recordings it will be releasing. The shows on the current disc are from 1962, when the brothers broadcast out of Nashville's WSM, radio home of the Grand Ole Opry, which they were invited to join two years later.

In those days they had what must have been the very finest of their many outstanding bands. This one boasted such seminal players as Allen Shelton (banjo) and Jim Buchanan (fiddle). Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys were in their prime, as these live recordings document eloquently. Most of the tunes and songs -- 26 of them in all -- are not ones they recorded on their formal albums, which showcase mostly sentimental heart songs, rooted in the 19th-century parlor style. A few Radio Shows cuts fall into this category, but just as many are hard-driving instrumental breakdowns (among them a raucous "Beer Barrel Polka"), folk songs ("More Pretty Girls Than One," "Foggy Mountain Top," even the murder ballad "On the Banks of the Ohio"), and hymns (a dazzling "Precious Memories," for one). There's some talking, but not much.

When you say Jim & Jesse at their best, you're talking about bluegrass as good as it gets. And in my experience bluegrass at this level counts among life's purest delights. If you know what I'm saying, or even if you don't but want to learn ... well, Radio Shows is here for you. I've been listening to bluegrass since I was in my teens (which wasn't recently), and this disc reminds me why I fell in love with the music in the first place.

music review by
Jerome Clark

12 April 2014

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