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In the 1940s Bill Monroe was the only bluegrass mandolin player of any significance, in fact he invented the idiom. However, during the early 50s other players found their own distinctive way of playing bluegrass, and the most radical of these was Jesse McReynolds.
The story of Jesse's invention of crosspicking on the mandolin is now well known. This is indeed only one facet of his playing, and for a broader view of Jesse's music you should listen to his recordings and check out his video teaching course at Homespun Tapes.
In 1984 Jesse kindly gave Jan Jerrold and me the opportunity to interview him for British Bluegrass News. The interview was published in 1985 and reprinted a year or two later in Inside Bluegrass, the magazine of the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association. These publications are now out of print, so the entire interview is reprinted below, with the exception of a few sections which related specifically to 1984 and are no longer relevant.
The interview should be treated as a snapshot in time, or a historical document: it is what Jesse was saying seventeen years ago. Certainly Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys are as much a force in the bluegrass world today as they were in 1984, or indeed during their early career back in the 50s and 60s. In the era of the Internet you can now catch up on the band at the Jim and Jesse website.
I've included the 1984 discography as much of the material is now available on CD. The 4 CD set of Jim and Jesse's Old Dominion recordings, Jim and Jesse, the Old Dominion Masters, Pinecastle PRC 9001, is particularly worthy of note, including as it does the vast majority of tracks from The Jim and Jesse Show, Radio Shows 1962 and Live In Japan LP albums. There is also a 5 CD set on Bear Family, Jim and Jesse, Bluegrass and More, BCD 15716, which has their entire Columbia/Epic output. To bring us up to date in the 21st Century it is also important to note the CMH sessions and the later Jim and Jesse recordings on Rounder, not to mention Jesse's contributions to the Bluegrass Extravaganza project, and the recent Masters of the Mandolin, with Bobby Osborne, Pinecastle CD 1107).
The only other necessary comment is that the Oak publication Jesse McReynolds - Mandolin, by Andy Statman is unfortunately out of print, and has been for some time. Not only are the tablatures of Jesse's playing unavailable, but also the excellent interview with Statman, referred to below. However, the issues of Mandolin Notebook and Mandolin World News carrying interviews with Jesse can still be purchased, from Elderly Instruments and Dix Bruce's Musix catalog respectively.
From British Bluegrass News, May 1985
Jesse McReynolds - mandolin player
For those who like their bluegrass cut and dried, Jesse MeReynolds can be conveniently classified as one half of the Jim and Jesse 'brothers' duo, and as the innovator of mandolin crosspicking. However, such an analysis does considerable disservice to one of the greatest original musicians in country music. While comparisons can be misleading, I think it makes the point to say that McReynolds is to Monroe what Reno is to Scruggs: a fluid and inspired inventor unrestricted by style and milieu, as compared with the flawless exponent of a more limited but epoch-making style. Just as Reno wanted to play differently from Scruggs, McReynolds clearly regards it as a matter of pride that he approached the mandolin differently from Monroe.
Jan Jerrold and I had the privilege of meeting and talking to Jesse at his London hotel on Easter Monday, 23 April 1984. On this most English of days, I felt paradoxically cosmopolitan, hearing about American music from one of its foremost exponents, and with other musicians like Allen Shelton and members of the Stoneman Family also ready to spare the time for a chat.
One of the characteristics of all these folks is their modesty, which is particularly marked in Jesse's assessment of his own achievements. Jesse McReynolds is in reality the complete mandolinist, as should be clear from reading the interview which follows. Crosspicking is just one of the techniques he has developed to make the instrument sound the way he wants it to. It is noteworthy that Jesse hit upon the technique of playing "melodically", using scales across the strings a decade or more before Bill Keith, Bobby Thompson and others got around to it on the banjo. Much of Jesse's playing is so individual and technically so demanding that he has no real rivals among his imitators; he is truly the only one of his kind. While many mandolinists have worked a number of cross-picked pieces into their repertoire, there is no-one to my knowledge who uses crosspicking as frequently as Jesse does, or who has developed it to anything like the same degree of complexity and sophistication.
A full analysis of crosspicking and Jesse's other innovations can be found in the book by Andy Statman, Jesse McReynolds: Mandolin, published by Oak in the 'Bluegrass Masters' series. Jack Tottle also devotes sections to crosspicking and split-string playing in his Oak manual, Blueqrass Mandolin. Jesse has been interviewed many times (see below for some useful sources), and we tried to avoid areas that are already well documented (e.g. the very full interview with Andy Statman in his book).
Although I had some previous familiarity with the recordings of Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys, meeting Jesse gave me a completely new awareness of the nature and extent of his creativity. I suspect that much of what Jesse has been working at over the years has yet to find its way on to record. As with some other instrumental innovators (Bobby Osborne is an immediate example), his playing has been partly subservient to the purpose of providing an all-round show with the band; and of course Jesse is as much a singer as an instrumentalist. No bluegrass collection should be without its Jim and Jesse section, and I've attempted below to give some guidance. There's an excellent discography in Andy Statman's book, with full details of recording sessions, sidemen and so on. This provides invaluable information, though it only goes up to 1976.
Interview with Jesse McReynolds, 23rd April 1984 by John Baldry and Jan Jerrold
Q. A very good introduction to anyone wanting to learn your style of mandolin playing is your book in the Oak 'Bluegrass Masters' series, Jesse McReynolds: Mandolin, by Andy Statman. Could you tell us how that book came about, please?
J.M. Andy had everything pretty well down, pretty accurate, before I talked to him. He'd listened to the tunes I'd done, and got it figured out technically how to do them. I think he did a good job on it. I can't write or read tablature myself. I play by ear. I try to be creative, you know, and I think one way to be creative is by not being able to read what other people do! Had I read what other people do, I'd probably be playing like them. In my case it works good, but for other people it might not. I'm not saying you shouldn't read tablature, because it can be a good way to learn, for some people.
Q. It seems to me that you took a mandolin at a time when people like Bill Monroe were very popular, and you almost deliberately did it differently.
J.M. Yeah, I try to be original. I have an urge to be that way, to be different. And in our singing, also, we try to be like Jim and Jesse! Although we take people like the Delmore Brothers and the Louvin Brothers as a pattern, we still try to be ourselves. If you start out like that, sooner or later you get into a situation where you do what comes naturally. The same applies to mandolin playing.
Q. When you were developing your crosspicking style, were you consciously trying to sound like a banjo player?
J.M. When I started, I tried to sound as much like what I heard the banjo playing as I could. I patterned after Earl Scruggs type of banjo playing. This was to see if it would work on the mandolin, with a straight pick. Then, after I got into it, I started developing it in my own way, with different patterns, runs and notes than you could do on a banjo. (And they do things with three fingers on a banjo that there's no way you could do with a straight pick.) So I had to start from scratch and work out my own routines. Then it took over, and I had to work it into what I did, wherever possible. To learn crosspicking, it's a slow process, and it's a complicated process. I've heard a few mandolin players that's took the book by Andy Statman and learned some of the tunes out of it, note for note, just like I wrote them, but very few. And when I find someone who can take a tablature like that, and play it note-for-note, and I say, "Well, play a tune that's not in the book," for a long time they'll go blank, you know, they got nowhere else to go!
Q. How did you come up with a tune like Hartsviile Pike (on the Mandolin Workshop LP), with its distinctive patterns and chord sequence?
J.M. I used to be a Herb Alpert fan, and the idea for Hartsvilie Pike came from the chord sequence he used with the Tijuana Brass for tunes like Spanish Flea. If I hear a song with chord patterns that I think would make a good instrumental, I start working with it, doing my own thing. Old Herb Alpert had some really good chord patterns. I listened to a lot of different types of music, in order to get ideas, mix them up and see what happens. Then I just sit down and start playing; sometimes a tune comes to me and I don't know where it comes from!
Q. I know you play a lot of what we would call bluegrass music, but your music is much more broadly based than that, isn't it?
J.M. I do a lot of things that I wouldn't say is bluegrass. I play Never On A Sunday, which is a pop tune, as one of my feature tunes on stage. It took me a long time to get it going on the bluegrass circuit, I didn't know whether people would accept it or not, but now it's the most popular tune I do.
Q. One of the things I admired on your recording of that tune (on Mandolin Workshop) was the second part, where you do the tremolo, and you've got those parts moving against each other. Are you actually playing double stops there, or are you overdubbing? The parts sound so clear and clean, like two mandolins.
J.M. No, they're double stops. In some places I also now put in some split strings, so there are three parts. But where I go into the chorus, with one part going up and the other going down, that's a run that I've heard in singing, and I've heard guitar players do, in back-up and so on; it's a pattern that is used quite often. We do that sort of thing quite a lot in the band, to get the instruments to play complementary parts, with the banjo, and the banjo-dobro now.
Q. How did you get on to the split string playing? That seems to be very C&W influenced.
J.M. I always liked the pedal steel guitar, when it first came out, and that made me think about splitting the string; that and Floyd Cramer's piano playing, which uses the same sort of sound. You split the string, and hammer your harmony string down there - you get the same effect as Floyd Cramer does on the piano, and the same as when you press the pedal on the steel guitar. I've heard a lot, and learned a lot from pedal steel guitar players. When Allen Shelton played with us all those years, every time we heard a pedal steel guitar break, we'd try to adapt it to the banjo and to the mandolin, both. We just experimented with different things.
Q. Another thing I've always admired tremendously is your regular-style playing - breaks like the one you took on Foggy Mountain Breakdown on Carl Jackson's first record (now re-released as Sugar Hill 3737), and the mandolin break for I Don't Love Nobody on Allen Shelton's disc, Shelton Special, which has a gorgeous melodic run from C through G, E7 to A. Was this sort of thing improvised in the studio?
J.M. That Foggy Mountain Breakdown came right off my head. I don't really remember now what I did on it! I've played that tune so many different times and so many different ways. I enjoyed doing the album with Allen Shelton. It's one of the few times when I didn't have to worry about being the boss. Allen was in charge of that album, and he left me to do what I felt. That's what I did, and no one told me to leave this out, or not to do that, or anything.
Q. It's certainly one of the best records to hear Jesse McReynolds! Your break on Bully of the Town is unusual. For example, it starts with some licks right up the neck, in regular style ....
J.M. I think what I did on that was some 'back-picking' - regular down/up strokes, but with the pressure on the upstrokes instead of the down. It's an idea which derives from crosspicking, where the upstrokes are strong. Those licks high up the neck - I ran across that and said, maybe it'll work, I wasn't sure I could do it, and I felt when I got through it that it was accidentally I'd managed to do it. I'd done it one time, but don't ask me to do it again! But we still do some of those things. Allen's back with us now, playing the 5-string dobro, which is the same as the banjo, and he still does some of the things from that record; so I've tried to go back and capture some of the things I did on that album.
Q. How do you see your mandolin playing developing in the future?
J.M. Since the Andy Statman book came out, I've been working more on chromatics. It's still crosspicking, but with more notes, like I did on I Don't Love Nobody on the Mandolin Workshop album, which is a different version from the one we were talking about earlier. I've learned how to put a lot more notes in, using basic crosspicking technique. You've got to work the open strings into the runs very carefully. But every time I pick up the mandolin, as I do finger exercises, I have no particular pattern I run on. I might just go anywhere, you know!
Q. The way you use your right hand is the opposite extreme of the free, loose wrist of players like Red Rector.
J.M. I have admired Red ever since I met him, as a great mandolin player, and he has the most limber right hand ever. He does it so easy, you know, like his wrist was broken or something! He plays mandolin like Kenny Baker plays fiddle, he has no bother with his wrist. But I play with a stiff wrist, that's the difference.
Q. Another thing I've noticed about the way you hold your pick is that your first finger is fairly straight, you don't bend the last joint much.
J.M. No, I use the end of my finger to hold the pick. I have trouble with the finger nail sometimes; if it gets a little long I'll put that extra note in which is not supposed to be there! In order to do my playing best, I have to use the tip of my finger to control the pick, have it go out straight at the end of my finger. If you curve the first finger and support the pick at an angle with the last joint, it gives you a more limber wrist. My way, you have a stiffer wrist, but you do get the notes clearer, or at least I do.
Q. Do you find this gives you any problems with speed, for example on the tremolo?
J.M. No, not really. I've always been happy playing that way, in fact it's the only way I can play. I've tried the other way a little bit, but it doesn't feel natural. Whatever feels natural, that's the way I play. Whatever's comfortable for you I think is what you should use. Kenny Baker, for instance, he holds the fiddle bow the way a classical violinist would say, "No, that's wrong," but he's proven it works. Byron Berline plays the same way. A lot of people have patterned after Kenny, they use the bow like he does. He holds the bow the way you're not supposed to do that technically. I think you're more likely to play badly through lack of practice. If I do a performance somewhere and I miss a few licks, then I'll start thinking back, "Well, when did I practise last?" So I'll have to get back and work on that hard, for three or four hours, to get it back.
Q. I think a lot of amateurs don't realise that; they think that you get your instrument out a few times a week for half an hour, and that turns you into a musician.
J.M. To play my style, I have to stay at it a long time. I can lay off for a week, and I get very inaccurate with my right hand. Sometimes I'll go on stage and that right hand just don't seem to work - it's because I haven't practised enough. I try to practise every day, whether it's on the mandolin or the guitar. I get better exercise doing crosspicking on the guitar, for the right hand. I do the same type of reverse rolls as on the mandolin. I also play fiddle a lot; in fact I practise on the fiddle as much as I do on the mandolin, and I use it on a segment of our show.
Q. People think of you as a mandolin player rather than as a fiddle player. Do you find it frustrating, keeping most of the fiddle playing backstage?
J.M. No. I would like to be able to play it more, because I love the fiddle, and I always have. But I'm a mandolin player, and that's what people want me to do. When I lay down the mandolin and pick up the fiddle, there's probably a lot of people out there thinking, "I wish he wouldn't do that," you know! In the same way, we sing basically bluegrass music, that's what we're known for, but I also like to sing country music myself. I'm thinking about writing some songs, then I'd go into a studio and pick up a country band, so I could put down some songs, then one day I'd maybe have a record out, of country singing. People probably wouldn't realise who it was! If you've got an area in your life where you've got some talent that you haven't used before, I think you should put it out somewhere. I want to get it on tape!
Q. Bluegrass to me is just one form of country music....
J.M. When people ask you to define just what is bluegrass, it's hard. If you get to the basis of it, Bill Monroe is bluegrass, and everyone who plays closely in his style. Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys don't play bluegrass music, according to this definition. I like Bill, he's a good friend of mine, but I don't play his style of music. We don't sing like Bill, and I've never looked on myself as a bluegrass singer. Jim is a good bluegrass singer, though.
Q. I think that the term is being used in a broader sense now for that style of country music (traditional, acoustic), because the country music mainstream has gone so far away from what it used to be.
J.M. I think the way country music has gone, it's been a boost to bluegrass music, because people who used to be devoted country fans, who won't necessarily go along with some of the things that have happened to country music, all they've got to do is turn to bluegrass festivals. There's no place people can go to hear real country music. It's not exposed on the radio, so they've got to come out to the bluegrass festivals.
Q. Another performer we've hoped to have over here some time is Ralph Stanley. He comes from very much your part of the country, near Coeburn, Virginia, and yet his style, and the Stanley Brothers' style is very different from what the McReynolds Brothers have done. Is there a reason for that? Were you aware of the Stanley Brothers at the time you were starting out?
J.M. Oh, yes, I remember the first radio programme they were on. I worked for the same man they did, Roy Sykes. This was the man they started out with, at least Carter was in a band that worked for him, Ralph was in service at the time. Jim was in service at that time, too, so I was trying to get started, I was playing guitar and trying to sing a little bit. Jim and I had never tried to do anything together, so I was working and sang with the same guy that Carter was, me and another boy. We had two guitars, and I did some backup. So I knew how the Stanley Brothers started, and I heard them at that time. They just stayed with the old time music, and we evidently just had a different ear for music. I always wanted to do our music as smooth as we could. I always admired the Blue Sky Boys, as a duet, and the Delmore Brothers: that's the people we grew up listening to - good harmonies, smooth harmonies. I got to listening to the Sons of the Pioneers. Once in our career we moved to the Midwest, in Kansas, and did Western music, for about six months. We did all of the Bob Wills and Sons of the Pioneers songs. This was all recorded on a big disc at the radio station, which we didn't know about. After we found out they were recording us and playing us on syndication, about 4 or 5 different radio stations, we quit the job. Where the recordings ended up nobody knows. This was in the early Fifties, about 1950-51.
Q. What sort of band would you have had then, instrumentally?
J.M. We had a steel guitar. I played mandolin and fiddle. We also had an accordion and bass. We had a girl sing some with us, she played accordion, and we used piano and electric organ. It was a show sponsored by a mailing company, and we were the KFBR Ranch Boys. That was before 'Jim and Jesse' was ever used!
Q. You seem to have gone along quite a different path from the Stanley Brothers, right from an early stage.
J.M. We always liked real pretty harmony, you know. When we came back and started recording, we got to doing some Louvin Brothers songs, and still did the Delmore Brothers songs, and the Sons of the Pioneers; we mixed all this in together, and that could be where we come up with the style which we do now.
Q. Did you have a great deal to do with the early bluegrass bands, Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and others? Did you know them fairly well, did you talk to them or were you on a different kind of circuit?
J.M. We listened to Bill Monroe, he was one of our favourites. When Flatt and Scruggs left Bill, they came into Bristol, Tennessee. We had our own band there, and we were playing on one radio station, and Flatt and Scruggs were on the other, and the Stanley Brothers. So we were all trying to get started at the same time, in the same town. So we had a lot in common there.
Q. It must have been an amazing time. You were all young, and starting out. Did you find it exciting?
J.M. Oh yes, it was interesting. It was rough, we weren't making any money, but we were enjoying the music we were doing. We were within fifty miles of home, all the time we were getting started, in fact we stayed home a lot, so we always had that to go back to - and we did go back a few times! Eat up a little bit, and start over again.
Q. What did your family do? Were they farmers?
J.M. We had a small farm, but my daddy made his living working in the coal mines. It's a big mining area round there. Geographically, we're part of Eastern Kentucky, in that part of Virginia!
Q. To return to the technical questions on playing the mandolin, you use open string chords in your rhythm playing a lot, don't you?
J.M. I like to hear an instrument ring, rather than a slap. But I don't get rhythm on a mandolin, the way Bill Monroe does, I don't consider myself a good rhythm player. I find it difficult to sing and play a solid rhythm at the same time, I've never been able to overcome that. I've felt comfortable playing as many open strings as I could, it gives the whole band an open sound somehow. Sometimes Jim will break a string and have to go off stage, so I have to cover for his guitar playing, and I find you get more out of a mandolin with as many open strings as possible, to make it ring. That's another thing I wanted to play different. Everybody else played the rhythm chop, I wanted to play it open.
Q. But also, some of those open strings give you chord extensions, they're not just part of a major or minor chord. If you leave the E string open for a G chord that's not just a G major sound. Presumably you've decided that's the sound you want ....
J.M. Yeah, it sounds odd, some of the things I do. Like on crosspicking, I play lead notes in F against an open E string, which musically is 'wrong', it's got a strange sound; and I play in G the same way, with an open E. But put it all together with the roll and things, and I figure it might sound like me!
Q. Talking of rhythm, I read in an interview with Allen Shelton that he found the rhythm quite different when he started playing with you, and he had to modify his own playing accordingly, to fit.
J.M. Allen is a good rhythm man. He's good to hold the band together. When he's playing lead, he plays with drive, and backup he plays as good a rhythm as any man I know.
Q. How long has he been with you on 5-string dobro?
J.M. He's been back about 4-5 months now. He's helped us to record, off and on, throughout the years, with the banjo. Then he was interested in a full-time job with us again. We had a banjo already, so we thought we'd try the dobro - and it's worked good.
Q. Another Jim and Jesse innovation?
J.M. Well, it could be! People say, if you've got a good thing going, don't change it, but I think you need to make a few little changes now and then. You've got to do something, that people say, "Have you heard the new thing that Jim and Jesse are doing?" If you don't, they'll say "Jim and Jesse have got the same group that they had before, the same sound, they've never changed; they're good, but they've never changed." It's like doing a show on stage, you can do it too smooth sometimes, you put people to sleep. You've got to make a mistake, break a string or something, to get their attention.
Q. I know exactly what you mean. I've seen some bands make more out of the thing that goes wrong than the perfect performance.
J.M. Like last night! (when Jim broke a string on stage at Wembley)
Q. I remember your comment, "Oh, I've got to get this up to play like Bill Monroe." (The mandolin mike was dead.)
J.M. After so many years you learn to cope with these things, it gets to be hilarious sometimes. We have such bad sound systems, that people don't know how to create the acoustic sound of bluegrass; so I get up sometimes, and all you can do is make a joke out of it, if you get serious about it it would run you crazy!
Q. What mandolin are you playing at the moment? I've seen pictures of you with an instrument with a blond top.
J.M. It's a Lou Stiver mandolin. He started building these five or six years ago; I've had mine about five years. I used to use a Gibson, I've still got one or two, but it was better than any Gibson, for my style of playing. He came up with a mandolin which was pretty close to what I'd been looking for, in sound, which I'd never found in a Gibson, even in the Lloyd Loar $10,000 mandolins.
Q. What do you look for, in terms of sound?
J.M. I've got to have a good balance, for one thing, across the strings, which I never could get out of a Gibson. The main thing I like about what Stiver is doing, I don't know how he does it, he gets a lot of sustain. You hit a high note, and it won't die, it will sustain like a banjo. You don't have to play it hard, it plays easy.
Q. You have quite a low action, don't you?
J.M. Yeah, I can set the action on it as low as I want to, and it still don't hurt the tone. On a lot of Gibsons you have to raise the action way up in order to get good rhythm. I don't know what Stiver's secret is, but I think he's building a good mandolin there.
Q. There are a number of different mandolins shown in your instruction book.
J.M. When the book was made, I was playing a mandolin made by John Wynn, in fact he made two or three mandolins for me. On page 18 there's my Stiver, with the blond top, and there's also a Gibson, a converted F-4 (F-4 with top replaced by one with f-holes). There's also a Wynn in there somewhere (Wynn 3-point mandolin page 15). He makes a good mandolin, it's not as bright as the Sliver. He experiments with different woods and so on. I thought I had a good mandolin when I had Wynn's, until I got hold of Stiver's. Stiver's mandolins are sold through Elderly Instruments, in Michigan. If I want to buy one, I have to go through Elderly. Wynn is in Ozark, Missouri. He builds a lot of five-string banjos as well, he's a good builder, part time. Stiver works full time on instruments.
Q. Have you played a Paganoni?
J.M. Yeah, I used to own one. It's what I used on the Allen Shelton album, at least some of the tracks. The others, it was a Lloyd Loar 1923 F-5 which this boy wanted me to try out. I couldn't tell you now which one I used on what! And on a couple of songs I used my converted F-4. I know what I used it on, because it was deeper, but between the Paganoni and the Lloyd Loar I couldn't tell the difference. The boy had just bought the Lloyd Loar, given something like $7000, and asked my opinion on it. I said, 'Well, I feel like if I wanted a collector's item I'd be afraid to carry it anywhere!' It's a good mandolin, but comparing it with a Paganoni, I think Paganoni is as close to a Lloyd Loar Gibson as anyone has ever been. He builds good mandolins; Doyle Lawson's got some of the best mandolins that he's built. Every time that Paganoni builds a good one, I think that Doyle gets it!
Q. In conclusion, have you got any more comments you'd like to make about bluegrass music today?
J.M. I read an interview with Waylon Jennings recently. They asked him what he called his music, and he said, "If people want to put a tag on, it's O.K., as long as they buy it! It's country music, to me; if someone wants to call it a certain type, well O.K. let them do it." That's the way I am with bluegrass. If we do what people like, it don't bother me what they call it!
Jesse McReynolds - some recommended recordings (1985)
Informative interviews and articles on Jesse McReynolds include:
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