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Still Kickin' and Pickin'

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Jesse McReynolds and The Virginia Boys performed at the historic Palace Theatre in Gallatin last week. At 88, the Sumner County resident is the oldest living member of the Grand Ole Opry. JOSH CROSS

After seven decades of performing his unique style of bluegrass for audiences around the world, Jesse McReynolds still reigns as Mr. Mandolin and the Ironman of Bluegrass.

The Sumner County resident, who was one-half of the famed Jim and Jesse bluegrass duo, also holds the title of the oldest living member of the Grand Ole Opry at age 88.

"I enjoy playing to an audience when you get a standing ovation," McReynolds said about still performing. "It's a thrill. If I didn't enjoy it I would have retired a long time ago."

Jesse performed alongside his late brother Jim for 55 years until Jim's death in 2002.

In addition to winning multiple awards, the duo has been inducted into the County Music Hall of Fame's Walkway of Stars, the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame, the IBMA Hall of Honor and Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Hall of Fame. They received the National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts - the nation's most prestigious honor in folk and traditional arts - in 1997.

"Jesse is an American music legend, an Opry member for more than 50 years and a member of the Bluegrass Hall of Honor since 1993," Opry General Manager Sally Williams said in a statement. "Our Opry Family Album details his career best, accurately describing Jesse as one of the most talented and acclaimed acts in bluegrass and has having shown himself to be one of the most innovative and prolific mandolin players in all of music."

Storied career

Raised in a small community near Coeburn, Va., Jim and Jesse McReynolds grew up in a family with a rich history in traditional mountain music. Their grandfather Charlie was one of the first to record for RCA in Virginia at the historic Bristol Sessions in 1927.

It wasn't until he was 14 that Jesse began learning to play music while he recovered from a car wreck that nearly cost him his left foot.

"I was in the car with a friend of mine and he was going pretty fast when this dog ran out into the road," McReynolds recalled. "He swerved to miss it and flipped the car over about three times. Everybody was okay but me.

"I was laid up for six or eight months and like to made my mother go crazy trying to learn to play the fiddle, guitar and everything else."

In 1947, Jim and Jesse began their professional music career and within five years they debuted on their first of several major record labels. Their first single for Columbia, entitled "The Flame of Love," spent weeks climbing the national charts in 1960.

The duo's success eventually led the brothers to become inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry in March 1964.

"We were a little bit different breed in the county music field because Jim did all of our business as far as booking and everything else," Jesse McReynolds said. "We got along well. We would disagree sometimes, but if we disagreed on something I'd go to the back of the bus and he would drive and we'd just let it go."

During their 55 years performing together with their band, The Virginia Boys, Jim and Jesse toured across North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Among their most notable songs include "Cotton Mill Man," "Diesel on My Tail," "Are You Missing Me" and "Paradise."

In 2002, Jim and Jesse were each diagnosed with different forms of cancer. While Jesse survived prostate cancer, Jim died from throat cancer in December of that year at the age of 75.

"A lot of memories come back especially when I have dreams about playing shows anywhere," Jesse McReynolds said about his late brother. "I've never had a dream that I can remember that Jim wasn't a part of it. In them, we're back to the Jim and Jesse days."

Not done yet

Since his brother's death, Jesse continues writing songs and recording new albums in addition to performing between 15 and 20 shows each year. The 88-year-old played at Gallatin's historic Palace Theatre and the Grand Ole Opry last week.

"I still get that little nervous thing before I go out there," McReynolds admitted about his performances. "It never leaves you. I'm just afraid I'm not going to go over good enough.

"It eventually does go away a little bit."

Most recently, the Sumner County resident was featured a single of "Wayfaring Stranger" with Connie Britton released in January as part of CMT's television drama "Nashville." His last album "Songs of the Grateful Dead" was released in 2010 as a tribute to Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter.

Now celebrating his 70th year in the music industry, McReynolds said he has no plans to retire anytime soon. In addition to working on an upcoming fiddle recording project, he also hopes to eventually start a weekly country music show in Gallatin.

"Sometimes I think I'm beating God a little bit," he said with a chuckle. "It's hard to accept the fact that I'm 88 years old and still traveling. I just live from day to day and I'm thankful that things have worked out like they have."

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