Re-printed from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine
August 1975, Volume 10, Number 2
The festival crowd, hot and sweaty, musters up some more energy and gives the departing group a good hand like the MC implores them to do. And as the audience consults their programs, a wave of excitement spreads through the crowd. The MC is building his introduction to crescendo, his voice getting louder and higher. “And now from the mountains of Virginia, stars of the Grand Ole Opry, here are Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys!”, as the applause and whistles echo through the trees, Jim and Jesse step forward to begin their show.
Like many other fans, we had often wondered what it would be like to step out on stage, crisply dressed in a sharp outfit, to see an audience eager for the first note, to be backed by great musicians, to step up to the microphones and let glorious music flow out from within; and finally, to step down from the stage amidst applause, basking in the admiration of the fans.
Since we live in the Nashville area, we have been fortunate to be able to meet many bluegrass musicians. One evening we were talking to Jim and Jesse backstage while they were waiting to go on, and the performers were singing, “Five Hundred Miles Away From Home.” Jim looked up and laughed, saying, “For us, it’s more like a hundred thousand miles away from home, because that’s about how much we’re gone every year.” Suddenly we are aware that life as musicians, such as Jim and Jesse, must be somewhat different and more involved than just walking out on stage. We began wondering what life on the road is really like. Our curiosity prompted some phone calls and we were invited to tour with Jim and Jesse the weekend of July 4th, 1975, to share in the work and the experiences of their band aboard their bus for the holiday weekend. For us, this was the ultimate thrill as a bluegrass fan.
Along with the fun, excitement, and interesting experiences, we also learned to appreciate the difficulties and the sacrifices that musicians endure to bring us the music that we love. Following is our diary of four days on the road with Jim and Jesse on their tour to Eminence, Missouri, then on to Langley, Oklahoma, and back home to Nashville; just a small part of a hundred thousand miles away from home.
July 4, 5:00 AM:
The alarm rapidly awakens both of us in spite of the early hour. Excited by the anticipation of our trip, we quickly get ready, checking once again to see that we have cameras, tape recorder, note pads ready to go. Jim and Jesse will stop by our home ana pick us up, leaving their home in Gallatin at 5:15.
The sun is up and it is a beautiful morning when the large, ex-Trailways bus pulls up in front of our house. Quickly our baggage is placed in the huge luggage bins under the bus which already contains a sound system, instruments, records, supplies, and tools. Jim and Jesse welcome us aboard the ‘Double J,’ as the bus is called. Jesse’s son, Keith who plays bass with the band, is sitting in one of the comfortable, reclining seats. The other band members, Garland Shuping and Joe Meadows, are sleeping in back. Both live out of town and drove in the night before, spending the night aboard the bus. Quietly Jesse shows us around the bus while Jim takes the wheel and begins our journey.
The bus is divided into four main sections. In front, with the driver, are reclining seats for eight additional people with excellent visibility through the large front, and side windows. Next is a sleeping room with four bunks; then a room with two beds which serves as couches by day. This area works best for jam sessions, as we were to learn later. In the rear of the bus is the bathroom, a large wardrobe that holds the many outfits that the band wears, and closets for storage of the instruments.
We are entering Greenbrier, Tenn. and Jim points to a side road. “See that road there? Stringbean lived right down that road. Two years ago this fall we picked him up right along side the road here and he went with us and we worked a show together about 30 miles from Eminence, where we are going today. That was about two months before he was killed. We had a real good trip with String. This should be a good trip too. Missouri and eastern Oklahoma is beautiful country, and we have lots of time so it won’t get too hectic.
“Last weekend was something else.”
“Last weekend we started out with Lester Flatt’s festival in North Carolina on Friday. We had a death in the family, our father-in-law passed away on Wednesday. We have the same in-laws since we are married to sisters. They buried him on Friday. At first I thought about calling Lance Leroy (Lester Flatt’s manager) and seeing if we could possibly get out of the earlier show scheduled on Friday. Then I realized that Lance and Lester have worked harder than anyone to try to make sure that everything they advertise is at the festival and they see that everything goes on schedule as close, I guess, as any festival we have worked. I realized that if we cancelled, it would throw everything off schedule, so we decided to go ahead and appear as scheduled, but we did go to Virginia to be with our family and we went to the funeral home to view his body, leaving for North Carolina before the funeral.”
“When we finished up at Lester’s festival, we had to drive all the way to Charlotte, Michigan. We were booked up at the Stringbean Memorial Festival, their second annual. We were due on stage at 4:15 PM Saturday. We knew we had a long way to go, but we thought we would arrive there by at least 3 PM. But we pulled in at 4. In a case like that when you know you will get there just barely in time to go on stage, everybody shaves, and changes while we’re still driving, so that once we get there we will have time to get in tune before we go on stage.
When we left there we went to Columbus, Ohio, at the Frontier Ranch. We got into Columbus about 8 AM Sunday morning and we thought we would check in a motel and have a chance to rest and relax and get all cleaned up, but the rooms that were reserved for us were not ready. We stayed around the motel until around 11 AM and then gave up and went on over to the festival. We never did get to get into our motel until after the show that evening, about 7 PM.”
“From there we went up to Maryland where we worked the Fireman’s Carnival at Manchester. We have worked that carnival every year except one since 1962. I keep thinking one of these years they’re going to get tired of us and quit booking us but after the show the manager came out to tell us to be sure and count on next year again. Then we headed back home Tuesday. We don’t like to run that tight a schedule, or drive with that many big jumps. This weekend should be a lot more relaxing.
We have been driving for over an hour and a half. Jim has been making many turns, following one country road after another, and all without a map.
“This is easy. We’ve been over this route so many times because it’s about the only way into Missouri. Six or seven years ago we used to go to Springfield, Missouri and tape television shows, so we would come this way once a month. We used to work around the clock on those. We started about 6 PM and sometimes worked all night. Once we recorded 16 shows in 24 hours!
I was expecting a lot of traffic on the road today, but this isn’t bad at all so far. I guess everyone is already at their destination for the weekend. Maybe last night would have been worse. The worst traffic jam we got into was on the fourth of July in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. We had to cross the Smokies; we were going over into North Carolina to play an engagement. I think it took us two hours to get up one side of the Smoky Mountains.”
“We usually drive to all our dates, even across country, but there have been a few exceptions. We worked a college up in Missoula, Montana this winter. We drove to Denver and then we were afraid that we wouldn’t have enough time to drive to Montana, so we decided to fly. So, we got on Frontier Airlines and they had a jet, but then we had to change onto this twin-engine prop deal. When that thing took off, I thought it was going to bust my ear drums. You couldn’t believe the noise. The next stop we had was Bozeman, Montana. Before we got there, they announced that all the passengers going to Missoula would have to get off the plane at Bozeman. They had had a lot of ice and snow in Missoula and the temperature had gotten up into the 50’s, which is very unusual for there in winter. But this temperature change had created a lot of fog, and they were fogged in, so we were still 150 miles from Missoula. All this took a lot of time, and we just pulled into the bus station when we were due on stage, so we were about half an hour late. But I had called the promoter from Bozeman and told him the situation, so they had rescheduled us for later. There were several other bluegrass groups on too, so it worked out all right for them. It turned out to be a great show and it went on until 2 in the morning. It was a college date and kids just went wild when we started doing some of those Chuck Berry songs.
We are just coming over the bridge that crosses Lake Barkley in the Land Between the Lakes. It’s a beautiful area with softly rolling hills, but the air is hazy. A few people are out fishing. The bridge is long and high, but awfully narrow.
“On this bridge one time I met a 12-foot wide mobile home. I popped up over that bridge, and here he came right towards me. I put this bus right over, wedged against the curb and this fellow come roaring through with that big thing. He just clipped our rearview mirror over there, knocked it in, but didn’t break it. He stopped and came back over to us and said, ‘Did I hit you?’ I said, ‘Well, you clipped my mirror.’ He didn’t say a thing, not even I’m sorry; he just walked back over and got in his truck and went on.
Jim, he’s the accident man. When we were traveling in Mississippi a lot, we were down near Jackson one time in another bus we had and our brakes weren’t holding right. A car stopped in front of Jim and he hit him and knocked that poor man right through a red light, through a filling station and into another parked car. It seemed like Jim had just barely bumped him, but when I looked up, that car was going just like a bullet! The man had hit a car that a lady had parked in front of her house. It busted the radiator and bent the fender on her car. We had been on television a lot there in Jackson, and this lady recognized us. We told her that we would take care of the damages and she said, ‘No that’s all right, don’t worry about it. I watch y’all on television all the time. Don’t worry about that car; I’m just glad to be able to meet you!’ But unfortunately, when her husband came in and found out about the accident he didn’t feel the same way!
We crossed the Mississippi River at Cairo, crossing through the bottom corner of Illinois where the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers join.
We are near Charleston, Mo. and making our first stop for fuel: 80 gallons of diesel fuel plus 15 gallons of gasoline for the air-conditioner engine. The oil was checked for both engines and all the tires were checked.
We pull into a coffee shop near Sikeston, Mo.
We’ve eaten here before; it’s not bad. Hey! (looking to the back of the bus) Y’all ready to eat?”
Joe Meadows comes limping up the aisle and we all wonder what is wrong.
“I hurt my foot. I was dreaming I was after a ground hog. I got between it and the hole, and it come right at me and I dreamed I gave it a big kick. I kicked all right; I kicked the dickens out of the window by the bunk. Feels like I broke my foot; didn’t hurt the bus any though.”
Having finished a leisurely breakfast, we are driving on an interstate highway now for the first time. Jesse counted heads first to make sure everybody was on board. Jim has gone back to take a nap while Jesse took over driving. We are heading west, about 100 miles from the festival and we have four hours before the band is scheduled to perform.
The scenery is really changing with more pines and evergreens. It is densely wooded and hilly, with lots of red rock. The air is much clearer than it was this morning in Tennessee and Kentucky. We are within 40 or 50 miles of Eminence, and it is 2 1/2 hours until show time. Jesse is still driving and Jim is sleeping. Garland is reading the Bible and Jesse is having Keith get the map and start looking for the road we take to Eminence. Traffic is getting considerably heavier, and Jesse expects that it will be pretty stiff before we get to the festival. That’s why extra time has been allowed.
Jesse looks at his watch and announces that it is about time to begin getting ready for arrival at the festival. Joe and Garland head for the back of the bus to shave and clean up. Jesse reminds Keith of his responsibilities on arrival.
“The first thing you do is get a schedule of what time we’re going to be on. That’s the main thing. Then set up the record table right away because Bill and Bonnie can watch it during our show. I guess you better wake Jim up now.”
“I wish something could be done to give bluegrass music more airplay over the radio. I believe if this could be organized and if each artist would get out on stage and just make a few remarks to the fans and ask them to call the radio stations regularly, say maybe 3 times a week, if all the fans would do that, the pressure would be on and the stations would have to start playing it more. One person is not going to have any effect, but if the majority of bluegrass fans would be willing to help in this way, there would be a chance for a change. If a radio station got say 50 to 100 calls per week requesting bluegrass music, the couldn’t ignore this.
Last year, just for fun, we started keeping track of attendance just at the festivals where we performed, and we figured there must have been close to *A million people. That many people could have quite an effect, I believe.”
We have arrived in the town of Eminence, Missouri, population 520. We have been on the road 8 hours.
We stop and ask directions to the park near a building called “The Current River Opry.” Jesse smiles, “Not quite the Grand Ole Opry, but they probably get some real good music in there.” By now the entire band is sitting up front watching for festival signs.
“There it is, Ozark Mountain Blue Grass Festival. July 3, 4, 5, & 6, Looks like the show started yesterday already.”
“Jesse, find us a shady place for this bus, it really looks hot out there.”
There are no shady spots easily available so we park about 1/4 mile from the stage, but at least we’re only here for two shows and then we can get out easily and head on to Oklahoma tonight.
It’s show time! The record table is set up and Jim and Jesse have already been besieged by fans as well as one disc-jockey wanting promotional copies, of course. It has been 11 hours since they got up this morning and 8 hours since they have been on the road, and yet they look sharp. Nobody would guess that they have been up for 11 hours, since it is just middle of the afternoon.
The crowd is large, most of the people are sitting on planks of wood held up by bales of hay. The temperature is high and the humidity feels even higher with the river being only several hundred feet from the stage. Since it was their first show, they included quite a few of their most requested numbers, such as “When I Stop Dreaming,” “Ashes of Love,” “Paradise,” and closing with “I Wish you knew.” The crowd wanted more; they were attentive and enthusiastic in spite of the sweat dripping from the brow and the flies that wouldn’t quit biting.
The show is over. Some local group went on to follow them, it looked pretty hard to follow Jim and Jesse. The record sales are doing well and Keith is already back from changing clothes. He’ll be taking over the record sales for the rest of the afternoon. Jim and Jesse are headed for the bus to change clothes. They usually stay out to talk to fans, but it is so hot and they have had all the fly bites they can take for a while, so into the air conditioned bus they go.
It’s been a long while since breakfast and Jim and Jesse and the band would love to have a car to go get something to eat. The road in was so rough that they decide against taking the bus out for food.
“We really have some wonderful fans, and sometimes they will bring some food to us. But, you know, now and then you run into different types of characters. Once back when Allen Shelton was working with us we were working a theater in Cleveland, Ohio, booked for two shows. We went in there and walked on stage. There was one guy sitting on the front row by himself. He was pretty well loaded and there were 5 or 6 seats on each side of him with nobody sitting near him. We started playing and he started hollering. He got to saying, ‘That’s a good one now, ’ ‘ My God, that’s fine,’ and so on. Then he started cussing. He got real loud so the manager of the theater came down and threw him out. He went around behind the theater and he like to have beat the door down. The stage door was an old metal one and that thing was ringing like a bell with him beating on it, trying to get in. It was funny, really; everybody in the theater could hear him hollering, ‘Let me in.’ So after the first show we went outside and he was standing out there wanting us to take him to Nashville. He said, ‘You boys take me to Nashville. All I need is a break. I can pick as good as anybody down there.’ We finally got away from him.
When we did the second show, he didn’t show up. We thought, well, maybe the law has gotten him, or maybe he went home. So when the second show was over, Monroe Fields, who was playing bass for us at the time, just shoved the bass up in the luggage bin and locked it. It really was cold that night. There was snow on the ground and it was probably down to maybe 10 degrees above zero, or even colder. After the show was over, I went up to get paid, and the rest of the boys went out to the bus to change. By the time I got to the bus, Jim Brock was asleep and the rest of the boys had gone to a cafe for a bite. I came on the bus and was going to change clothes and then get a cup of coffee.
Well, I got inside and started changing and I heard somebody beating on the bus. Well, I looked around, out the side mirror, and I couldn’t see anybody. In just a few seconds I heard somebody banging on the bus again. Then I heard somebody holler, ‘Let me out of here, let me out of here.’ The voice sounded like it was a long ways off. That old drunk had crawled up in that bin and went to sleep, I guess. And then we had put the bass in behind him and locked him in. I got to laughing then because I knew it had to be the same guy. He kept kicking and hollering, and I put my coat back on and got the key and went out there and opened that door, and here he come crawling out of there. He had gotten into some grease we kept in there and was covered from head to toe! But he looked up and said again, ‘Boys, why don’t you take me to Nashville and give me a break?’ It sort of got funny all over again. We finally just had to drive off from him.”
Jim and Jesse have finished playing their second show to a very large responsive audience. The only problem was that the microphones and sound system weren’t balanced right. It seemed that the boy at the controls had gone for a lunch break just when Jim and Jesse went on stage. Everyone is back on the bus except Joe who is still out talking. Jim and Jesse have been up about 19 hours, and they are still looking forward to their second square meal of the day. Jesse is looking at a map to see where the closest truck stop might be. Jim is going to be doing the driving at first. Keith has swept out the bus and cleaned up some, with Jim commenting that he’d make somebody a good wife! Jim wants a glass of tea out of the ice box to help keep him awake. It looks like it will be 75 or 80 miles before we get supper. Joe finally comes aboard and we begin inching our way out of the festival grounds still having to drive all the way to Oklahoma tonight.
The fourth of July is all but gone, but it hasn’t seemed like the fourth because there has been no fireworks. We mentioned this to Jesse. He laughs.
“We used to really believe in fireworks. One fourth of July, a bunch of boys had gotten together and we’d bought a case of dynamite. It was close to 100 sticks. We were just boys and I think we got my brother-in-law to buy it for us. We couldn’t buy it, being under age. We took it on top of the mountain where there was a great big flat rock and we put it on top of this rock and set off 60 some sticks at a time. You talk about a thunderstorm! It sounded like the mountain was caving in!”
12:20 AM, July 5:
We’re still headed west towards Springfield, Mo., out in the middle of nowhere, with no sign of any cafe or truck stop. Jim is pretty tired, so Joe has taken over the driving. It’s pretty tricky; they just switch at full speed, hardly losing 10 miles an hour in speed. The policy is that they like to have at least one person up at all times talking to the driver. Jim is staying up to talk to Joe while everybody else has gone to bed. Our first day on the road with Jim and Jesse ends with our bed swaying gently as we travel west to Oklahoma. With one last look out the window before we fall asleep, there are no lights anywhere.
Jim walks through the bus asking if we’d rather keep sleeping or eat supper! All decide to eat except Keith and Bonnie. This is strange, getting up out of bed to eat steak dinner in the middle of the night!
Jim and Joe resume driving and the rest of us return to our bunks.
Jesse begins driving after making a phone call to find out how to get to Langley and how to find the motel where reservations had been made. Soon Keith and Bonnie come up to keep him company.
We arrive in Langley, Oklahoma. We were just 30 miles from Langley when Jesse took over driving, but it took a long time due to the slow roads, time for several phone calls and refueling.
Everyone was still asleep except Jesse, Keith and Bonnie, so we went over to Dick’s Grill for breakfast. This was to become the location of several meals over the weekend. Royce Campbell, the festival promoter, even gave Jim and Jesse his car for use during their entire stay in Langley. A privilege like this isn’t often granted. Powderhorn, the festival site, is beautiful with a large seating area with large shade trees throughout. The rustic stage is the nicest we have ever seen.
When we got back to the bus, the motel owners were busily cleaning some rooms. Within an hour, the rooms were ready for us even though check in time wasn’t until 1 pm. They had gone out of their way to be obliging, even bringing over some lawn chairs so we could sit under a shade tree while waiting. While waiting for a room, Jesse also got out his tools and worked on the air conditioner motor, a Jeep V-4. He had noticed a squeak earlier while we were driving along. Last week before this trip he had had to put a new fan belt on it.
We’re in our rooms, but Jim and Joe continue to sleep on the bus. The motel is located only about 1/2 mile from Powderhorn, the site of Byron Berline’s 2nd Annual Bluegrass Festival, so walking isn’t bad.
Jim and Jesse are once again on stage. The show is similar to their first show at Eminence with great variety, but certainly not identical. They have parked their bus at the festival area with the record table placed near the bus. Between 4 pm and their evening show, Jim and Jesse pretty much stay by the bus talking to fans and signing autographs, except for time out for supper for Jesse who hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
“One thing Jim and I feel strong about, along with most other musicians, is the situation about people bringing recorders to festivals. Some come with those big reel-to-reel recorders, you know. We can’t just blame the fans, because some promoters encourage it by advertising, recorder hook-ups available. Some will ask us permission to record our show, and legally we really can’t give it. If we did, then the boys in our band would be entitled legally to get regular session fee.
I believe if the bluegrass music fans would understand our position, they would be a lot more willing to leave their recorders at home and buy our albums instead. We spend thousands of dollars producing each album, just so we can have top quality sound and performance. When people record us live, they don’t get either. Then they may take it home and play it to friends or someone, and then they think, well, they don’t sound so good. Then those people would never go to hear us or buy our records. So, you see, it really does hurt us as performers, and we’d be grateful to bluegrass fans it they’d just leave their recorders at home and buy our albums where the quality is.”
“After the 4 pm show, I went over to the restaurant to eat; it was so crowded. I went over to the counter, pushed back all the dirty dishes and got myself a menu, but it was so crowded I got to thinking about a grocery store and Vienna sausage and crackers. So, I went to the store and I bought that and some pork and beans and a quart of milk and I just went back to the motel and had supper there.”
It is now about sundown Saturday night and Jim and Jesse are just about ready to go on for their second show of the day. Shirley Wolfgang, formerly the Jim and Jesse Fan Club representative from Pennsylvania who now lives in Oklahoma, came walking up to the bus with a Shoo-fly pie for Jim, his favorite, she said; and some cupcakes for Jesse which she said she made for his birthday, coming up in a few days on the ninth.
After signing autographs for about an hour after the second show, all of us went to find a place to eat. We ate at a different cafe, as Dick’s Grill had already closed. We walked in and sat down at a booth and the waitress came over with a very pleased look on her face and said, “Well, how are the McReynolds brothers tonight?” She brought on a special catfish dinner. Jim said it was so good that he ate one more fish than he should have.
Jesse is having a problem with his left index finger, which for some reason has become very sore in the joint; so he will be taking some aspirin and soaking his finger.
“You know, never in our entire career have we cancelled a show due to illness. We’ve gotten up on stage and done a show when we felt pretty sick, but we have always managed to make a show.”
“That’s right, but this June we missed a date, not due to our fault. It was the worst misunderstanding with a promoter we’ve ever had. What had happened on that deal up there, the contract was written up the last part of July 1974, and it was made out for one day in June of 1975. It was signed by the promoter and us. I still have a copy of it.
Well, five days before the show, we learned that the promoter claimed he had us booked for one day earlier instead of the original date, but when we got there and saw his copy of the contract, the date had been changed on it. The original date was just marked out, and the earlier date was put over the top of it. The promoter then tried to say that he never did sign a contract for the original date which never did make any sense at all because I had two copies of it identical to his except that he had changed the date. I just couldn’t understand how he could stand there and argue with me.
We were booked in at another date on the day before and the day he wanted us, we tried to work out some kind of a deal where we could still do something to satisfy him. Well, he just wouldn’t change anything. He was around telling everybody that he had advertised us for the earlier date, which wasn’t true at all. I believe that the only thing he was trying to do is to get our name and to publicize it to help draw a crowd and then get by without paying us.
After we talked to the union, we also talked to our attorney about it and they said if you got the original contract and it hasn’t been changed, then the only thing you can do is appear according to what your contract calls for. So, in order to fulfill our end of the agreement, we went ahead and showed up on Sunday morning. But he wouldn’t let us work. We haven’t gotten paid yet. I feel like legally he owes us for a days work. If we hadn’t showed up though, he could have turned around and sued us.”
Sunday, July 6, 7:30 AM:
Bill got up and went outside and sat around and talked with Jesse and Byron Berline. By 8:30, everybody in the band is up except Joe Meadows who had jammed most of the night. We went back over to the local cafe for breakfast. The conversation centered around gospel singing and gospel groups, and Jim and Jesse’s conviction that you had to be a good Christian if the message and feeling are to be present in your gospel music.
The waitress at breakfast recognized Jim and Jesse and said that Uncle Dave Macon was her great uncle; her grandfather’s brother. She told about how he used to come to Langley for visits. She was a small girl at the time and he used to hold her on his lap and try to teach her how to play his banjo. He wanted to give her a banjo of his if she’d learn, and she has been sorry many times over that she didn’t take it.
We have checked out of the motel and loaded the bus. Once again, the bus is parked back over by the festival, where it will remain throughout the day.
Jim and Jesse walk out onto the most attractive stage to perform their gospel show, consisting of about 10 songs, mainly numbers included on their latest album, “Jesus Is The Key To The Kingdom.” Jesse wrote the title song for this album as well as another tune, “2000 Years Ago.”
The crowd is thinning down as the fans start thinking about heading home after a long holiday weekend. The record sales are slowing down. Keith and Garland are out at the record table and Jesse has been doing a little jamming and showing some young pickers a few things about cross-picking on his mandolin. Jesse mentions that his F-5 is for sale just to see them drool! Jim has been looking at the map and planning our route home, and all of us are trying to find the best way possible to stay cool.
Jim and Jesse have just finished a full one-hour show consisting of 20 songs to a somewhat sparce crowd. They did a fantastic variety of material; many songs that they hadn’t done all weekend and several songs that we had never even heard them perform before. Jim was more relaxed than usual with his emcee work, telling more jokes, mainly directed at the band members. One lady called out for them to do “Rocky Top.” Jim replied that they hadn’t done that number since Carol Johnson traveled with them. Then he quickly added, “Of course Keith and Garland could pass for girls with their hair-dos. Maybe we ought to let them sing it for you. I can guarantee one thing; if they sing it, you would never want to hear that song again!”
“Today we had a lot of requests for some of those older songs. There was one friend of ours here from Topeka, Kansas, and he has always liked the close harmony songs, especially the Louvin Brothers things. He requested “Let Me Whisper.” We haven’t sung that song in five or six years, maybe longer. So, we got backstage and went through it once with the boys. Joe worked out his break by just going through it once backstage right before we came on. Jesse showed him on the mandolin how the original break was. When we recorded that, Vassar Clements was playing fiddle for us then. Bobby Thompson on banjo and Don McHan on electric bass. I believe that was the first time that an electric bass was used in a bluegrass band.”
“I really enjoyed doing that last set!”
“Something that makes me feel better than anything else on a show like tonight is when you go out there and start singing one of your songs and the people start applauding. You know then that you are doing something that they want to hear. That shows that they are familiar with our material and are really enjoying it.”
Keith is folding up the equipment, Jim and Jesse are signing albums. Then it’s back to Dick’s Grill for one last bite before we hit the road. After a weekend of feeding festival attenders, they were running out of food, and several choices on their large menu had to be made before we selected anything that they had left, there will be an extra passenger on the trip back to Nashville, Mark O’Connor, a young fiddle player.
It is amazing the transformation that has come over Langley, Oklahoma. As we are walking along the main street, there is only one car in sight, in addition to Jim and Jesse’s bus. Everybody pretty much has cleared out of the festival site. For the first time on the trip, there are some dark clouds in the sky. Keith had walked across the road to a drive-in for another strawberry milkshake as Jim and Jesse came out of the restaurant. They got on board, and Jim was ready to drive off. We all informed him that Keith wasn’t on board yet.
“We were in Burnsville, North Carolina and we were going to New Jersey for a Sunday afternoon show. I told the boys, ‘Now as soon as we finish up here, we’re going to have to get on this bus and leave.’ I went out and got on the bus and started it up, thinking everyone was on board. Carl Jackson was working with us, I think he was about 15 or 16 at the time. And Carl was out talking to some folks, or some young girl, or somebody, and he wasn’t on the bus.
Going into the park, they had it fixed where they got these little humps in the road where everybody has to take it easy you know, so you couldn’t speed. Anyway, when the bus pulled out, Carl started chasing it, and every time I come to one of the humps in the road I’d have to slow down. Well, he thought I was trying to be funny, because about the time he’d catch the bus, I’d take off again. I didn’t know he was back there; I was just slowing for those humps!
I went up to this filling station and pulled in to make this sharp turn, and the lights shone back down the drive where I had been coming out, and here come Carl running up there. He was about run to death! He was trying to catch the bus all that time. It’s a good thing we had to circle in that gas station, or else hard telling how long it would have been before we would have discovered that he was missing.”
We are now driving out of Langley, and it’s 650 miles to Nashville.
“The rest was better than the supper! I really needed that before hitting the road.”
“Well, I hope you will be good until about 3 in the morning because I feel I could sleep that long!”
“The most traveling we ever did was when we lived down in Georgia, before we ever had a bus. We wore out two cars a year back then. We were traveling mainly to do television shows, and were driving 1300 miles a week. We were living in Valdosta, Georgia and doing television shows in Savannah, Georgia; Pensacola, Florida; Tallahassee, Florida; and Dotham, Alabama. We would both buy a new car each year and Jim would take his one week and I would take mine the next week. We ended up wearing out two cars every year.”
“One night when we were doing a lot of traveling by car, I was driving and it was getting sort of late at night and I couldn’t get anyone to stay up and talk to me. I came up to this little place in the road where I could pull off, where there was a lot of gravel. Everybody was just sound asleep, so I slowed down just enough so I knew I wouldn’t wreck, and I just whipped in through there, and the gravel just started hitting the fenders. You could see them heads popping up everywhere!”
“Tell them about the time we were coming back from Wheeling, West Virginia.”
“We were coming down one of those West Virginia crooked roads, and I was comin’ into this curve. Me and Jesse was up front and Joe was lying in the back seat asleep and I was going around a curve. This guy was coming the other way, pulling another car and I guess he popped up on the curve before he knew it. When that first car came around, the back one was right in the center of the road. I got over just about as far as I could and when that back car passed, I heard it hit us. I never could find any dent on my car; I guess the bumpers must have just slapped. When Joe finally raised up and looked out, I think he thought we were going into a cliff. He had one hand on the top of the car and the other on the bottom!”
“I never forgot what that cliff looked like! That’s all I could see. I thought for sure that it was my grave marker!”
“It got so, when I worked for them before, that everyone was afraid to go to sleep. Jim, if he was driving, he’d see someone go to sleep, he just couldn’t keep from hitting the brakes and the horn!”
“I still pull that on Garland. You know, Garland likes to sleep. I’ve never seen a sleeper like Garland!”
“One time Lloyd Bell was sitting in the middle and everyone was sort of getting sleepy; it was the middle of the night. I was driving and tired too and sort of leaning on the wheel. I thought I might as well create a little excitement and get everybody woke up, so I kept leaning a little more and more on the wheel and started dropping over to the left side of the road a little, and it scared him. He didn’t know what to do. He was afraid to grab me; afraid I might jerk the wheel or something, so he started tapping me softly on the shoulder and whispering, ‘Jim, Jim, Jim,’ over and over like that. It got so funny I started laughing. I guess he felt like slapping me out of the car!”
“When we used to live in Live Oak, Florida, we would ride that road to Savannah once a week. Of course, we carried a load of instruments all the time. So, Jim went and got him a pair of these air-adjustable shock absorbers, that you can add air to keep the rear end from dragging. The road to Savannah was just like a washboard, so Jim stopped one night at a filling station when everybody was asleep and decided to get cute. He put the air hose on those things and pumped them up tight enough to burst. I think it carried 4 pounds of air and he put 12 or 15 in it. It’s a wonder he didn’t bust the little tubes inside those things. It was just like riding on a rock.”
“Yeah, I think I got it up to about 70 mph and I looked back and you could see the back of that car flying up and down, about vibrating everybody’s head off! It was really hard to get shotgun riders back in those days. You had to try all kinds of things to keep somebody else awake.”
“A lot of times, especially in the winter time, we would be riding down the road and everyone would go to sleep and Jim would roll the windows down like on a real cold night. He’d push those little vents open too, and just freeze everybody to death for about 5 minutes.”
“Well, I just wanted to change the air in the car. It’s amazing what all that fresh air will do to you when you’re falling asleep.”
“We had this boy, Don McHan, that worked for us, and we were driving back to Florida and somehow we were taking two cars. He told me and Joe, I’m going to go back in the back seat and catch a little sleep before the next show. It was in the summertime and it was hot anyway, so after he got to sleep, me and Joe thought we would have a little fun and so we turned the heaters on. We were sitting up front and we were getting the biggest part of it, but anything to get our little joke across. We were really sweating. Finally he woke up and sat up and said, ‘Boys, you wouldn’t burn a fellow up would you?’ ”
The sun is down, with just the twilight over the Oklahoma landscape. After all the reminiscing, Keith, Garland, Joe, Mark and Jesse are back having a jam session and making some of the prettiest music you would ever want to hear.
We just turned on to Interstate 40. The jam session has broken up and we are going to let Jesse get some sleep now. Keith is what is known as one of the Interstate drivers, and he is going to take over for a while, once again they change drivers in midstream without stopping.
We crossed into Arkansas. Keith is driving and Jim is still up talking to us.
One hundred miles west of Little Rock, everyone has gone to sleep except Keith at the wheel with Jim and Bill trying to stay awake riding shotgun.
July 7, 1:50 AM:
We’re slightly east of Little Rock at a truck stop. Now it’s Jesse’s turn to drive. But first we stopped for some coffee. The weather is hot and humid, even at this time of night.
“I do all my writing right up there, (pointing to the steering wheel.) I can’t sit down and write a song. I’ve got to have it in my head. If I can’t get two verses and a chorus in my mind all the way through, then I’ll never write down nothing. When I do get something, I’ll write it down. I got songs that are still on napkins that I haven’t even taken off yet. Jim is my critic; the quality control expert. He tells me what’s wrong with my songs, what to change here and there.”
“I wrote our new gospel song, ‘2000 Years Ago’ when I was driving between Lexington and Cincinnati. I got to thinking about Conway Twitty’s song, ‘15 Years Ago’ and I had that in mind and I started to do a re-write of it based on my experiences 15 years ago, you know. And then I got to thinking in everything that I do that’s gospel, if I can’t put Jesus on top, I don’t want to do it. That’s when I changed it and wrote about Him, 2000 years ago. Now days I write more gospel songs than anything. I’ve written three more since then.”
Everyone is sleeping except Jesse driving and Bill riding shotgun. For the past while we had been seeing a lot of lightning and hoping there might be a little rain at home. Jesse’s driving about 60 mph and the trucks are passing at around 80 mph.
“I sure hate to think about all the work Jim and I have to do when we get home. Right now we are in the process of getting our album that we did on the Japanese tour, processed. We will try to get the songs all lined up. I’ve got a bunch of records down at the pressing plant to pick up. Tapes too. I also need to go up to the office and take care of some song contracts and things like that. We are trying to plan for another re-issue double album too. We like to re-release double albums because so many of our new fans want our older material too, and this way they can get more of it quicker.
We are about 20 miles west of Memphis and rain is coming down lightly. The miles are slipping by much more slowly on the homeward stretch.
“We had one date cancelled, so we’ll work the Opry Friday night. Then we’ll be on the road for about 10 days. Let’s see, first Louisiana, then Pennsylvania, Maine for three days, back to Pennsylvania, then Wilmington, Delaware. It will be one of our longer trips this summer.
We are crossing the Mississippi River. A big sign says: Welcome to the Great State of Tennessee. The city of Memphis looks dead. I feel about dead, and I don’t know how Jesse keeps on driving. Maybe he is writing another song.
Garland taps Bill on the shoulder and says that he’ll ride shotgun now. Bill is asleep in less than half a mile.
Bonnie wakes up to join Garland while Jesse continues to drive. Garland is standing next to Jesse, coaxing him to drive a little faster, even promising to pay for a ticket should they get stopped. His reason: a 9 AM plane to catch back home to North Carolina.
We are at Nashville Airport, dropping Garland off, fishing poles and all, in plenty of time to catch his plane.
Bill wakes up as we pull into our driveway. We thank Jim and Jese for the wonderful trip and the kindness they have shown us. Keith and Bill unload our belongings.
“We’re glad you could come with us!”
“Hope we weren’t too hard on you!”
As the bus pulls away, we stand and wave, trying to grasp the whole experience we have had. For us, one of the most rewarding parts of the trip was to find out that Jim and Jesse are more than fine musicians. They are truly the fine gentlemen that we had always heard they were.