Jesse McReynolds, who for 55 years was the lead singer and mandolin player with the first-generation bluegrass duo Jim & Jesse, died on Friday at his home in Gallatin, Tenn. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Joy McReynolds, on her Facebook page.
The longest-running brother act in bluegrass, Jim & Jesse — Mr. Reynolds and his older brother, Jim — developed a smooth blend of harmony singing that contrasted with the more piercing, down-home vocal arrangements of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. Mr. McReynolds sang the melody line in a crystalline baritone, while his brother, who died of thyroid cancer in 2002, added honeyed tenor harmonies on top.
The McReynolds brothers’ instrumental approach was likewise more polished than that of their peers, creating a bridge between the barnyard twang of early sibling duos like the Delmore Brothers and the more streamlined sounds of mid-20th-century country music.
Typically backed by banjo, fiddle and bass, the duo’s music — built around Jesse McReynolds’s plaintive mandolin playing and his brother’s metronome-like rhythm guitar — was not without its experimental side. Most notable was Mr. McReynolds’s widely imitated cross-picking technique, which employed a flat pick to approximate the three-finger banjo roll of the bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs.
“I was sort of listening to what he was doing,” Mr. McReynolds said, discussing the origins of his Scruggs-style picking, an approach that influenced mandolin virtuosos like David Grisman and Sam Bush, in a 2019 interview for the website candlewater.com.
“I didn’t know how he was doing it,” he added. “I knew he was using a three-finger roll on it, but I was trying to do it with a straight pick so I could play my other style, too.”
That other style, which also qualified as an innovation in bluegrass, involved a split-string technique in which Mr. McReynolds used his pinkie to hold down one string of his mandolin’s four pairs of strings while letting its counterpart reverberate, or ring open, to achieve a droning effect. This sleight-of-hand, which required great precision, produced two distinct notes from a pair of strings that were usually played in unison on the mandolin.
The duo’s 1963 recording of the instrumental “Stoney Creek” is often cited as the quintessential vehicle for Mr. McReynolds’s prowess as a mandolinist. His Scruggs-inspired “mandolin roll,” though, could already be heard a decade earlier on gospel recordings like “I’ll Fly Away” and “On the Jericho Road.”
The McReynolds brothers sometimes incorporated electric and steel guitar into their performances in lieu of bluegrass’s customary banjo and fiddle. In 1969, Mr. McReynolds contributed mandolin to a track on “The Soft Parade,” an album released by the countercultural Los Angeles rock band the Doors.
Repertoire was yet another area in which Jim & Jesse were in the bluegrass vanguard. Nowhere was this more evident than on their 1965 album “Berry Pickin’ in the Country,” a collection of bluegrass covers of Chuck Berry songs, including a chuffing take of “Memphis.” The album proved to be one of the most popular of the brothers’ career.
Their untrammeled musical instincts notwithstanding, Jim & Jesse were among the most commercially successful bluegrass acts of the 1960s and ’70s. They placed 10 singles on the country chart, notably “Cotton Mill Man” (1964), a worker’s plaint, and “Diesel on My Tail” (1967), a truck-driving song featuring steel guitar, which reached No. 18.
Jesse Lester McReynolds was born on July 9, 1929, in Carfax, Va., in the mountains of southern Appalachia. His father, Claude Matthew McReynolds, was a coal miner and amateur banjo player; his mother, Savannah Prudence (Robinette) McReynolds, played guitar, banjo and harmonica and taught her sons to sing gospel harmonies.
Mr. McReynolds’s grandfather, the fiddler Charles McReynolds, recorded as one-half of the Bull Mountain Moonshiners at 1927’s Bristol Sessions, the so-called big bang of country music that produced landmark recordings by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
Although he was raised in a musical family, young Jesse did not take up the mandolin in earnest until he turned 14 and was recovering from an automobile accident that left him with two broken legs.
Four years later, he and his brother started a banjo-less string band that played country music throughout southwestern Virginia. It was not until 1952, when they began working with the producer Ken Nelson at Capitol Records, that they first described the music they were making as bluegrass.
“We were hesitating over whether we’d even feature the five-string banjo,” Mr. McReynolds said in an interview for the liner notes to the 1987 Rounder album “Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys: In the Tradition.” “But it turned out that Ken Nelson was expecting us to record as a bluegrass band, so that’s what we did.”
Mr. Nelson also encouraged the brothers to change the name of their ensemble from the Virginia Trio, under which they made their first recordings in 1951, to Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys. In 1960, after more than a decade of performing on many of the radio barn dances of the era, they began hosting their own syndicated television program, sponsored by the Martha White flour company.
The duo was a popular draw on the folk circuit of the early 1960s, appearing at, among other places, the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. A year later they became members of the cast of the Grand Old Opry, having gained a reputation, like Bill Monroe before them, for attracting elite talent to their band, including the fiddle players Tommy Jackson and Vassar Clements.
The ensuing decades found the brothers returning to a more traditional approach to bluegrass while consolidating their reputation as one of the premier ensembles in the history of the idiom. Mr. McReynolds served as the affable frontman of the group, his brother as manager of their business affairs.
In the late 1980s, Mr. McReynolds toured and recorded with the Masters, a bluegrass supergroup that included the fiddler Kenny Baker, the dobro player Josh Graves and the banjo player and guitarist Eddie Adcock.
In 1993, Jim & Jesse were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame. Four years later they received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Mr. McReynolds remained active after his brother’s death. Among other projects, he released a 2010 collection of songs written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead, a band upon which Jim & Jesse were a formative influence.
In addition to his wife of 27 years, Mr. McReynolds is survived by a daughter, Gwen; two sons, Michael and Randy; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Much has been made of Mr. McReynolds’s debt to the ebullient banjo phrasing of Earl Scruggs. While this was certainly the case, Mr. McReynolds also improvised on his forebear’s technique by reversing the order of the notes he played in his variant of the Scruggs banjo roll to create a more melancholy tonal effect.
“Ultimately, I ended up playing the opposite of what he did,” Mr. McReynolds explained, talking about the differences between his technique and that of Mr. Scruggs in a 2017 interview with Bluegrass Today. “My rolls went backwards, while Earl’s rolls went forward.”