Jesse Mears 2017

    

     Jesse W. Mears arrived in this world on January 19, 1939 in Brazos Point, Texas, the sixth of seven children born to Jesse Lawson “Shorty” and Lula Thompson Mears.  The Mears family members were hard workers who labored long hours in the cotton fields but always managed to find time to enjoy fiddle music. Music has been a deep-rooted tradition in the Mears family.  Around 1920, Jesse’s father, Shorty, purchased a Sears and Roebuck fiddle from his uncle who had purchased the instrument ten years prior for the grand price of $9.98. In between farming, Shorty would fiddle and sometimes try to enhance the sound of his fiddle by sanding down the top.  By the time Jesse inherited his father’s fiddle, the top was so paper thin that it had to be replaced. Jack Mears, Jesse’s great uncle, was a widely recognized fiddler who played and traveled extensively throughout Texas. Some of his recordings were preserved by music historians and can be found in the Library of Congress.  Jesse’s brother, Walter Mears, is also a fiddle player who has participated in many contests around the state of Texas. While Jesse expressed an interest in the fiddle at a very young age, his father was fearful that Jesse would be careless with the instrument. Finally, when Jesse was sixteen years old, his mother told him that he could secretly practice on his father’s fiddle but he would need to “be careful and hold it over the bed when you play and be sure and put it back just the way you found it”.  With years of music already stored in his memory, it wasn’t long before Jesse began to develop his own style and drive.

    The Mears family eventually migrated to Alvarado, Texas where they moved frequently as they continued to farm and fiddle.  Jesse still resides in Alvarado although he gave up farming to become a truck driver. He is currently retired. Back in the day, local fiddlers would gather at the Mears home to play tunes.       Among some of the early old time fiddlers in Jesse’s life were Clyde Fannon (a note fiddler), Brooks Thompson (and his piano playing brother, Bushrod), and Jim Ezell, a fellow cotton picker. Jesse recently recalled some of the tunes that had been played in those distant jam sessions and reintroduced them to current day fiddlers.  It was as if the old tunes had been locked away in his memory and were just waiting to be rediscovered.

   In the early years of his playing, Jesse would attend “fiddlings” at house parties and churches.  His band of accompanists then included Herschel Simmons, Carl Simmons, John Biggs, and Buddy Weeks.  Falls Creek Church in Acton, Texas was a common gathering place, and it was there that Jesse met the likes of Benny and Jerry Thomasson, Sleepy Johnson, Dale Morris Sr., Wallace and Dale McPherson, and Texas Shorty and his brother, Robert Chancellor.  One time, after Jesse had played “Leather Britches”, a voice behind him exclaimed “By doggies, right there is the best Mears fiddler of ‘em all!” He turned around to discover the voice belonged to Benny Thomasson. Jesse had actually learned some of his licks off of one of Benny’s recordings.  He was honored by the compliment but later confessed that had he known the great Benny Thomasson was standing behind him and listening, he probably would have been too nervous to play the tune. It was also at Falls Creek that Sleepy Johnson taught Jesse to play “Old Sport”. Afterwards, Sleepy laughingly complained that “it’s not right to teach someone a tune and then they play it back to you better than you!”  Jesse always tried to encourage the younger fiddlers at the jams including Randy Elmore, Valerie Ryals and Tommy Hughes. Valerie commented that in those days, there not many female fiddlers. She has appreciated Jesse for always treating her fairly and for his willingness to help her with her music.

    In addition to the house parties and jam sessions, Jesse began to enter various fiddle contests scattered throughout Texas.  At the time, almost every small town had some kind of festival which hosted a contest. Some of the more notable contests were Athens, Gilmer, Alvarado, Hallettsville, De Leon, Crocket, Gatesville and more recently Bowie.  Jesse entered and won his fair share of these contests as evidenced by his collection of trophies, belt buckles and plaques. It was at these contests that he met and was duly impressed by Omega Burden, the Franklin family (Major, Ray, Royce, Louis, and Larry) and his long-time friend and rival, E. J. Hopkins.   During this time, Red Steely introduced Jesse to Norman and Vernon Solomon. An up tempo fiddler himself, Jesse always admired the Solomon’s drive and finesse. One time at a contest, Jesse was in need of an accompanist and spied Bill Mitchell. At the time, Jesse did not know Bill that well so he wanted to clue him in on his playing style.  When Jesse informed Bill that he played up tempo and faster that most fiddlers, Bill responded, “I don’t think it will be a problem. I played with Norman Solomon for twenty five years!”

    In August of 1970, Jesse suffered a great personal tragedy.  His best friend and guitar player, Herschel Simmons, and Herschel’s wife, Hazel, were killed in a car accident.  The loss was so devastating to Jesse that he put up his fiddle and decided that he could never enjoy playing again.  After a year or so had passed, Vernon Solomon urged Jesse to drag his fiddle out and rekindle his love for music. He told Jesse that he was too good of a fiddler not to keep playing.      It was Vernon’s persistence and friendship that finally convinced Jesse to continue with his music.

    By this time, Jesse was raising three sons.  They became his built-in accompanists and traveled to contests with him.  In 1982, Jesse recorded his first album “Family Tradition”. His sons provided the rhythm for the album – Jesse Jr (guitar), Tony (tenor guitar) and Mark (mandolin).  Somewhere along the way, Jesse met Kathy McVicker and she became his lifelong friend, accompanist and companion. Her Texas style chord progressions on the tenor guitar influenced Jesse to make subtle improvements and changes to his style of fiddling.  In 2006, she encouraged him to record the CD “Done and Gone Fiddlin” which featured Jesse, Kathy, and their talented musician friends Steve Williams, Royce Franklin, and Jacob Johnson.

     Throughout the years, Jesse played with several different country and western bands including Rambling Rhythm, the Country Westerners, and the Southlanders before forming his own seven piece band, Jesse Mears and Fiddlin’ Fever.  His breakdown fiddling had always been heavily influenced by two fiddle greats – Benny Thomasson and Terry Morris. These band gigs exposed Jesse to another form of fiddling and other musicians. He is proud to have played with guitarist/vocalist Mike O’Daniel, steel guitar player Albert Talley, and piano player, Bill Thacker.  In 2004, Jesse was inducted into the Country Music Association of Texas Hall of Fame.

    Sometimes, these country bands would have the opportunity to back up music celebrities.   On one such occasion, the band backed up the infamous fiddler, Johnny Gimble. Someone in the crowd requested a breakdown, and when Jesse took off on “Sally Johnson”, Johnny put down his fiddle and picked up his mandolin.  At the conclusion of the tune, Johnny remarked, “That Jesse plays with authority!” Jesse has always impressed his fellow musicians and fans with his flexible wrist and bow arm. Once when judging a fiddle contest, Johnny Gimble kept calling Jesse and his competitor back for play offs.  The competition was so close that Johnny was having a difficult time determining a winner, but he ultimately decided that the winner was Jesse. Johnny later confided to Jesse that he finally broke the tie by giving Jesse an extra half point for his flexible wrist.

     A long-time resident of Alvarado, Jesse frequently attended the annual Pioneer and Old Settlers Reunion. A fiddle contest is always held in conjunction with the festival.  The festival originated in 1892 and celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1992.  For the centennial celebration, the Reunion Committee commissioned Johnny Bryant to sculpt a bronze statue of a fiddler.  At first, he sketched out a drawing of a laughing, almost clownish fiddler. The Committee reminded Mr. Bryant that Texas fiddlers are very serious about their music.  In order to capture a more realistic image, Mr. Bryant used Jesse as his model for the sculpture. Jesse was very honored that he could represent Texas fiddlers and his home town in such a manner.

     As previously stated, Jesse has always tried to encourage the young fiddlers.  In the early jam sessions, he traded tunes and licks with the up and coming talents Randy Elmore, Valerie Ryals and Tommy Hughes.  And he continues to motivate musicians today. Keenan Fletcher claims that she was inspired to transition from classical violin to old time Texas fiddling after listening to Jesse’s fiddle CD “Done and Gone Fiddlin”.  After an initial phone conversation, Jesse helped get Keenan started on a few breakdowns and then introduced her to his fiddling friends and the TOTFA community. His musical influence even has international ties. Paul Inbar of Israel learned “Cattle in the Cane” after listening to Jesse’s version of the song on You Tube.  They have since spoken on the phone and have remained connected via the Internet. Jesse is amazed by today’s young and talented musicians including River Lee, Hyatt Hopkins, the Nuggent sisters, Mia Orosco, Katie Crawford, Jessica Sell, Ben McPherson, Leah and David Sawyer, Michael and Douglas Thompson, and Ridge Roberts – just to name a few!  Jesse is confident that the future of Texas fiddling is in young, capable hands.

     Jesse Mears loves to fiddle, loves to listen to fiddle music, and loves the comradery of the musicians.  Whether it’s at a small jam in Glen Rose with Marty McPherson, Marty and Randy Elmore, Valerie Ryals, and Dennis Sparks or at a major jam session at his lake house, Fiddler’s Point, he is in his element around music.  He has always been thankful for the many friends and associations he has made through his music. Along with the other musicians already mentioned here, Jesse wants to recognize the musical talents of such friends as Wes Westmoreland, Dale Morris Jr., Carl Hopkins, Rex Gillentine, Bobby Christman, Lydia Ryals Stuart, Anthony Mature, Bubba Hopkins, Joey McKenzie, Gordon Townsend, Jason Andrews and so many more.  Fiddling has not only been a fulfilling hobby for Jesse, fiddling has created lifelong friendships and opportunities to associate and share music with some of the finest musicians in Texas. He is grateful to the Fryer family for their continued support of Texas fiddle music and in particular, the Hallettsville contest. Jesse Mears is both honored and humbled to be the 2017 inductee to the Fiddlers Hall of Fame, and he would like to sincerely thank all those responsible for this award.