Ola Belle Reed
came down from the mountains and carried that old-timey sound with her. Her voice and her banjo took her from family sing-alongs to rubbing elbows with some of America's best-known country and bluegrass musicians. Radio stations played her work, and with a little help from friends like Marty Stuart and Del McCoury, her musical legacy lives. Or, as Reed herself sang, "I've worked for the rich, I've lived with the poor; Lord, I've seen many a heartache, there'll be many more; I've lived, loved and sorrowed, been to success's door; I've endured, I've endured
Born in rural Lansing, N.C. in 1916, Ola Belle Campbell was one of 13 children born to a family that loved music. By the time she was a teenager, she was playing guitar and clawhammer banjo and, together with her brother, Alex, started performing as the North Carolina Ridge Runners
The Depression forced the family down from the mountains, and the Campbells migrated to Maryland, near the Mason-Dixon line, looking for work. Ola Belle kept playing and singing. In 1949, she married; together with her new husband, country singer Bud Reed, they founded New River Ranch near Rising Sun, Md., where they performed as The New River Boys. A few years later, they crossed the border into Pennsylvania and opened another performance space--Sunset Park
, in Oxford, Pa. That site hosted some of country music's finest performers, including Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, as well as up-and-coming bluegrass players like Del McCoury. Ola Belle continued to perform on that stage for 26 years, even as other artists discovered her work and covered it themselves.
Reed's musical accomplishments attracted the attention of historians, too. She recorded what would become "My Epitaph"
for Smithsonian Folkways, and the liner notes
(.pdf), based on an interview, are her commentary on mountain life, death and song. Of her mountain upbringing and how it shaped her: "There's one point I'd specifically like to make and want to make is that I don't believe there would be any way in the world that you could possibly describe it. There could be no fun made of it, because it was alive with the earth, your elements as the old people called it, the birds, the animals, the bees. You knew every season; you could tell when a storm was coming. You could always tell this because you could see the leaves turning in the summertime, particularly. In the winter you could tell when it was going to snow because of the color at the base of the trees. So many things you just grew up with that you get away from as you go through life if you're not careful."
The liner notes also address her wish that the music be remembered. As she told her interviewer, "Well, I have lots of material, and I sincerely hope before I leave this world that I can have a building, not to show people what we have collected, but a place to put it." Her paper legacy found a place at the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the Ola Belle Reed Collection
can be consulted. She died on August 16, 2002, a day before what would have been her 86th birthday.
Her signature song, "High on a Mountain"
, has been covered by Marty Stuart
(skip to 1:30), Tim O'Brien, the Del McCoury Band
, and, most recently, by Marideth Sisco
(on the "Winter's Bone" soundtrack).