High on a Mountain, Wind Blowing Free
February 20, 2011 6:56 PM   Subscribe

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).
posted by MonkeyToes (7 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
MonkeyToes, you rock! I have wanted to make an Ola Belle Reed post for a long time and never got down to the research. I'd like to add a couple links I don't see here - A radio documentary on her called Tapestry of the Times, available on PRX with a free and nonspammy registration, and a video titled Friends and Family of Ola Belle Reed, which is a companion piece to the radio show.
posted by Miko at 7:46 PM on February 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wow, there was a youtube comment there with actual info. Ralph "Bud" Reed (her husband) just passed a few days ago.
posted by DaddyNewt at 10:47 PM on February 20, 2011

Wonderful. Del MCoury's version is one of the tracks that made me love bluegrass music, yet I had no idea it was cover. The interconnectedness of this genre is one of its greatest appeals to me - if you discover a song you love, chances are five other wildly different musicians you also love, or will love, have covered the hell out of it. I think if other genres embraced this culture of sharing the world would have a lot fewer mediocre album-filler tracks and a whole lot more awesome.

I also love that Del McCoury's face, even when screaming the highest, impassioned notes, never seems to venture outside of quiet conversation expression.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 6:32 AM on February 21, 2011

Kandarp Von Bontee, have you heard "The Mountain," Steve Earle's bluegrass album with the Del McCoury band? Excellent, excellent music, and also my first exposure to McCoury and bluegrass.

I came to "High on a Mountain" via Marty Stuart, but McCoury's version is my favorite. It amazes me how flexible this song is in the hands of different artists.

R.I.P. Ralph "Bud" Reed. Thanks, DaddyNewt.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:51 AM on February 21, 2011

My Epitaph is a wonderful album, and the interview portions are meaty and fascinating. I totally didn't realize that there was a second album, Rising Sun Melodies out on the Folkways label. It apparently includes the 6 My Epitaph songs, but also includes another album's worth of songs and some live performances.
posted by julen at 7:52 AM on February 21, 2011

MonkeyToes: I discovered that album whilst halfway through listening to the book The Killer Angels, so you can imagine my surprise at the synchronicity of discovering an incredible song written from the perspective of Buster Kilrain. The crazy concatenations of bluegrass culture strike again.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 9:43 AM on February 21, 2011

I'm way too late, but I couldn't not drop a link to her "at-home special banjo."
posted by lost_cause at 9:04 PM on February 22, 2011

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