Ola Belle Reed: A Woman of Deep Faith, Good Humor and Extraordinary Talent

Juli Thanki | August 31st, 2010

You may not have heard of Ola Belle Reed, but if you’ve listened to country or bluegrass music in the past couple of decades, you’ve likely heard her words sung by the likes of Del McCoury and Tim O’Brien.

Born Ola Wave Campbell in western North Carolina in 1916, she was one of 13 children. Music was in her blood: her father and his siblings played in a string band called The New River Boys and Girls, uncle Dockery Campbell taught her to play the banjo, and her grandfather–a fiddler and Primitive Baptist minister–almost certainly was another influence.

Ola Belle Reed - Rising Sun MelodiesIn the mid-1930s, the Campbells moved north to Chester County, Pennsylvania in search of work. It was here that Ola Belle started playing with the North Carolina Ridge Runners (a band that mostly performed in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) and began singing on local radio. 1951, the Campbells and Ola Belle’s new husband, Bud Reed, opened New River Ranch, a country music park in Maryland that hosted acts like Flatt & Scruggs and Hank Williams. Ola Belle and brother Alex were members of the New River Ranch’s house band; they opened for some of country’s biggest superstars, and there’s no telling how many budding musicians heard as they waited for the main event (the liner notes mention two: bluegrass big guns David Grisman and Bob Paisley, but considering the current strength of the DC-area bluegrass scene, there are definitely more).

A decade later, Ola Belle and Alex opened Campbell’s Corner, a country store in Pennsylvania that also served as home base for the family’s radio program of the same name. It was around this time that Ola Belle was “discovered” by renowned folklorist Henry Glassie, who fellow nerds might recall for his incredible study Passing the Time in Ballymenone. It was Glassie who recommended Reed to Ralph Rinzler, one of the founders of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which is held annually on the National Mall in DC. Reed and her family band first performed at the Festival in 1969, then again in ’72 and ’76.

Ola Belle Reed died in 2002, a day before her 86th birthday, but her musical legacy endures. Several of the 200+ songs she wrote in her life have been recorded by artists like Del McCoury, Hot Rize, and Crooked Still, to name just a few. “High on the Mountain,” the song which, according to her husband, she wrote at her mother’s grave, was turned into a #24 hit by Marty Stuart in 1993. There is an annual Ola Belle Reed Music Festival in her birthplace of Lansing, North Carolina. Past performers include Tim O’Brien, the late Mike Seeger, and, of course, Ollabelle, the band who took its name from the lady herself.

New Smithsonian Folkways album Rising Sun Melodies boasts eight previously unreleased Ola Belle tracks; all were recorded at the 1972 and 1976 Folklife Festivals. These performances include “Look Down That Lonesome Road” (which she introduces as her theme song), “Nine Pound Hammer,” and a stirring rendition of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light”–well, stirring with a side of amusing as she peppers the gospel song with midsong instructions: “Let’s clap! Now get together!” The other songs range from 19th century ballad “Sweet Evalina” to the autobiographical “I’ve Endured,” which Reed wrote on her 50th birthday. As a whole, the album paints a picture of a woman of deep faith, good humor, and extraordinary talent.

With its superb song selection and lengthy, in-depth liner notes written by Jeff Place, archivist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Rising Sun Melodies is the perfect place to start for those who are new to Ola Belle Reed. And longtime fans, well, they’re going to like this album too.

  1. Paul W Dennis
    August 31, 2010 at 7:54 am

    Nice article – I had heard Ola Belle Reed in the past, as DJs would play the occasional track on bluegrass and old timey programs, usually on NPR affiliates, but it’s been a while since I had heard her.

  2. Barry Mazor
    August 31, 2010 at 8:07 am

    Her nephew Alex Campbell helped sparked a run of local Ola Belle-mania in downtown New York at the “Alphabet City Opry” a few years back–which led to the creation of the group Ollabelle and–and I recommend this if you’ve never heard it or of it–the Demolition String Band’s salute CD, “Where The Wild Wild Flowers Grow: The Songs Of Ola Belle Reed”

  3. Jon
    August 31, 2010 at 9:32 am

    Nice piece, Juli. Although the New River Ranch house band’s gig wound up long enough ago that I doubt there are many mainstays of the DC area bluegrass scene – other than the guys Darren Beachley’s playing with, maybe ;-) – who are old enough to have been budding musicians back then.

  4. Jon
    August 31, 2010 at 9:33 am

    Although I will add that I think her reputation as a songwriter rests pretty much on just three songs: “High On A Mountain,” “I’ve Endured” and “Undone In Sorrow,” a/k/a “Over Yonder In The Graveyard.” Of course, planting three songs in the canon is a pretty strong accomplishment… ;-)

  5. Rick
    August 31, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    Better watch out there Paul, it seems Juli is muscling in on your “Forgotten Artists” turf! (lol)

    I have heard of the newer band Ollabelle but had no idea where the name came. Thanks for this interesting article Juli as I always enjoy the historical stuff. I know a guy who volunteers at the Folklife Festival each year (so maybe he can snag me a copy…).

  6. Deborah Williams(dew)
    September 19, 2010 at 9:57 am

    “I’ve Endured”, is my favorite song of Olla Belle Reed.

  7. Ed
    February 2, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    Jon, I’d like to add “My Epitaph” and “Sing Me a Song” and quite a few others to the list.

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