Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 3:15PM
Guest Post by Devon Leger, Hearth Music.
Like most people, I’d mainly heard of the great Appalachian singer Ola Belle Reed through her song “High on a Mountain”.
It’s a true classic American folk song, and has been covered by artists like Crooked Still and Marty Stuart (who took it to #24 on Billboard’s Country Music Chart at the time). One listen to the song shows that its staying power lies in the homespun, earthy lyrics; words that spring from a true voice of the mountains. “High on the mountain/Standing all alone/Wondering where the years of my life have flown.” It taps into the darker side of American folk music’s timelessness: as we age and die, the songs don’t. It’s not that we’re jealous of their longevity, but we do get a bit sad when we realize how many other short lives these songs have touched and changed.
Rising Sun Melodies, the new CD of Ola Belle Reed’s music on Smithsonian Folkways (she passed in 2002, so this is a compilation), is a wonderful cross-section of her songwriting and influence. It came out last year and I’ve been sleeping on it mainly because I saw Ola Belle Reed as another scratchy-voiced Appalachian ballad singer and hadn’t figured the album had too much new to say.
How wrong I was!
Ola Belle Reed’s music manages to completely transcend its old-timey roots, and touches something much deeper and more compelling. That’s not because of the exoticism of her thick Southern dialect, or the rough-hewn sound of her banjo playing and singing. I think that’s because of the life she lived, of which I’d been largely ignorant until reading the excellent liner notes (kudos to Smithsonian Folkways for always spending money on lots of interesting liner notes from key experts).
Though she grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, not far from the heartland of old-time music, she moved to Maryland with her family in the 1930s, where her husband and brother opened a country music theme park that hosted luminaries like Hank Williams, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. This connection to a more mainstream country sound is subtly reflected in the accessibility of Ola Belle’s music. These aren’t creaky renderings of old medieval ballads, but fully-fledged country songs rendered in a pure mountain voice. It’s a wonder that Ola Belle Reed isn’t recognized as a country singer on a par with the other greats, but she was snapped up early on by the folk revival and branded a “traditional” singer, which may have kept her from a more mainstream path.
Another point that impressed me was Ola Belle Reed’s compassion. The liner notes feature quotes from family members who remember her more for her care of orphaned children, troubled youth and even infirmed elders than they do for her music. She was a woman who lived the life of a true Christian, which makes her religious singing all the more powerful. I suppose I’ve gotten a bit tired of non-religious hipsters adopting old gospel songs, and it’s a joy to hear a true believer singing the songs with passion. I could go on and on about Ola Belle Reed’s life and influence, but I’ll leave it to you all to buy the album and read the fascinating liner notes.
Another highlight of Rising Sun Melodies is the handful of unreleased live recordings from the 1972 and 1976 Smithsonian Folklife Festivals. Filled with witty asides and audience participation, they bring out a great side to the music and show a bit more of Ola Belle Reed’s personality. I love how she opens one of her most powerful songs, “Undone in Sorrow”: “Can I do a song as old as the hills, and has the oldest flavor? As Betsy said, it’s a sad, sad, sad, mournful song, and when I get done with it, it’ll be pitiful”. Ola Belle Reed had the power to wring that kind of sadness out of her music, a truly great talent. This is an album of raw music, so you may not end up loving every track, but I guarantee that Ola Belle Reed’s life story and songs like “High on the Mountain”, “I’ve Endured”, or “Undone in Sorrow” will change the way you think about American country music.
Ola Belle Reed "High On The Mountain"
Ola Belle Reed "I've Endured"