Review: Ola Belle Reed – Rising Sun Melodies (Smithsonian Folkways, 2010)
Ola Belle Reed is destined for repeated rediscovery. An Appalachian singer steeped in the mix of folk styles born of America’s melting pot, she was discovered at her family’s country music park, by 1950s folk revivalists. By that time she’d already been playing and singing for several decades, and her national emergence at the 1969 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife showcased a talent that was pure in its folk roots and mature in its expression. Her appearances resulted in recordings for the Folkways label and a 1976 audio documentary, My Epitaph. Her songs have been recorded by Marty Stuart, Del McCoury, the Louvin Brothers and Hot Rize, but it’s her own versions that best capture the folk tradition that she so fully embodied. Belle looked, dressed, talked and performed as a folk musician – part of a folk community rather than a commercially-bred folk scene.
Reed was bred among musicians: her father was a fiddler, one uncle ran a singing school and another taught her to play clawhammer banjo. Her father, uncle and aunt started a band in the early decades of the twentieth century, and Ola Belle and her brother Alex played in the North Carolina Ridge Runners before forming their own band in the late 1940s. Her husband Bud was also a musician, and his family combined with Reed’s to open the New River Ranch country music park. The park hosted most of Nashville’s major stars and many of Wheeling’s best acts, with Ola and Alex’s New River Boys and Girls serving as the opening act and house band. Oddly, at the crucial moment when Gei Zantzinger arrived to record the group, Alex chose not to participate – leaving the recording to be billed under Ola Belle’s name.
This set of nineteen tracks collects eleven from her previously released Folkways LPs and adds eight previously unreleased cuts from 1972 and 1976 archival recordings. The titles include Belle’s best-known originals, including the oft-covered “I’ve Endured” and “High on the Mountain,” as well as terrific renditions of fiddle tunes, mountain songs and nineteenth century standards that include “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” “Foggy Mountain Top,” and “Look Down That Lonesome Road.” Her son David Reed provides harmony on Ralph Stanley’s gospel “I Am the Man, Thomas,” but its her solo vocals that show how thoroughly she could imbue a lyric with aching loneliness. As she says in introducing “Undone in Sorrow,” “When I do a song that is as old as the hills and has the oldest flavor, as Betsy said, ‘If it’s a sad sad sad mournful song, when I get done with it, it’ll be pitiful’.”
Reed’s strength as a musician was matched by her humanitarianism as a Christian, both of which you can hear in the life force with which she leads her group through the disc-closing (and previously unreleased) rendition of “Here Comes the Light.” As she’s quoted saying in the 40-page booklet: “That’s what I am saying, that you cannot separate your music from your lifestyle. You cannot separate your lifestyle, your religion, and your politics from your music, it’s part of life” Jeff Place’s extensive liner notes do a terrific job of telling Reed’s story through quotes, interviews and archival photos. If you haven’t already been clued in to Reed’s original recordings, this is an exemplary way to make their acquaintance.