Ola Belle Reed – Rising Sun Melodies

January 01, 1970

(Smithsonian
Folkways Recordings)

 

www.folkways.si.edu

 

A
mountain and bluegrass performer and songwriter who died just short of age 86
in 2002, Ola Belle Reed was neither an “old, weird America” primitive nor a
modern-era revivalist. She was a traditionalist comfortable in a pop-culture
age. Born in western North Carolina but spending her formative years and adult
life in Pennsylvania and Maryland, she became known to bluegrass stalwarts – at
a time when bluegrass only appealed to stalwarts – as part of the house band at
her family-owned country-music park.

 

She
did, however, record a couple albums in the 1970s for Rounder and Folkways,
with her husband and son, at about the time the bluegrass revival got under
way. She then found herself in ever-greater demand in later years, including a
1986 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. One
of her Folkways records in particular, 1976’s My Epitaph, has gained renown as a rare bluegrass concept album
about the journey of a roots singer through life and the world around her.

 

This
lovely, one-disc collection of Folkways material, augmented by songs Folkways
had on archived tape reels, was produced by Jeff Place and comes at a time when
bluegrass/mountain music has never seemed healthier – there’s even a popular
young band called Olabelle. Reed’s voice, husky and mature, blends nicely with
her old-fashioned banjo and guitar work, and her singing on standards like
“Look Down That Lonesome Road” and “Foggy Mountain Top” is warm and genuine,
without artifice.

 

But
it’s her songwriting that is exceptional. With empathy and tenderness she sings
about timeless concerns, especially fleeting time and mortality – “I’ve
Endured,” “Springtime of Life,” “My Epitaph,” and the standout “High On the
Mountain:”

 

“High on the mountain/A wind blowing free/Thinking about
the days that used to be

 

High on the
mountain/standing all alone/wondering where the years of my life have blown”

 

Really, Reed’s songs are so naturalistically poetic, so
graceful in their balance of joy and sorrow, they deserve attention beyond the
bluegrass realm. They are Great Americana Songs.

 

DOWNLOAD: “High On the Mountain,”
“I’ve Endured” STEVEN ROSEN

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