Who Was Ola Belle Reed?

by Carolina Bridges

Getting to know who the pioneers were in any endeavor makes us appreciate what we have been gifted by their dedication. Many hands make music, including our own. We are familiar with names like Earl Scruggs, Pete Seeger, Bill Monroe, but how many of you know who Ola Belle Reed was? This legendary country singer and banjo playing pioneer, best known for songs like her signature tune “High on a Mountain” and “I’ve Endured” came to my attention recently and I thought you would enjoy hearing about her too.

Deering endorsing artist, Cathy Fink, recently came to us with information about the Ola Belle Fest in Lansing, NC.  Acknowledged by the Smithsonian as well as with a 1986 fellowship through the National Heritage Foundation, Ola Belle’s music speaks of Appalachian life and traditions but her legacy extends beyond that with tales of her kindness and caring of those whose life she touched.

Born August 18th, 1916, along the New River in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in a town called Lansing, Ola Belle was one of 13 children born into the musical family of Arthur Campbell. She learned to play guitar and clawhammer banjo as a young child. In her early teens she teamed up with her brother Alex who later joined the military and was heard on Armed Forces Radio as part of Grandpa Jones Munch Mountaineers. When he returned home, he and Ola Belle teamed up in a string of long-running radio performances heard throughout the country including Wheeling, WV’s WWVA.

It was in 1949, when Ola Belle married Bud Reed, that the three formed the New River Boys and Girls, opening New River Ranch in Rising Son, MD, a premier music park of the 50’s. We are all so familiar with the Disneyland theme park experience that knowing that musical theme parks have existed as part of our heritage long before is an eye-opening experience. While the park itself closed in the 60’s, the group continued to perform for another 26 years at Sunset Park in West Grove, PA.

The 70’s brought a revival of interest in old-time and early country music, and Ola Belle and her family (now including her son, David Reed), found a whole new audience eager for their music at such musical events as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the Brandywine Mountain Convention. Songs from her early radio days have been recorded by such well-known artists as Del McCoury, Marty Stuart, and Tim O’Brien.

In the late 1980’s Ola Belle unfortunately suffered a severe stroke that left her an invalid and cut short her career as a performer and songwriter. Touching stories of her kindness and hospitality can be read in a loving account by Kevin Roth on the Ola Belle Fest website, www.olabellefest.com, and it appears that the Reed household was a place of welcome for all who entered. She and Bud celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in February of 1999 and she passed away on August 16, 2002 with many at her funeral service to remember her music, her kindness, and her strength.

I recommend you go to YouTube and type in Ola Belle Reed. Treat yourself by listening to recordings of Ola Belle’s wonderfully earthy singing style and traditional clawhammer banjo playing. It will make you feel that truly, the “circle is unbroken” in the world family of music lovers.

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