Ola Belle Reed is a performer with a shadow legacy, one that has far outstripped the availability of her work on record. Her songs have become an essential thread in the tapestry of contemporary bluegrass/folk music, and her influence radiates out in multiple directions. She has been a touchstone for bluegrass maestro Del McCoury, for instance, and served as the namesake of Ollabelle, a New York-based roots band. But until Rising Sun Melodies, the best you could do to hear Reed’s music was an out-of-print Rounder release from the late ‘70s. This release is a welcome correction, then, and a fine overview of the singer’s many talents.
Reed is probably most readily recognized as the author of two stone-cold classics: “I’ve Endured” and “High on a Mountain”. “I’ve Endured” is a sparkling piece of Appalachian stoicism, perfectly fitted to Reed’s steely voice and rolling, clawhammer banjo. Uncannily, it sounds every bit as modern as it does ancient. “High on a Mountain” feels a bit brighter—it’s a curious anthem of graveyard rumination that even became something of a hit for Marty Stuart in the early ‘90s. Along the way, it has also become a bluegrass festival and picking party standard, featuring prominently in a scene from last year’s standout study of rural violence, Winter’s Bone. Although Reed’s repertoire is a colorful mix of originals and traditional tunes, the rugged recalcitrance of her singing is the tie that binds it all together on this collection, even casting her treatment of middling material like the ‘70s time capsule “Sing Me a Song” in a favorable light.
Since Reed hit her stride as a recording artist in the second half of the 20th century, her recorded output has a slightly different flavor from some of the other folk artists featured in the Folkways catalog. For instance, Reed’s take on the standard “The Lonesome Road”—her version bears the title “Look Down that Lonesome Road”—is an instructive example of the dialogic meeting of the folk process and modern media: there’s a swervy line connecting Gene Austin’s composition from its roots as a quasi-vaudeville tune from the 1920s to its use as a mid-century standard covered by luminaries like Coleman Hawkins and Frank Sinatra, on to Bob Dylan’s 21st century adaptation on 2001’s “Sugar Baby”. Reed, who apparently didn’t own a radio when she first encountered the song, presciently declared “This is going to be my theme song,” and the liner notes describe it as “another old mountain song, recorded by many in the region.” In its way, this is true—and that fact makes the performance all the more fascinating. “See, there’s nothing new under the sun,” Reed appropriately states in a between-verse aside: we can only nod in agreement.
This release includes detailed notes by Jeff Place, which tell the interweaving story of Reed’s music and her family life, with extensive quotations from both the performer herself, as well as her friends and family. Rising Sun Melodies makes a convincing case for Ola Belle Reed as one of the quiet wonders of American vernacular music, and Smithsonian Folkways has created the best available showcase for her work.