Ola Belle Reed - "Foggy Mountain Top" (Rising Sun Melodies)
In the bluegrass singer Ola Belle Reed’s best-known song, “High On the Mountain,” she sings of loss, lamenting bygone years and wondering about an absent loved one. The typically painstaking Folkways liner notes of this collection, Rising Sun Melodies, quote Reed’s husband Bud on the song’s subject: “You know where she wrote that at? At her mother’s graveyard . . . A lot of people thought it was a love song, but it was about her people.” The account given of Reed’s life further amplifies, if not a detachment from her family, certainly a sense of exile.
As a young woman in the Great Depression, she and her family left their home in the North Carolina mountains; she moved around the Pennsylvania-Maryland-Delaware area for the rest of her life. At some point, she and her family even owned a country store in Maryland that specialized in southern food and goods, as though catering to an immigrant community. They also built musical venues wherever they went, starting an outdoors “country music park” in Pennsylvania and building a radio studio and performance space in the back of the country store, drawing other families of Appalachian descent, musicians like Flatt and Scruggs and Conway Twitty, and northeastern folklorists. Her original lyrics in songs like “I’ve Endured” and “Tear Down the Fences” describe enduring hardships and loneliness, yearning for an end to acrimony and a place in heaven.
Though the Reeds had friends among country musicians, their music survives thanks to their popularity with the folklorists, including Mike Seeger, Moses Asch from Folkways and Gei Zantzinger of Rounder Records. These recordings hail from the 1970s when Reed was in her 60s, and, like most bluegrass, combine what might be deemed “folklore” with various musical trends. Reed wrote many of her own songs, but also sang Appalachian ballads and covers of the Carter Family, Merle Travis and Ralph Stanley. Her family accompanies her, and son David’s guitar accompaniments have a distinct folk-rock influence. He acknowledges in the liner notes, he had no interest in his mother’s music growing up and it took him until his late teenage years to try to play guitar in a country style.
Reed sings in a low, broad voice, precise if unlovely, ringing of all things she (and the tradition from which she’d come) had endured. It sounds particularly good, ringing at once with emotion and religious conviction, on her cover of Stanley and Larry Sparks’ first-person gospel song “I Am the Man, Thomas.” These recordings, some studio and some live from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, sound warm and present. More than anything, though, the thought of this family — led by its indefatigable matriarch — slowly but surely pulling itself together and building a community around bluegrass (a genre in which, until recently, the big names were all men) is truly affecting.