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Ola Belle Reed: The Story of a Tradition Bearer



Musical luminary Ola Belle Reed was born on August 16, 1916, in Lansing, North Carolina. Her childhood unfolded against the backdrop of the Appalachian hills, where old-time ballads and the twang of the banjo lightened the arduous life of New River Valley miners and their families. Her ancestors had settled in the New River Valley area of western North Carolina in the 1760s.


Ola Belle's father, Arthur Harrison Campbell, was a savvy schoolteacher and storekeeper who also maintained a summer farm. His thriftiness and diligence in these roles supported his family of 13. However, the Great Depression compelled the Campbells to relocate to northeastern Maryland, with the promise of fertile lands and better work opportunities.


Born Ola Wave Campbell, her initiation into music was as natural as the flow of the New River. Her grandfather, Alexander Campbell, a Primitive Baptist preacher, and fiddle maestro, permeated their home with his soulful strings. Ola Belle's mother and grandmother spun Appalachian tales through ballads and topical songs. At the same time, Ola Belle's father, a musical polymath, orchestrated a family band with his siblings Doc and Ellen. And Uncle Herb Osborne’s mining songs rang out from West Virginia’s coalfields.





As a young child in Lansing, Ola Belle learned the art of singing traditional ballads, crafting her unique banjo style that became the heartbeat of Appalachian melodies. She discovered her love for traditional music, and this birthed a prolific songwriter and a country music pioneer. Banjo in hand, she began composing songs, setting in motion a journey that would resonate across generations.


Ola Belle toured and performed alongside her brother, Alec Campbell, and later with her husband, Bud Reed. Her partnership with Alec paved the way for Ola Belle to record her compositions, which found permanent homes at Starday Records, Rounder Records, and Smithsonian Folkways. The recordings showcased Ola Belle's banjo prowess and the musical talents of her son David, a bluegrass virtuoso, and her husband Bud, whose rhythmic guitar and yodeling added texture to their cadence and overall performance. They also carved a space for their musical endeavors, birthing The New River Ranch, an iconic venue staging the foot-stomping rhythms of country music legends like Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, and Bill Monroe.  


Ola Belle received the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award in 1986, which crowned her a tradition bearer. Her influence rippled through the bluegrass community, with artists like Del McCoury acknowledging her impact through his rendition of "High on a Mountain." The potent strains of "High on a Mountain" also found new life in 1992 when country-rock singer Marty Stuart turned it into a hit. A testament to Ola Belle's enduring legacy, the song has been recorded over 100 times. Her 1973 masterpiece, "Ola Belle Reed," transcends temporal boundaries and found its rightful place among the revered gems of the National Recording Registry in 2019.


Today, Ola Belle Reed continues to be a luminous figure and tradition bearer of the Appalachian people, their culture, and their music.


 

The Town of Lansing and the local non-profit organization GLAD (Greater Lansing Area Development) will pay tribute to Ola Belle Reed by hosting The Ola Belle Reed Festival on August 19, 2023. This one-day event will feature judged performances and songwriting in the style of Ola Belle by bands and individuals, adults and youth, with guest performances and a square dance following the competition.


Ola Belle Reed Festival – Saturday, August 19, 2023


12:00 PM – 1:00 PM – Jackson Cunningham & Nobody's Business

12:00 PM – 1:30 PM – Youth Registration ($10 per contestant, $15 per band)

1:00 PM – 2:00 PM – Youth Competition

2:00 PM – 2:30 PM – Break

2:00 PM – 4:00 PM – Adult Registration ($20 per contestant, $30 per band)

2:30 PM – 4:30 PM – Adult Competition

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