Take a stroll through the campground at just about any festival -- folk, bluegrass, old-time, Celtic, or any mixture -- and at some point it's a good bet that a haunting refrain will drift into consciousness from a nearby jam or song circle: "High on a mountain, standing all alone, Wond'ring where the years of my life have gone" To some, it's a timeless line from a song that must certainly be at least a hundred or more years old.
To others, it speaks of the new age mysticism and introspection of the latter-day singer/songwriter. The truth is somewhere between. "High on a Mountain," along with many other classic folk and country songs, came from the fertile mind- and soul-searching lyricism of North Carolina native Old Belle Reed. Popular among old-time country and bluegrass audiences for decades, the '90s saw her music gaining currency in Nashville and points beyond, as well. Ola Belle Campbell was one of 13 children of Arthur Campbell, whose family had lived in the New River Valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina since colonial times. Born into a musical family in 1916, Ola Belle learned to play guitar and clawhammer banjo as a young child, coming to love not only the old traditional tunes taught to her by her parents, but also the early country music on radio and 78 rpm discs which were making their way into the mountains. In her teenage years, she first teamed with her brother Alex in an early version of the North Carolina Ridge Runners. Like many Blue Ridge residents during the Depression years, Arthur Campbell left the mountains and moved north looking for work, taking his family with him and eventually settling in the region along the Mason-Dixon Line where Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania come together. Alex Campbell saw military service in the Normandy invasion, and was later heard on Armed Forces Radio during the Occupation as part of Grandpa Jones' Munich Mountaineers
. Returning home after his discharge from the service, Alex and Ola Belle teamed up for what would be a long-running radio pairing that would be heard live and in syndication over much of the country on a number of stations, including Wheeling, WV's WWVA, which for many years was a powerful rival to Nashville's WSM for the country audience. In 1949, Ola Belle married Bud Reed (himself a noted country singer), and with Alex Campbell, they formed the New River Boys and opened New River Ranch near Rising Sun, MD, one of the premier country music parks of the '50s. Around 1960, they closed New River Ranch and moved a short distance up U.S. Route 1, across the Pennsylvania border to Sunset Park near West Grove, where they performed regularly for another 26 years. As interest in old-time and early country music revived during the '70s, Ola Belle and her family (now including son David Reed) found enthusiastic audiences for their brand of music at events like the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the Brandywine Mountain Music Convention. Many of the songs she had written and performed on radio over the years also began to be recorded widely. Early in his career leading his own band, Del McCoury
(a resident of nearby Gettysburg, and for many years a regular at Sunset Park) made "High on a Mountain," a bluegrass standard. Farther west, out in Minnesota, Stoney Lonesome
(fronted by the Prairie Home Companion favorite, Kate MacKenzie
) recorded Ola Belle's "I've Endured" in the late '80s, and the Ohio-based husband/wife duet singers Ann & Phil Case made her "The Springtime of Life" the title track of their widely acclaimed 1996 debut CD. In 1995, Ola Belle struck Nashville gold when Marty Stuart's
rendition of "High on a Mountain" settled in for an extended stay on the country charts. In 1986, Ola Belle Reed received long overdue recognition for her contributions to American folk music and culture when she was named recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship. A year or so later, her career as a songwriter and performer was brought to an abrupt end when she suffered a severe stroke that left her an invalid. Still surrounded by loving family and friends (including brother Alex), though, she continued to live in Rising Sun, enjoying the occasions when she heard her own songs still being played on country radio. In February, 1999, she and Bud celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. ~ John Lupton, Rovi