Bill Harrell, 1934-2009
From Ivan M. Tribe – www.countryworks.com
Bill Harrell has been a major figure in Bluegrass for almost five decades. Like the Country Gentlemen, Buzz Busby, the Bluegrass Champs and Benny & Vallie Cain, Bill contributed greatly to the growth of Bluegrass in the Washington, D.C. area.
Bill is especially known for a pleasant and relaxed, yet traditional approach that contrasts sharply with the hard-driving, lonesome sounds and also with the more progressive and Newgrass styles, as well. Bill was born in Marion, VA, in 1934 and displayed some interest in music as a child and received his first guitar at the age of 9. Unlike most Country musicians, he took piano lessons and learned to read music. Harrell first took a serious interest in Bluegrass while attending the University of Maryland when he and two other students organized a band in which Bill played mandolin.
He worked in several other bands around the Washington area, most notably the Rocky Mountain Boys, prior to entering the service in 1957. His musical associates in those years included Smiley Hobbs, Smitty Irvin, Eddie Adcock, Carl Nelson, Roy Self, and Donny Bryant.
While in the service, Bill was seriously injured in an auto crash and spent about a year in the hospital. After getting his release, Bill returned to the Washington area and had a band that cut three singles on the Starday label, accompanied by some of the aforementioned support musicians. In 1960, Bill organized the Virginians that included himself on guitar, Buck Ryan on fiddle, Smitty Irvin on banjo and Stoney Edwards on bass. Smiley Hobbs, by then a full-time policeman, also joined them on occasion, alternating between mandolin and 12-string guitar. They did an album under their own name for United Artists, which was released in 1963, and another one as Buck Ryan and Smitty Irvin for Monument.
The band had a weekly television program on WSVA Harrisonburg, Virginia, guested several times on Jimmy Dean’s ABC-TV network program, and worked clubs and parks throughout Virginia, Maryland, and adjacent states. Irvin left the band in 1965 and Don Stover took his place until Bill joined forces with Don Reno and the Tennessee Cut-Ups the following year. The Reno and Harrell partnership lasted just over ten years and coincided with the rise of Bluegrass festivals. Thus, this revamped version of the Tennessee Cut-Ups had ample opportunity to demonstrate their talents to live audiences and on record. Buck Ryan soon joined the group on fiddle and Ed Ferris, another long-time sideman of the Washington scene, played bass during the last four years of their work together, giving the band a line-up of experienced veterans.
In addition, Red Smiley came out of retirement to work many shows with the band in 1970 and 1971 and the three cut two albums together in the studio, plus a third which was released from live festival appearances. Reno and Harrell recorded albums for more established labels such as King, Starday, and Monument as well as lesser ones like Jalyn, Derbytown, and King Bluegrass. Toward the end of their association, they signed with the new CMH firm and cut both a double and a single album in Arthur Smith’s Charlotte studio.
The Reno and Harrell partnership dissolved amicably in early 1977. Don wanted to boost his younger sons and Bill wanted to reorganize the Virginians. Ed Ferris went with Bill, who put a new band together with the aid of veteran fiddler Carl Nelson and youthful banjo picker, Darrell Sanders. Bill said he wanted a group that would remain together for a while, and they did for a decade. In the meantime, mandolinist Larry Stephenson joined in 1979 and remained until he joined the Bluegrass Cardinals. Paul Atkins also played mandolin through the mid-80s, until he left to form the Borderline Band. From 1988, only Nelson remained of the original Virginians of 1977.
Ed Ferris and Darrell Sanders departed in the late 80’s and new musicians, Billy Budd and Bob Lundy, took their respective places. After a beginning album on Adelphi and three for the now-defunct Leather label, Bill Harrell and the Virginians joined Rebel Records and have consistently turned out a quality product associated with their relaxed, easy-going brand of Bluegrass. Mike Auldridge on Dobro has been an added attraction on several albums and Bill’s sons, Mitch and John, have added their vocal efforts to recent sessions.
Recommended Bill Harrell Record Albums: “The Wonderful World of Bluegrass Music” (UA)(1963); “Bluegrass and Ballads” (Adelphi)(1978); “Bluegrass Gospel, Pure and Simple” (Leather)(1980); “I Can Hear Virginia Calling Me” (Rebel)(1980); “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” (Leather)(1981); “Blue Ridge Mountain Boy” (Leather)(1981); “Walking in the Early Morning Dew” (Rebel)(1983) “Do You Remember?” (Rebel)(1985); “Blue Virginia Blue” (Rebel)(1986); “A Song for Everyone” (Rebel)(1987); “After Sunrise” (Rebel)(1990); “Classic Bluegrass” (Rebel)(1991) [Taken from earlier albums]