Ola Belle Reed (née Campbell) was a musician, singer, and songwriter from Ashe County, North Carolina. Her family was steeped in the traditional music of the region, and she learned to play clawhammer banjo from her uncle, guitar and organ from her aunt, and traditional ballads and songs from her mother and grandmother.
In 1934 Ola Belle’s family moved north and settled in Maryland, and in 1936, she joined a local hillbilly band, the North Carolina Ridge Runners, playing live on the radio and for community events. Despite the good pay, Ola Belle turned down the chance to be a back-up musician to Roy Acuff in 1945. She married another musician, Ralph “Bud” Reed, in 1949 and had two sons with him. During this time, she formed the New River Boys and Girls with her brother Alex, playing and performing together for almost 30 years. She also ran the New River Ranch music park with Alex, where people came to listen to old-time, early bluegrass, and country music performed by traveling talent such as the Stoneman Family, Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, Hank Williams, The Louvin Brothers, and Johnny Cash, amongst others.
Along with her traditional repertoire, Ola Belle wrote and performed her own songs, touching on the themes of her Appalachian heritage, family traditions, religious values, and social justice issues. Some of her best-known songs include “I’ve Endured,” “High on a Mountain,” “Tear Down the Fences,” and “Only the Leading Role Will Do.” Ola Belle’s self-titled Rounder Records album was selected by the Library of Congress for “perpetual preservation” via the National Recording Registry in 2019.
In the 1960s, Ola Belle toured with other musicians through the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project (SFCRP). She was later a featured musician at the Smithsonian Folk Festival in 1972. For her contributions to old-time music and songwriting, she received a National Heritage Fellowship in 1986 from the National Endowment for the Arts and an International Bluegrass Music Association Distinguished Achievement Award in 1988. In 2006 her hometown of Lansing began hosting the Ola Belle Reed Homecoming Festival.