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Bill Harrell
Born:  September 14, 1934
Died:  June 24, 2009
Bluegrass Hall of Honor (2008)
Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame (1995)

About The Artist

George William Harrell was a bluegrass pioneer in the greater Washington, DC area. He had a varied career that extended over several decades in which he was a solo vocalist, band leader, and partner of banjo artist Don Reno for over a decade in the years after the Don Reno and Red Smiley split. Noted for his pleasant, relaxed, yet traditional voice, the Marion, Virginia native became interested in bluegrass as a student at the University of Maryland where he was part of a group called the Rocky Mountain Boys.

He entered military service in 1957 and was seriously injured in an auto accident which took him out of commission for a year and left his body functional but somewhat disfigured.

On the musical scene, Harrell, with support from DC musicians, recorded three singles for Starday in August 1959 and also two other numbers that appeared on various artists long play albums. In 1960 he organized a band called the Virginians made up of fiddler Buck Ryan, banjoist Smitty Irvin, bass player Stoney Edwards, and sometimes Smiley Hobbs on mandolin. They worked a weekly television program at WSVA in Harrisonburg, Virginia as well as clubs and parks. The group recorded an LP for United Artists and another one under the names of Buck Ryan and Smitty Irvin on Monument.

Promo Ad - Old-Time Fiddler's Convention - Don Reno - Bill Harrell - Charlotte, NC - 1973
Promo Ad - Clear Spring Fire Co. Carnival - Bill Harrell - Smiley Hobbs and The Rocky Mountain Boys - Hagerstown MD - August 1956
Promo Ad - Lake Norman Music Hall - Terrell, NC - Don Reno and Bill Harrell with Tennessee Cut-Ups - Dec 1976

Don Reno and Bill Harrell - Circa 1967 This group broke up when Bill formed a partnership with Don Reno in December 1966, a year after Don and Red Smiley went their separate ways. With bluegrass festivals on the upswing, the new version of the Tennessee Cutups was quite active until early 1977. Harrell had another serious auto accident about that time and broke both legs, but he and Reno did not dissolve their partnership until September.

In addition to festivals and other venues, they continued recording extensively, cutting three albums each for King, CMH, and King Bluegrass, two for Jalyn, one each for Rural Rhythm, Derbytown, and Monument. In addition Red Smiley also appeared on two albums, one for Rome and one for Wango. These latter two were recorded at a time when Red came out of retirement just to play a few bluegrass festivals with Don and Bill. Sadly, Smiley passed away a few months after the Wango album was recorded.

Reforming the Virginians in 1977, Harrell recorded an LP for Adelphi (reissued on Webco) and three on the Richmond, Virginia-based Leather label before forming a long association with Rebel which lasted until Bill's death. Key members of his new band included Carl Nelson on fiddle, Darrell Sanders on banjo, and first Larry Stephenson followed by Paul Adkins on mandolin. Eventually, both of the latter left to form their own bands. Bill's oldest son Mitch also worked some with his father and eventually recorded a pair of albums.

Bill began to slow down his activities after 1998. His wife died in 1996 and old injuries from his car crashes gave him troubles. Nonetheless, he survived until a few months prior to his 75th birthday. He had married the former Ellen Ann Morgan on August 12, 1959; she was born on April 16, 1933 and she passed away on December 14, 1982.

Tony Russell wrote of Bill's vocal stylings in the obituary he wrote in The Guardian:

"Some bluegrass singers, such as Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe, follow the aesthetic of "the high lonesome sound", cutting to the core of a song with a blade forged in the fastnesses of Appalachia and sharpened by the rigours of life in the backwoods. Others prefer a warmer, gentler approach that may owe something to country crooners such as Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow. Harrell belonged to the second constituency, deploying a relaxed and confiding delivery on the standard bluegrass repertoire of love, loss and nostalgia."

The Virginians - Smiley Hobbs, Buck Ryan, Stoney Edwards, Smitty Irving, Bill Harrell; 1964

Credits & Sources

  • Hillbilly-Music.com would like to express its thanks to Ivan M. Tribe, author of Mountaineer Jamboree — Country Music in West Virginia and other books that can be found on Amazon.com and numerous articles in other publications for providing us with information about this artist.
  • Obituary: Bill Harrell - Star of bluegrass and leading member of the Tennessee Cut-ups; Tony Russell; September 25, 2009; The Guardian; London, UK
  • Obituary: Bill Harrell; June 25, 2009; Capital Gazette; Annapolis, MD

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Recordings (78rpm/45rpm)

Rec. No. Side Song Title
  445 A Tragic Highway
  445 B Love Is a Stranger
  480 A Eatin' Out of Your Hand
  480 B A Heart Never Knows
  500 A One Track Mind
  500 B I'll Never See You Anymore

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