Hillbilly-Music.comThe People. The Music. The History.
About The Artist
Kelly Harrell ranked as one of the most notable old time singers in the early days of recorded country music. Between 1925 and 1929, he placed some thirty-seven numbers on disc.
Although spending most of his adolescent and adult life working in textile mills, first in Fries, and then Fieldale, Virginia, his Victor and Okeh recordings were nearly all memorable.
Crockett Kelly Harrell was born in Draper's Valley in Wythe County, Virginia and went to work in the mill at Fries, perhaps around 1904. He eventually became a loom fixer, a skill somewhat above that of the average mill operative. He also developed a fine singing voice, but never learned to play an instrument and later refused to do so. Harrell became acquainted with other figures in Fries who made recordings including Henry Whitter and Ernest Stoneman. Henry Whitter made records first although Harrell initially showed little interest, later changing his mind. In January 1925, Harrell placed four traditional songs on Victor discs accompanied by studio musicians.
Later that year Kelly changed his work place to the Fieldcrest Mill in Fieldale near Martinsville, Virginia and also recorded for OKeh in Asheville, North Carolina. At that session musical accompaniment was furnished by none other than Henry Whitter. Of the ten numbers, two appeared on 12-inch discs with each song having a running time of over three and one half minutes. All were either traditional or Victorian era otherwise forgotten popular songs.
Early in 1926, Harrell returned to Victor again, re-recording by the electrical process the four songs he had made earlier and did nine additional songs, again with studio musician accompaniment, but somewhat more sympathetic in tone.
Kelly Harrell's music peaked in 1927 when the Victor management allowed bringing traditional musicians from his home locality for accompaniment. These included North Carolina Rambler fiddler Posey Rorer and fellow millworkers R. D. Hundley and Alfred Steagall on respective banjo and guitar. These sessions resulted in some real classics of old time music such as "Shadow of the Pine," "My Wife Has Gone and Left Me," "My Name Is John Johannah," "Nobody's Darling on Earth"; the murder ballads "Henry Clay Beattie," and "Charles Giteau [sic];" and the sacred duets with Henry Norton "Row Us over the Tide" and "I Have No Loving Mother Now."
The local Bristol newspaper told readers that Ralph S. Peer was in town and recordings were to take place on July 20 - 22, 1927. Ernest Stoneman and Kelly Harrell were expected to be a part of the recording sessions. Kelly was living in Fieldale, near the town of Martinsville, VA. He had made an impression on the company with his recording of "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane."
The musicians on Harrell's 1929 sessions were limited to only one chosen by him-Alfred Steagall-although studio musician Roy Smeck was competent. "The Henpecked Man" and the eerie "I Heard Somebody Call My Name" have an integrity all their own. Victor informed Kelly that henceforth he would have to learn an instrument or hire his own musicians. This he refused to do and as a result never recorded again. He did, however, continue to draw writer royalties for his composition "Away Out on the Mountain" which had been a hit as recorded by Jimmie Rodgers. He also composed "Story of the Mighty Mississippi" that had been recorded by Ernest Stoneman.
Harrell had kept his job at the mill as a loom fixer. He also sang at local functions and in the church choir. Like many mill workers, asthma troubled his health. Hospitalized in 1942, he returned to work after being told by doctors to avoid exertion. Back on the job, he wanted to demonstrate he was as healthy as the next fellow. During a work break, he jumped out of a window, took four or five steps and collapsed, expiring en-route to the hospital.
He was married to Lula Carico Harrell
Credits & Sources