Sometimes that which connects us musically can be described as loose at best. This week’s instalment in Chain Gang, while a tenuous connection to last week’s ‘Wreck on the Highway’ by Roy Acuff, instead reveals a powerful link in the continuing chain of Americana music and one of the most important women in roots music, Ola Belle Reed and her classic, ‘High on a Mountain’.
Reed never played with the legendary Acuff, hence the tenuous connection, but when offered the chance to join his band in 1945, when he was a country superstar and Reed was still a struggling, unknown musician, she famously told him, “She was not going to take orders from a man.” For Reed she never meant it as a sexist remark, and she would later clarify that meant she was not taking orders from “no man, from anybody.”
After turning down Acuff, Reed established herself as a pioneering female voice in roots and bluegrass music, both for her work with fabled music parks New River Ranch and Sunset Park which she helped operate, but more importantly for her heartfelt music that spoke directly to one’s soul.
‘High on a Mountain’ is a powerful statement that Reed claimed was written while sitting next to her mother’s gravestone. The song has become a staple of country and bluegrass artists since it first gained attention with Del McCoury’s 1972 version. Since then it has been covered by everyone from Marty Stuart to Amy Helm to Leftover Salmon to Bowregard and countless others. But it is Reed’s sparse version that truly evokes all the emotions she laced her music with. She once described the song this way, “You cannot separate your lifestyle, your religion, your politics from your music. It’s a part of life. And that’s what our music was in the mountains. It was part of our life.”