The December, 1991 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited featured an interview with Bill Harrell titled “Still Alive and Kicking” by Carol Russ Jeffrey. Someone had called Carol about a rumor that Bill had had a heart attack and died. She called Bill and when he returned her call he had said “This is the “GHOOOOST” of Bill Harrell calling.” That issue marked the fourth time that Bill has appeared on the cover of Bluegrass Unlimited, the others being; June, 1971 (with Don Reno and Red Smiley), May, 1980, and December, 1985.
Bill was born in Attoway, Virginia, near Marion, on September 14, 1934. An only child, his family moved near Washington, D. C. to Maryland, where they lived with Bill’s Aunt until they purchased and renovated an old house. His first musical experience was taking a few piano lessons. That was short-lived, but his grandmother bought him a guitar for six dollars when he was nine years old. He learned to play the guitar as best he could and played this instrument through his high school years.
Bill enrolled in the University of Maryland. There he met Dave Swann and Moe Lebowitz who were in need of a mandolin player. His willingness to learn and develop as a musician was helped along by his mother who purchased him a Martin mandolin for $100. Bill still recalls how she made payments for quite a while. He joined Dave and Moe in the Rainbow Mountain Boys playing on WDON radio, Wheaton, Maryland.
The banjo player Smitty Irvin and Bill met in 1953, and it was through this friendship that Bill met Don Reno and Red Smiley. Bill joined their Tennessee Cut-Ups as the mandolin player in 1955, when they were playing the “Town and Country” TV show in Washington. When Reno and Smiley left Bill remained on the show and formed his first version of The Virginians with Donnie Bryant, banjo, Smiley Hobbs, mandolin, and Carl Nelson, fiddle, while he played guitar. This group disbanded when Bill was called into the service. When he was discharged in 1960, he started playing on WSVA-TV in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Bill then joined with Smitty Irvin, banjo, Stoney Edwards, bass, and Buck Ryan, fiddle. This group of Virginians became semi-regulars on Jimmy Dean’s CBS-TV show. During this period he became very close friends with the late Jim Reeves, who recorded Bill’s compositions “Tell it to the Wind” and “Why Did You Say Goodbye.”
The year 1966 found Bill joining forces with Don Reno. That team, which lasted through 1977, included the late Ed Ferris, formerly with the Country Gentlemen on bass. Cliff Waldron, and Reno and Harrell. Also in this group was Bill’s first fiddle player, still with him today, Carl Nelson.
Only those in direct contact with him know that Bill is a very sharp business man, in addition to being a great musician. Larry Stephenson and Paul Adkins each have been members of Bill’s band playing mandolin and singing tenor. They now have their own very successful groups. They pay much tribute to Bill Harrell for the valuable lessons they learned both in the music and, just as important, how to handle the business.
Many people have influenced Bill during his forty plus years as a professional musician, but he has developed his own unique bluegrass style. He knows just what should be done to present a different treatment to each song, regardless of the source from which it was drawn.
An outstanding song writer. Bill writes much of his own material, but usually just when he needs it. When Bill gets an idea for a song, it usually takes him a very short time to complete the project. After driving late one night by the area where his mother was buried. Bill composed a special song that he had been thinking about for several years, “A Visit to Mother’s Grave.” He jotted some notes down and finished the song the next day.
Bill Harrell is a very soft spoken man with a wonderful outlook on life, fueled by a great sense of humor that has allowed him to cope with some very tragic events in his life. He was seriously injured in a automobile accident in 1977 that left him with two broken legs and other injuries that still cause him much difficulty in walking. His wife, Ellen, passed away on December 14, 1982, leaving a void that can never be filled. With the help of their children, Mitch, who now plays guitar and sings tenor with his dad, John, an actor, and Jeanie, a schoolteacher. Bill has managed to continue his life. Bill is a devoted grandpa to Mitch’s two children, and he looks forward to those special times when the family can all be together, and he can coax Mitch and Jeanie into singing him a song.
Bill’s devotion to his art and his fans can best be explained by relating what occurred at the Charlotte, Michigan Bluegrass Festival in the mid 1980s. Bill had some problems with allergies and could hardly speak, let alone sing, but being the professional that he is, he went on stage with his Virginians. It just seemed to be one of those times when nothing goes right. Bill told the audience, “I can’t sing so I’ll just pick you one on the guitar.” When he started flat picking, which he does extremely well, a string broke. When that was repaired, he started another break, and another string popped. Bill then laid down his guitar, walked off the stage, and, standing in front of his band, simply pretended he was the “Lawrence Welk of Bluegrass,” waving his arms wildly directing his group, and the people loved him.
Bill Harrell is truly a legendary figure of Bluegrass Music, and his induction into SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall of Greats in 1989 is only one of so many honors Bill has received. All are so richly deserved.