Bill Harrell remembered

Bill Harrell in the 1970s - photo from The Swamper on FlickrIn addition to Richard Thompson’s overview of Bill Harrell’s long career in bluegrass, we spoke to a number of artists who had worked with Bill, and wanted to share their thoughts on his passing.

First up is Ronnie Reno, who performed with Bill as a member of Reno & Harrell.

“Bill Harrell goes deep into being a Pioneer of the music and was a great influence on a lot of young pickers and singers. I know for a fact that my friend Larry Stephenson was a student of Bill’s. Bill met my Dad (Don Reno) and Red Smiley in the middle 50’s and I remember Bill playing mandolin with them at the Old Dominion Barn Dance in Richmond VA.

Shortly after that I believe Bill went onto the Army. Dad and I moved to Riverdale MD in 1966 and he and Bill had a great 10 year partnership. I was with them for a year and then I moved to Nashville TN. During that short year I got to know Bill very well. He was a gentle man with a lot of talent and was a great business man. Bill had a very smooth voice and played a hard driving rhythm guitar. He was also a very good song writer and interacted well with his fans and friends on stage.

Bill will be remembered as a great influence on our next generations for years to come. I will miss Bill as I considered him a friend and he was always there when I needed him.

May he rest in piece and enjoy singing with Dad and Red on a wonderful trio as of this writing.”

Larry Stephenson also had a few thoughts to share…

“Bill Harrell was the complete package. Guitar playing, songwriting, emceeing, working an audience, and he knew how to sing a song. His phrasing was second to none. When I was with Bill he kept us very busy. He did his own booking and also did some booking in the early days for the Johnson Mountain Boys and other acts in the DC-Baltimore area.

I learned the business of Bluegrass from Bill Harrell……how to find songs, put an album together, book a band, how to treat your band….. just everything about running a band as a business. I’ve tried my best to carry on my ‘Bill Harrell Schooling’ for the last twenty years of the Larry Stephenson Band. He was the best and I will miss him forever.

I want to thank IBMA for Bill’s Distinguished Achievement Award last October at the World of Bluegrass in Nashville, TN. He’s was so happy and never quit talking about it. It was well deserved and way over due.”

We also heard from Eddie and Martha Adcock:

“I worked with Bill a little while in the ’50s in the Washington DC area.  Note that I said “with Bill”, not “for Bill”: he was a very democratic bandleader.

Back then, a band generally wore shirts alike onstage, and the way we paid for ours was with fines. If you cussed onstage or at a job, or if you were late to a show or to a rehearsal, you paid a fine into the shirt kitty. Well, I was just a kid and had no car –and Bill wasn’t that much older than me– but sometimes Bill would have to pick me up, come 50 miles to get me, and 50 back to where we were going; and then if we were late to the show or rehearsal because of that, Bill insisted on paying both our fines! And it would be 200 miles total to get me back home. He was always more than fair.

Bill Harrell was a fun person to work with , too…he was always happy, and he loved to hang out with the band as much as possible. He lived with his parents at that time.

The music with Bill was superb in every way. We had a tremendous following. At that point, the other guys in the band were Carl Nelson on fiddle and keyboard, and Roy Self on bass. I played banjo, and Bill played guitar, of course. Bill sang all the bluegrass material, and some country too, and I sang some country and ‘most all the rockabilly, with Roy Self doing some of that too. Rockabilly was very popular at that time.

The band was extremely tight. We had frequent practice sessions for the new material. All of us got to choose songs.

At one point we recorded some things at Roy Self’s house, with quilts over the windows, but I have no idea what happened to that.”

Martha Adcock adds:

“Bill Harrell was, to me, an enormous rhythm-guitar influence. I’d see him at Carlton Haney festivals in the early ’70s. Bill’s style was so powerful. And he was fast!  Even with the last three fingers on his picking hand hanging out straight, he could really fly. Those fingers were just a blur.”

Eddie rejoins:

“When I was with Bill, we played so fast it seemed like no human could keep up. His hand was going like the blades of a fan!”

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.