Texas-born, Delia Bell passed away on June 15, 2018. She was 83 years of age.
Francis Leona “Delia” Bell was born in Bonham, Texas, on April 16, 1935.
The singer, songwriter,, and guitarist is perhaps best known for her work with Bill Grant with whom she fronted the Kiamichi Mountain Boys (brothers Orville, Ben, Glenn and Virgil Bonham).
As a child she moved with her family to Hugo, Oklahoma. Along with her three sisters and a brother, Bell started playing music when still a young child, before taking her singing more seriously while in her teens.
In 1959 she married Bobby Bell, who among his friends was one Bill Grant, whom she first met at a jam session at his mother-in-law’s house.
At that time Grant was a regular participant on Hugo’s Radio KIHN Little Dixie Hayride show. In due course she joined Grant and he started to play the mandolin. Despite these developments, Bell asserted that for years they just entertained friends predominantly.
When Bill Monroe heard the duo, he invited them to play at his Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival which they did in 1968 and 1969. Not only did this introduce the duo to a wider audience, it led to Grant, along with his wife and his parents, starting a festival of their own on their 360-acre cattle ranch near Hugo. Thus, the first of the Salt Creek Bluegrass Festivals was staged in August 1969. Monroe was the headliner and Bill Grant and Delia Bell were on-stage hosts.
In 1970 the duo recorded two Bill Grant songs, When the Angels Come for Me and Beneath the Old Pine Tree, the second of which featured Delia Bell’s extremely strong lead vocals. A reviewer likened her singing to an early Molly O’Day. It was released in 1971 on Grant’s newly-formed Kiamichi label.
During the 1970s Bill Grant and Delia Bell released nine LPs, all for Kiamichi. Five of these have been re-issued by Old Homestead; Kiamichi Country, The Last Christmas Tree, My Pathway Leads to Oklahoma, The Blues – Mountain Style, and The Man in The Middle.
On most of their songs Bell sang tenor to Grant’s lead. However, her solo on her recording of Ruth Franks’ Roses in the Snow caught the attention of Emmylou Harris, who recorded it in July 1979 for her Warner Brothers LP of the same name.
In 1978 County Records released the first album bearing her own name only, Bluer Than Midnight (Co 768).
This recording, The Dirt That You Throw, from that County album features Joe Drumwright (banjo), Josh Graves (Dobro), J.T. Gray (bass) and James Bryant (fiddle) as well as Delia Bell (vocals and guitar) and Bill Grant (mandolin).
In the early 1980s the duo recorded for Rebel Records; the label released two albums, Bill Grant & Delia Bell (REB 1593) and Rollin’ (REB 1604).
In keeping with suggestions that were made to her that she should pursue a solo career in country music, at Emmylou Harris’s instigation Delia Bell recorded an eponymous LP for Harris’s label Warner Brothers. The Harris-produced album was an artistic success, mixing lesser-recorded older songs with some more contemporary, even if her hard-edged vocals were not what the wider public was used to.
The Warner Brothers LP included this recording of Ray Park’s Coyote Song (aka Montana Cowboy) ….
(Emmylou Harris and Carl Jackson provide the vocal harmony parts)
The single taken from the album, Flame in My Heart, featuring Bell and country music star John Anderson sharing lead vocals, reached the Top 50 of the Billboard Country Music Charts in 1983.
Unfortunately, cost-cutting in the Warner Brothers organization led to the label terminating Bell’s contract before any further recordings were made.
Later in the decade they recorded three albums for Rounder Records; The Cheer of the Home Fires, A Few Dollars More and Following a Feeling. However, there was a significant change in their presentation as the label listed the LPs as by “Delia Bell & Bill Grant”, emphasising Delia Bell’s higher profile. 14 of the tracks from these albums, with the Johnson Mountain Boys in their prime, were re-issued on a Rounder CD, Dreaming (0427, 1997).
In contrast to earlier recordings that featured many Bill Grant songs and hard-core traditional numbers, these releases featured newer songs like Hugh Moffatt’s Jack and Lucy, Dave Evan’s Foggy Mountain Home, John D. Hutchison’s Silver Tongue and Gold Plated Lies and Hazel Dickens’ Won’t You Come and Sing for Me?
In her excellent book Pretty Good For A Girl, Murphy Hicks Henry writes “their stunning version of …… Jack and Lucy .. is the high point of all three [Rounder] albums.”
Sadly, the self-dubbed Kiamichi Mountain Girl was limited by a Warner Bros contractual stipulation that limited her to singing lead on only three or four songs per album.
The Grants continued their Salt Creek festival, and in 1987 Bell joined Grant in promoting a March Early Bird Bluegrass Show and event that would last nearly 20 years.
This longevity exemplified their partnership, which in various forms lasted from 1959 to 2006, when health problems caused the duo to slow down and finish singing together in May.
Later recordings were for the Old Homestead label, who mixed releases of new recordings with re-issues of some of the duo’s Kiamichi Records material.
In the late 1980s Old Homestead released five LPs (identified above) and then from 1996 onwards the label released several CDs; Dreaming of The Times; Good Day for Bluegrass; Sacred Collection; Classic Bluegrass, Today and Yesterday; Again For The First Time; Kiamichi Moon; I’ll Get By; 40 Years of Memories; Sacred Favorites Through the Years; Good Woman Blues; and We’re Not the Jet Set.
As well as being very popular on home territory, playing throughout many US states, during their 35 years together Delia Bell and Bill Grant visited seven countries, including 11 tours to England where in 1979 they recorded a 16-song traditional country music LP.
While not a prolific songwriter, Bell did contribute to the writing of a few songs, including Your Letter’s Overdue.
Ben Bonham had this to say of Delia Bell, “She’s the first woman that I’ve heard that can really sing bluegrass.”
She was laid to rest on Monday, June 18, 2018, at Springs Chapel Cemetery, Hugo, Oklahoma.
R.I.P., Delia Bell.