Gloria Belle passes 

Gloria Belle, a powerful second-generation bluegrass vocalist and instrumentalist, probably best known for stints with Jimmy Martin, passed away on May 5, 2023. She was 84 years of age.

Known early on as the Pennsylvania Sunshine Girl, she was probably the first female lead singer in bluegrass, having begun her professional music career as early as 1957.

Gloria Belle Flickinger was born on June 9, 1939, in Silver Run, Maryland, “not very far across the line from Pennsylvania.” An only child, she was raised in Hanover, Pennsylvania. 

At the age of three she began singing with her mum (playing guitar) and dad (harmonica) on a church radio program on WFMD in Frederick, Maryland. Then, having already been taught by her mother to play notes on a piano, when 11 she picked up a mandolin that was “laying around” the house, and as a teenager she added guitar, and (at about 17 or 18) she learned to play Scruggs-style banjo. 

“All the time” she was listening to the Grand Ole Opry and WWVA’s Wheeling Jamboree. Jamboree act The Bailey Brothers, whom she saw at Valley View Park near York, Pennsylvania, when about 13, had with them a girl singer, little Miss Evelyn, with whom Flickinger “was most impressed.” Other female singers that influenced her at the time were Molly O’Day and Wilma Lee Cooper. 

Her voice was so similar to one of her heroes, Molly O’Day.  

It was seeing The Bailey Brothers that led her to decide to devote her life to music.  

For a brief period, the family went west working in California and Oregon, where they continued to sing Gospel songs. 

Around 1958 she began working with local Hanover-based band Gary Epley and the Cheerful Valley Gang.

During a family visit to Knoxville, Tennessee, Danny Bailey invited her and her mother, playing guitar and mandolin, to perform as a guest on the Cas Walker Show, and about six months later she was hired to appear as a cast member on the show. She played mandolin and banjo and sang tenor with Bailey. At 21 her life couldn’t have been better, and she stayed with the show for the next five years.    

As Walker had difficulty in pronouncing ‘Flickinger,’ he simply introduced her as Gloria Belle, and that was how she was known for the rest of her career.

In 1963 she cut a single – The Nightingale’s Song / I’ve Been Traveling – for Redwing (13549/50)

Another single – Today I Can Smile / Baby You Gotta Be Mine – (16171/2) with (Bill Keith (banjo) and Tater Tate (fiddle)) was issued by the same label in June 1967. 

Her lead mandolin breaks on these records were the first by a female other than Donna Stoneman.  

Leaving the Cas Walker Show in the summer of 1965, she found a job at the Wild West-themed amusement park, Ghost Town in the Sky, in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, as a ‘Banjo Piking Girl,’ a song that she had to sing at all her seven shows a day while working six days a week. Among the artists with whom she appeared while in the region were Panhandle Pete and, inevitably, Raymond Fairchild. 

In the Fall Gloria Belle worked briefly with the McCormick Brothers at their old-time square dances near Gallatin, Tennessee.   

The next year, she performed with Betty Amos’s All-Girl Band, working out of Roanoke, Virginia. They played country music predominantly – with Gloria Belle playing electric bass, although she switched to mandolin whenever they did bluegrass. 

Shortly after, she returned to Hanover where she began working on her first album, Sings And Plays Bluegrass In The Country

Gloria Belle What A Change 

Sings And Plays Bluegrass In The Country [1968] 

This was a milestone LP for Rebel, being their first to feature a woman, and it was only the fourth solo album for a woman in bluegrass music. On it, Gloria Belle played banjo and lead on guitar and mandolin, as well as it being a showcase for her powerful singing.   

In 1967 she was brought in to front the all-male band, The Bluegrass Travelers, from Frederick, Maryland, after Bill Berry was killed in 1966 in a tragic car accident. She changed their name to Gloria Belle and the Green Mountain Travelers. This arrangement was short-lived, however.  

In 1968 she was invited to play some dates as a girl singer with Jimmy Martin, and then in March 1969, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to take up a full-time job with the Sunny Mountain Boys – as the snare-drum player.  After about a year she changed to playing acoustic bass with the band. 

Jimmy Martin & The Sunny Mountain Boys – Traveling The Highway Home

Watermelon Park, Berryville, Virginia, 1969 (Rockbeat Records ROC CD 3299)

Just two months later they went into Bradley’s Barn, Mount Juliet, Tennessee, to record five songs one of which was Milwaukee Here I Come

Gloria Belle also participated in three studio sessions during the early 1970s, and other tracks on which she sang included Lift Your Eyes To Jesus, My Lord Keeps A Record, When The Saviour Reached Down For Me, Chattanooga Dog, (I’ve Got My) Future on Ice, and Singing All Day and Dinner on the Ground. Again, she sang high baritone on these cuts.  

Jimmy Martin – Tennessee 

on the Del Reeves Show

Image On Your Mind / Traveling The Hi-Way Home (K-Ark 973, 1971)

Gloria Belle – Image On Your Mind 

In the spring of 1972, she took a break from working with Martin and joined an all-female country dance band, the Nashville Kitty Kats – on electric bass – and with whom she had a 15-minute bluegrass spot during which she played banjo and sang some of the standards on the day, such as Rocky Top. Despite the group’s name they worked out of Richmond, Virginia. 

However, she was again with Martin in the August when he worked on the seminal Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken three-LP set. 

This same year Gloria Belle cut two more sides for Redwing – Keep On The Sunny Side / Tramp On The Street (Molly O’Day’s first recording (1946)) (TAD TA 010, ca 1973). 

Playing banjo and mandolin, she toured the festival circuit with Charlie Monroe in 1973. They often appeared as a duo, although if Jimmy Martin was booked at the same festival the Sunny Mountain Boys backed them. 

Fiddler Blaine Sprouse remembers from when he became a Sunny Mountain Boy in October 1974… 

“I have nothing but fond memories of Gloria. She was an excellent bassist and harmony singer. We made a trip together with Jimmy Martin in March of 1975 for two weeks. We became rather good friends, as you might imagine. She sang great solo and high harmonies.

We played a lot of shows together on the road and she was always professional and a great musician. She was many times a butt of Jimmy’s derogatory comments onstage, of which she certainly did not deserve.”

Typically single-minded and ever resourceful, Gloria Belle, while still in full-time employment with Martin, for several years she worked for an auto auction company one day a week, and in a restaurant, thus enabling her to save money to buy her own home near Nashville, which she did eventually in 1974.

Her confidence was such that if she had a free weekend, she would drive to the closest bluegrass festival with all her instruments, dressed for the stage, and wait backstage for any bands who may have showed up missing a member. Typically she would find someone who needed a guitar, mandolin, banjo, or bass player.

By 1975 she had re-joined Martin and went on a 10-day trip to Japan with him during that year. 

While still a member of the Sunny Mountain Boys, Gloria Belle began working on her second album, A Good Hearted Woman. Martin and the band played on part of the album, with Randy Graham (vocal, mandolin), Mike Auldridge (dobro), Tom Gray (bass), and Akira Otsuka (mandolin) helping out when Martin didn’t commit to further involvement with the project.   

According to Otsuka … 

“Dick Freeland of Rebel Records started recording her at Track Recorders in Silver Spring, Maryland, but for some reasons Dick gave up halfway though.”

While he doesn’t have any specific memories of her during the sessions, Otsuka recalls …. 

“Many, many years later, after I had completely forgotten about this session, WAMU radio played Rocky Road Blues.  The intro had just a walking bass and a mandolin playing C6 chord.  I thought, ‘That’s very cool,’ and few seconds later, I figured out that’s me and Tom, then Gloria started singing!”

A Good Hearted Woman – Gloria Belle 

Originally planned as a Rebel release, Gloria Belle made it the first to be put out on her own Southern Belle Records label. 

In January 1978 she did her last recordings with Martin – at the Starday-King Sound Studio, Dickerson Road, Madison – remaking many of his most popular songs, including Freeborn Man; Honey, You Don’t Know My Mind; and Widow Maker. On the latter, as on White Dove and Uncle Pen, she sang high baritone. The resulting albums, on Gusto, were released over about a five-year period, long after she had left for good.   

After a brief time ‘in limbo’ – only occasionally doing music jobs as she could get them – in 1980 Gloria Belle approached Cas Walker and she returned to Knoxville and partnered again with Danny Bailey, and taped the Cas Walker Show twice a week until it ceased in April 1983. While in east Tennessee she worked with Bonnie Lou and Buster Moore at Pigeon Forge, filled-in with a band in Gatlinburg, and sang and played guitar with a group that did conventions in the area. Also, with the Bailey Brothers she appeared at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, and with a female guitarist Joy King at the fair’s Women’s Week. Gloria Belle stated that it was, “one of the busiest years of my life.”

From Knoxville she moved to south Florida where she formed an all-girl group, Foxfire. She enjoyed life so much in the Sunshine State that she bought a second home in 1985, wintering there for years thereafter. 

 In 1986 Gloria Belle recruited The Johnson Mountain Boys, one of the hottest bands of the time, to cut her next LP, Love Of The Mountains. She sang front and center on all 11 songs, but only played on one track – mandolin on the instrumental Maple Sugar.  

On the sleeve to that album Dudley Connell wrote, “Gloria Belle is one of a handful of singers who sing with the emotion and heartfelt sincerity that can touch a listener’s heart. She sings the songs on this album with a confidence and assured style that leaves you with the impression that she means every word that she sings. After being present for these recording sessions, I’m sure that Gloria does mean every word that she sings. The Johnson Mountain Boys were thrilled to have had the opportunity to participate in the recording of this record and feel that if you like traditional country music sung with feeling and power, you will enjoy the singing of Gloria Belle.”

Her association with Jimmy Martin continued with her appearance on the Reunion of Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys videos that were made in 1987 at Frontier Ranch in Columbus, Ohio, and in 1999 at the Bill Monroe Memorial Park in Bean Blossom, Indiana.

Having remained single until this time, she married guitar luthier Mike Long (Mike Long Guitars) on September 23, 1989. The couple, who had picked together informally since the mid-1970s, formed Tennessee Sunshine in 1990. 

The band recorded five albums from 1992 though to 2001. 

Gloria Belle & Tennessee Sunshine – Owensboro, Kentucky, ROMP 2009 

Dixieland For Me 

Writing in 1995, Richard D Smith said that, “she remains one of the best female bluegrass lead vocalists ever.” (Bluegrass; a cappella books). 

About the turn of the century, she contributed to the IBMA award-winning album: Mark Newton’s Follow Me Back to the Fold: A Tribute to Women in Bluegrass (Rebel Records), which was voted Recorded Event of the Year for 2001. 

Another IBMA award came in 2009 through her work with the Daughters of Bluegrass. She received a Recorded Event of the Year award with this group for Proud to be a Daughter of Bluegrass

Proud to be a Daughter of Bluegrass  

IBMA FanFest Showcase 2009

In 1999, in recognition of her lifetime of dedication and contributions to bluegrass music, Gloria Belle was presented with the IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award becoming one of the few females to ever earn that award.

Belle helped to pave the way for women who work as side musicians and band leaders in bluegrass music today. 

R.I.P., Gloria Belle 

A Discography 

Gloria Belle

  • Sings And Plays Bluegrass In The Country (Rebel Records RLP-1479, 1967) aka Sings Bluegrass (1970)
  • A Good Hearted Woman (Southern Belle SB 51978, May 19, 1978)(re-issued as part of Southern Belle SB-6910 2)
  • Love Of The Mountains (Webco Records WLPS-0122, released November 1986) (re-issued as part of Southern Belle SB-6910 2)

Gloria Belle and Tennessee Sunshine

  • Living the Right Life Now (Southern Belle SB-110892, November 8, 1992)
  • Dixieland for Me (Atteiram API-CD-1689, 1993)
  • A Tribute To Molly O‘Day (Southern Belle SB-6996, 1996)
  • He Leadeth Me (Southern Belle SB-6900, 2000)
  • Let My Life Be a Light (Southern Belle SB-6901 / JBM Sound JBM-6901, 2001)

Jimmy Martin

  • Free Born Man (Decca DL 75116, June 1969)
  • Singing All Day And Dinner On The Ground (Decca DL 75226, August 1970)
  • Jimmy Martin Sings I’d Like To Be Sixteen Again (Decca DL 75343, June 1972)
  • Fly Me To Frisco (MCA 435, August 1, 1974)

Tracks from these albums are included in the Bear Family 5-CD box set…..

  • Jimmy Martin And Sunny Mountain Boys (BCD-15705, September 1994)
  • Greatest Bluegrass Hits (Gusto GT-0003, September 8, 1978)
  • Me ‘N Ole Pete (Gusto GT-0067 – June 6, 1980)
  • One Woman Man (Gusto GT-0095, 1983)
  • Jimmy Martin And The Sunny Mountain Boys Live ’69 and ’71 (Rockbeat 3299, 2015) – live shows – Watermelon Park, Berryville, VA and Camp Springs, Reidsville, NC

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

  • Will the Circle Be Unbroken (United Artists UXS-9801, October 1972) – track Will the Circle Be Unbroken 

Mark Newton

  • Follow Me Back to the Fold (A Tribute To Women In Bluegrass) (Rebel REB-CD 1764, 2000) – Pain of Loving You and Follow Me Back to the Fold 

The Daughters of Bluegrass

  • Bluegrass Bouquet (Blue Circle BCR 017, September 2008)

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.