Bill Harrell has been a fixture in bluegrass since the middle 1950s, when he played in a number of groups in the Washington, DC, area including the Rocky Mountain Boys and Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys. He even served a stint with bluegrass legends Reno & Smiley. By the late 1950s, he was fronting his own band, the Virginians. The group enjoyed widespread exposure through regular appearances on the nationally televised Jimmy Dean Show. In 1967, Harrell began a decade-long partnership with banjoist Don Reno and began to cut his first recordings for Rebel. However, it was after Reno and Harrell’s celebrated partnership that Bill began recording for Rebel in earnest.
Over an 18 year period, from 1980 to 1998, Bill Harrell released eight newly recorded projects on Rebel. His first Rebel album came in 1980 with I Can Hear Virginia Calling Me. It featured his current band at the time, one which had been with him for a quite a while: Larry Stephenson on mandolin and tenor vocals, Don Reno-styled banjoist Darrell Sanders, fiddler Carl Nelson and Ed Ferris on bass. Among the highlights were “The Green Rolling Hills,” “I Can Hear Virginia Calling Me,” “I Get the Blues When it Rains” and “I Want to Go Back to the Mountains.” The same line-up of musicians were with Bill to record his 1983 release, Walking In The Early Morning Dew, which included solid renderings of “Cold November Rain,” “Reno Bound” and the poignant remembrance of Bill’s recently deceased wife, “The Angels Will Be Taking Care of You”
“The best record of Harrell’s solo career” was how one reviewer rated Bill’s 1985 album Do You Remember. They made note of Bill’s evolution into one of the best lead singers in bluegrass, a superb selection of material and his backing by one of the premier bands in the business, the Virginians. Slow, wistful ballads such as “They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me” and “Are There Tears Behind Your Smile?” were excellent showcases for his mellow lead vocals. These contrasted nicely against more up-tempo numbers like “Alabama Bound” and “On Whiskey Mountain.”
Two more projects represented a slightly different version of the Virginians. Paul Adkins took over on mandolin to join Darrell Sanders, Carl Nelson and Ed Ferris on the albums Blue Virginia Blue and A Song For Everyone. A special feature of the first album was inclusion of Bill’s sons, Mitch and John Harrell, for vocals on the old ballad, “Mary of the Wild Moor.” Other standouts, from both sets of recordings, included “Fire on the North Ridge,” “Kentucky is Just a Smile Away” and “Flower Blooming in the Wildwood.”
Bill’s final three recordings for Rebel were as varied as they were entertaining. After the Sunrise was his first all-gospel recording in over a decade. Bill Harrell and Friends was exactly what it implied, with guest appearances by Mac Wiseman, the Reno Brothers, Del McCoury, Buddy Spicher, Jimmy Buchanan and Josh Graves. Bill’s final album for Rebel, as well as the capstone of his nearly 50-year career in bluegrass, was The Cat Came Back, a pleasant collection of country gems from days gone by.