For more than half a century, Rebel Records has been at the forefront as a leader in the creation and dissemination of recorded bluegrass music. In the label’s 55+ year history, it has been home to many of the music’s most popular entertainers and continues to be a platform for the development of tomorrow’s stars. With a massive catalog of masters that spans everything from the most ultra-traditional to the most cutting-edge and everything in between, the Rebel roster of artists is able to please everyone, from the casual bluegrass fan to the most discerning of devotees.
The Rebel story began in 1960 when a trio of bluegrass aficionados from the suburbs of Washington, DC, hatched a plan to launch a record label. In short order, Charles R. “Dick” Freeland emerged as the primary force that would shepherd it the next two decades. Initial releases included a series of 45 rpm singles that mimicked mainstream country music of the 1950s, but it was a single by Earl Taylor, a mainstay of the Baltimore bluegrass scene and a recent hit at a 1959 folk music concert at Carnegie Hall, that charted Rebel’s bluegrass direction.
Rebel had several successes in the middle 1960s that helped to put it on the map. One was the release of four albums that were sold as a set and which were packaged in white paper sleeves. The 70 Song Bluegrass Collection was a hit when it was sold as a special package on several high profile radio stations. Another was an early album by the Country Gentlemen called Bringing Mary Home. The title song from the album was issued as a single and is reported to have sold 50,000 copies.
By the end of the 1960s, Rebel had slightly over a dozen albums in its roster that included a mix of regional performers and name-recognizable talent. Among the highlights was a collection of Christmas material, the 70-song collection, three albums by the Country Gentlemen, a twin banjo collection by Eddie Adcock and Don Reno, an album by DC area favorites Benny & Vallie Cain and a debut release by the duo of Bill Emerson & Cliff Waldron.
The 1970s was a boom time for bluegrass. Weekend-long festivals were exploding the market and bringing many new converts to the music. In contrast to the previous decade, Rebel issued nearly one hundred albums from 1970 to 1979. Having developed a keen sense for the marketplace, and being in the right place at the right time, Rebel scooped up three of the top names in bluegrass: Ralph Stanley, the Country Gentlemen, and the Seldom Scene. Other performers included gospel groups such as the Marshall and Shuffler families; fiddlers Curly Ray Cline and Buck Ryan; regional favorites such as Roy McMillan, A. L. Wood, and the Shenandoah Cut-Ups; and names that would go on to enjoy headliner status such as Del McCoury, Tony Rice, Keith Whitley, and Ricky Skaggs.
By 1979, despite the success of the label, Dick Freeland was ready to opt out. He found a willing buyer in Roanoke, Virginia-based Dave Freeman, the owner of County Records and the County Sales mail order outlet. Freeman immediately set about upgrading the image of the label with state-of-the-art graphics, quality pressings of the record albums, and adding new talent – such as Larry Sparks, the Lost & Found, Bill Harrell, Dave Evans, the Easter Brothers, the Virginia Squires, Del McCoury, Larry Rice, Rhonda Vincent and the Lonesome River Band – to an already impressive roster.
In the middle 1980s, the music industry underwent a wholesale transformation with the introduction of compact discs. Rebel jumped on the bandwagon with a Best of the Seldom Scene compilation. This was the first of over 30 CDs that now make up Rebel’s 1100 series, a splendid collection of discs that each highlight the seminal works of a particular artist.
Over a three-year period, starting in 1996, Rebel issued three lavish boxed set compilations. The first was the 100+ track anthology that celebrated the history of the label from 1960 to 1995. Loaded with lots of great music, a 36-page LP-sized booklet crammed with a plethora of photos, and extensive notes by the late Bill Vernon, 35 Years of the Best in Bluegrass went on to win the IBMA award for Best Liner Notes. Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, 1971-1973 contains the music of eight top-flight LPs that Ralph Stanley recorded over a three-year period with a stellar band that included Roy Lee Centers, Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, Jack Cooke, Curly Ray Cline, and Rickey Lee. Lastly, The Country Gentlemen, 1962-1971 chronicled what is arguably the greatest group of recordings by this trend-setting band that included Charlie Waller, John Duffey, Eddie Adcock, Tom Gray, Ed Ferris, Jimmy Gaudreau, Doyle Lawson, Bill Emerson, Bill Yates, and others. The booklet notes by Gary Reid likewise received the IBMA’s nod for Best Liner Notes.
Another of Rebel’s crowning achievements of the 1990s was the star-studded two-CD set Clinch Mountain Country which paired Ralph Stanley with a host of contemporary country and bluegrass artists. With a line-up of guests that included George Jones, Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs, Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill, Bob Dylan, Vern Gosdin, Jim Lauderdale, Kathy Mattea, and a host of others, the collection won IBMA awards for Album of the Year and Recorded Event of the Year. As of 2020, the label has won a total of 23 IBMA awards.
Awards and accolades aside, the bread and butter for the label continued to be the ever developing roster of talent that appeared on Rebel: Blue Highway, IIIrd Tyme Out, The Traditional Grass, Claire Lynch, Ronnie Bowman, Kenny & Amanda Smith, Paul Williams, Steep Canyon Rangers, Don Rigsby, Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers, Junior Sisk and, most recently, Mickey Galyean, Mark Kuykendall & Bobby Hicks and The Price Sisters are just a few of the acts that have helped solidify the company’s reputation as bluegrass music’s premier record label.
In recent years, Rebel has appealed to some of the big box retailers with several low priced CD series. The 7500 line was started in 2000 and to date contains over 30 titles, each of which is geared to an individual artist. The 8000 series, which was launched in 2006, contains various artists thematic collections such as True Bluegrass Essentials and True Bluegrass Gospel.
With over fifty years in the business of selling bluegrass and old-time music, Dave Freeman has ceded the day-to-day operations of Rebel to his son, Mark Freeman. No stranger to bluegrass, Mark literally grew up in the offices of Rebel Records and absorbed much of his knowledge of the music business through actual hands-on experience, starting in his young teen years. Today, his acumen guides Rebel Records as it ventures into its second half century as The Best in Bluegrass.