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The Reel World String Band is celebrating its 35th year of performing. Their latest CD is Live Music. It was engineered and produced by Kiya Heartwood, Outlaw Hill Studio. The fiddling and singing of the band has never been better. Originals of the band fill this CD with new found spirit. Bev Futrell's song about Bill Monroe and the environment Where Kentucky's Blue Moon Rose is a defining moment for this band so committed to the region, its music and its beauty. The creative edge of this new CD shows off a stylistic diversity. Keyboardist Elise Melrood's instrumental Karsen's Reel is highly arranged and ethereal. Sue Massek writes of Mother Jones' daughters in the union song Cosby and Karen Jones swings with her playful lyrics in Gone Camping.
Not only has the band been in the studio for this latest release, but Reel World continues to perform throughout the region, collaborating with writers (recently with Kentucky native Silas House), activists (Sierra Club, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth) and other singer songwriters (recently recorded a CD with Joyce Brookshire Cabbagetown Ballad, produced by Elise Witt & DeDe Vogt). The band is revered as a Kentucky historical treasure having been featured in Kentucky Women: Two Centuries of Indomitable Spirit and Vision, 1997, edited by Eugenia K. Potter, along with musicians Loretta Lynn and Helen Humes and numerous other Kentucky celebrities, giving credence to the band's longevity and contribution to the rich musical heritage of Kentucky. Since the beginning of the Reel World, the band has spread its southern musical roots to picket lines and folk festivals. In 1978, the band was booked at Englishtown Music Hall in New Jersey, and the New York Times, fascinated by the novelty of this "all-female group" from Kentucky, featured the band in an article "In Jersey, Five Women of Bluegrass". By 1980, the band was back in the NYC area playing at the Lincoln Center. They returned in 1985 to share the stage with David Bromberg after both had appeared at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
The year the Reel World released its first album, the "Bluegrass Extravaganza" tour was set up with the Osbourne Brothers. The band was compared to the "Go Gos" in the L.A. Times as one of the few bands comprised of all women, still a novelty in 1981. But as time went on, the band was less a novelty act and more a mainstay of American folk music as the band appeared at almost every big folk festival in the United States and Canada. In 1991 the band toured Italy, playing in city centers and town squares as part of a US tour that also featured Lionel Hampton. The tour was sponsored by the Coop: an Italian cooperative of retail stores.
The individual members are as diverse as the musical styles they encompass. Sue Massek learned banjo from old timers in West Virginia and Kentucky after she hitchhiked from the Flint Hills of her native Kansas. In her song Sally�s Song (The Coast is Clear). Sue describes the stories she heard first-hand from women in Clay County, Kentucky and she adopts the style of Blanched Coldiron, banjo player living in Crittenden and a contemporary of Lily May Ledford (Coon Creek Girls), both of whom have been Sue's friends and mentors. The Sears' guitar of Bev Futrell hung on the wall after her graduation from a Houston High School, but by 1977, while raising a family, she tuned it up and has been singing her songs ever since. Her song Mama Used to Dance (Appalachian Wind) is a song for all deferred dreams, while The Taking (whatnots) demands justice for homeowners facing environmental destruction by coal companies. She also loves to sing Texas style swing as you can notice from Silver Dew on the Bluegrass (The Coast is Clear). Karen Jones, a Midwest Norwegian, adopted her southern home while attending Berea College, Berea, Kentucky. She was a country dancer and began her own dance troupe in Covington, Kentucky while studying fiddle with Guy Blakeman (of WLW and WLS fame). Sharon Ruble, college buddy of Karen, studied clarinet as a youngster growing up in Henry County, Kentucky, and in the Reel World moved from wash-tub to acoustic bass. Elise Melrood, the latest member of the Reel World, mixes her Jewish roots with honky-tonk blues piano. She met the other members of the Reel World during a tour in Virginia and now plays full-time with the band since her move to Berea. With the instrumental Velvet Stomp (The Coast is Clear) she debuts her composition. With the energy of an old-time dance, the tight vocal harmony of Bluegrass singing, the infusion of American jazz and blues styles and lyrics that reflect the politics of a changing South, Reel World is an undeniable force in the folk music scene.
In the band's 25th anniversary release of Mountain songs: Reflections, a CD compilation of the vinyl years, 1981-1984. Fiddle and banjo songs abound, but there are also gems like Evergreen from the 1981 recording dedicated to the International Ladies Garment Workers of Olive Hill, Kentucky. Cranks Creek extols the rising up of a community in Harlan County, Kentucky, against the floods of destruction caused by strip mining and mountain top removal. Other cuts are traditional gems like Sally Ann and Banjo Pickin' Girl and original compositions dedicated to the women pioneers within the family tree of the band members: Holy by fiddler Karen Jones' brother Christopher Jones, Prairie Rose by banjo player Sue Massek and Ouachita by guitarist Bev Futrell. The three band members Sue Massek, Bev Futrell, and Karen Jones span all 29 years with Sharon Ruble, on bass, returning after a short absence. Elise Melrood on piano joined the band full time in 1996. Mountain song: Reflections also features Belle Jackson, one of the original members of the band. Reel World's other CDs include Appalachian Wind 1989; They'll Never Keep Us Down (various artists); whatnots 1996, and The Coast is Clear 2001. From the vinyl years to present, the band takes us on a journey of southern culture, from its fiddling roots, to its political activism. The songs connect the band to, and help define, the New South; from environmental concerns as expressed in Last Chance Lullaby, to the celebration of the new roles for women as defined in Little Omie Done Got Wise and James Alley Blues.
Aside from the numerous recordings, the band has provided songs for the soundtracks of various independent movies: The Southern Sex, You Got to Move, From Calumet to Kalamazoo and Shelter. Many of their songs have also been published in Sing Out!, Southern Exposure, and Speaking for Ourselves.
In 1984, an effort to document coal mining songs culminated in a compilation Rounder record They'll Never Keep Us Down; Women's Coal Mining Songs. Reel World collaborated with Hazel Dickens and Florence Reece (writer of Which Side Are You On) to produce an insightful look at the problems and issues of the Appalachian coalfields.
All in all, Reel World String Band is the essence of Appalachian grit.