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Kelly Harrell was a near-legendary country balladeer during the 1920s, when he cut more than a dozen songs for Victor and OKeh. He was also a gifted songwriter whose music was covered by other artists, including Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Stoneman, in his own lifetime.
Harrell was born in the Virginia highlands in the western part of the state, and from his early teens worked in various textile mills. He enjoyed singing, though he didn't play an instrument, and was inspired to try recording in his belief that he was at least as good a singer as a man he met locally named Henry Whitter, who had made records.
In early 1925, when Harrell was already 35 years old, he went to New York and recorded four sides for Victor Records, among them "New River Train" and "The Roving Gambler." He recorded for OKeh later that year, including a version of "The Wreck of the Old 97," backed by "Blue Eyed Ella." Those sides elicited enough interest that Victor was interested in recording Harrell further in 1926. Those sides were his first using the electrical recording system, which was a considerable advance on the acoustic recordings he'd previously made. In 1927, Victor cut Harrell in another half-dozen songs backed by his own band (as Kelly Harrell & the Virginia String Band), with which he was performing locally. Harrell recorded another handful of recordings for Victor in 1929, after which his recording career came to a halt, owing to his inability to play an instrument — Harrell always required backing by other musicians, and the Great Depression had so damaged the recording business that Victor was unwilling to pay the cost of hiring backup musicians in 1930 and beyond. Harrell performed locally and worked the textile mills until 1942, when a heart attack took his life. His complete recorded music was reissued by Bear Family on a triple-LP set in the 1970s, and he is also represented by an LP on the County label.