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Appalachian influence in Southeastern Pennsylnavia

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Ripples of Appalachia in Southern Pennsylvania.

By Dr. W. Brady Smith III

Siblings Alex and Ola Wave Campbell, two of 13 kids, were born in Grassy Creek North Carolina in the early 1900’s. Their family eventually moved to Southeastern Pennsylvania looking for work.

As a child, Ola learned the claw hammer style banjo playing and she never lost her connections with Appalachia. Alex learned to play the guitar and during WW II he served in same unit with Louis Marshall ‘Grandpa’ Jones and entertained the troops in Germany.

The flatter land in Pennsylvania bore little resemblance to rugged terrain of Grassy Creek, but the area was the perfect planting ground for the soul and style of the music of Appalachia.

That soul and style came to Chester County, PA with Olla Belle, as she was later known, and Alex. Alex Campbell, went on to open the New River Ranch in Rising Sun, Maryland. This music park hosted country and bluegrass stars until it was destroyed in 1958.

They later joined ranks with “Sunset Park” owner, G. Roy Waltman, in West Grove, Pennsylvania where artists performed like Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, and Kitty Wells.

While the music of Nashville was slowly leaving its Appalachian origins behind and becoming a veered off blend of cowboy, blues, and rock, Sunset Park with all it's country star glamour, also remained connected to the Appalachian birthright of country music. Bluegrass icons Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, the Stoneman Family, Bill Clifton, and other greats also performed at Sunset Park.

All the while, Ola Belle Reed, Alex Campbell, and Hazel Waltman played for over 20 years with the Sunset Park house band, the North Carolina Ridge Runners keeping in touch with the old culture and heritage of the mountains.

Every year on Labor Day, Sunset Park would host the annual “Old Fiddlers Picnic” where anyone could grace the stage and perform where the “stars” had stood. Fans were receptive and kind no matter how talented you were or were not. Kids ate candy apples and cotton candy and rode the Ferris wheel.

Grills and picnic tables were spread all around as charcoal smoke filled the air. Music was played out in the back parking lot as groups prepared for their “spot” on the stage. Meanwhile on stage, the sounds of the mountains, old and new, echoed through the fields as bands and singers stood around the single mic on the Sunset park stage.

No one can quantify the influence that Ola Belle and Alex and the Waltmans had in spreading the music of Appalachia and Nashville to the Northeast. One thing is sure, the effect has been long-lasting. Although Sunset Park is long gone, the memories and music still wander through the hearts of folk experienced it.

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Playing Since: 1972
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Occupation: Pastor/Teacher/Musician

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Created 8/3/2023
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64, Married to Kathy, father of 6, three daughter-in laws, 11 grandchildren, 1 great-grandchild. Born in Maryland, Lives in SC.

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