A player who favored a subtle, traditional approach to his music, singer and multi-instrumentalist Bill Harrell remained one of bluegrass' most popular figures for several decades. Born in Marion, VA, on September 14, 1934, Harrell's passion for music began during his childhood, when he started playing guitar and taking piano lessons. While attending college in Maryland, he first became enamored of bluegrass, and began playing mandolin in a trio. Tenures in other Washington, D.C.-area groups, including the Rocky Mountain Boys, followed as he played with musicians like Eddie Adcock, Donny Bryant, Smiley Hobbs, Smitty Irvin, Carl Nelson, and Roy Self.
While serving in the armed forces, Harrell was injured in an auto accident, and spent close to a year recovering in a military hospital. Upon his release, he returned to Washington and cut his first recordings. In 1960, he formed the Virginians with Irvin on banjo, Buck Ryan on fiddle, and Stoney Edwards on bass. The group released the album The Wonderful World of Bluegrass Music in 1963 and followed it two years later with Ballads and Bluegrass. In addition to hosting a weekly television program from Harrisonburg, VA, the group played dates up and down the East Coast and guested frequently on Jimmy Dean's network series. Irvin left the band in 1965, and was replaced by Don Stover.
Harrell soon departed to join Don Reno and the Tennessee Cut-Ups, remaining with Reno for over a decade; their partnership coincided with a resurgence in the public's interest in bluegrass as a result of a growing festival circuit. Soon after Harrell joined the group, his Virginians bandmate Buck Ryan signed on as well, and in 1966 Reno and Harrell released the LP The Most Requested Songs. Around the time of 1969's I'm Using My Bible for a Roadmap, Reno's former partner Red Smiley returned from retirement, and began performing with the group on stage and in the studio.
After several more records with Reno, Harrell and bassist Ed Ferris amicably left the group to reform the Virginians with Harrell's old friend Carl Nelson on fiddle and newcomer Darrell Sanders on banjo. The band released the record Bluegrass and Ballads in 1978, followed by the back-to-back Bluegrass Gospel, Pure and Simple and I Can Hear Virginia Calling Me in 1980. Despite a revolving-door lineup, Harrell continued to steer the Virginians well into the 1990s, issuing records like 1983's Walking in the Early Morning Dew, 1986's Blue Virginia Blue, and 1990's After Sunrise.