February 25, 2012

Leave My Grandpa Alone!... ..... .....James "Rebel" O'Leary & Family... ...York, PA's Finest Country Band and my Vinyl Salvage Operation......

James "Rebel" O'Leary and the Texas Rebelettes have gotten a lot of snarky crap on the Internet since grandpa James passed away about lacking talent or enthusiasm, but I can sympathize with his grand-daughters' responses:

"That is my damn grandfather. I don't see any of you on TV, and at least they tried to make something of their lives unlike any of you people." -Vicki O'Leary

I only got to see The Rebel once: at his annual birthday party in York County, Pennsylvania. It was in a big hall full of people who all came to hear him play; family, friends, country music lovers and kids like me who just had to check this out. I never had seen a live country band, and everyone was having a good time. That's all that mattered.

Life with my grandfather was awesome. Shame you missed the fun. -Faith Ann O'Leary

I bought his record that day. A 45 with two original compositions that he happily signed.

At some point in the intervening years, cities, and apartments, I left the single too close to a radiator and warped the edge making the first 30-seconds like a little ski-jump that sent the tone arm flying to about the second chorus. The unplayability made it a good candidate for a drastic rescue attempt. I gave it about a 40% chance of surviving the operation, so before proceeding I recorded what I could get out of it:
South Bound 81 (warped edge)

I'm a plain old music man
Just lookin' for fame
They call me country
But Rebel is my name! 

I-81 is a about a 500-mile drive through the Appalachians from York County to right about Knoxville. Then you make a right towards Nashville.

Rebel Star (warped edge)

Before I totally destroyed my Rebel 45, I tried my quackery on one of my kids' warped Sesame Street records (with permission). So I sandwiched it between two large pots that I had warmed the oven. First attempt at 190 degrees had little effect. Second attempt at 250 flattened the obvious warp but left the surface slightly warbled. Success! ...Well, sort of. It was now playable with some weight on the needle to keep it crunched down in the groove.
Sesame Street - Would You Like to Buy an O? (post-semi-successful dewarping)

So, figuring this was the as good as I could do, I repeated the procedure with the Rebel single. But I added a second pot on top to see if it would smooth out the warbles, and went outside to ride bikes with my daughter.

On return, I pulled the cooled pots apart and found my Rebel record squished into a blobby oval. Aaww failure!
Rebel Star (post-failed dewarping)

But, back to the real James "Rebel" O'Leary. I argue that he could sing and was probably more authentic than the glitzy Nashville acts he sang about. Just give a listen to A.P. Carter, the real grandfather of country music. By today's overproduced commercial standards, he may sound flat, but there's a real tradition in that style of singing. And the Rebelettes' guitar and pedal steel sound great together! Country music, and all music really, has it's roots in families and friends with improvised instruments, self-taught styles, and real jobs in the daytime. The O'Leary family is part of that tradition and I hope they pass it on. More importantly perhaps, he did sing. I feel lucky to have seen a little part of it, so right on Vicki: "LEAVE MY GRANDPA ALONE!"

If you have a playable copy of the South Bound 81 single, please send me the tracks. I'd love to post them to do grandpa the justice he deserves.

Addendum: Thanks to Tom Casetta from Listen Up! for sending two unscathed rips of the Rebel single off of the Only in America, Vol 2 compilation. I love that tentative pedal steel intro!
South Bound 81
Rebel Star


  1. Thank you for this. Despite all the insults in the internet, he was a gentle soul who lived his dream. There is a LOT to be said about that.

  2. Im tory oleary and i really enjoy this thank you so much for this.. my grandpa would of loved to see this

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  4. Im sorry you no me by vicki i also go by tory

    1. Hi Tory! Great to hear from you! I built that whole post around your quote, so thank you!

  5. I'd love to write a more detailed story on James O'Leary, particularly from the perspective of the O'Leary family. If you'd like to contribute memories, photos, or music, please get in touch!

  6. I really would love to see a little more history here-remember meeting him when i was a kid

  7. In the 1970's James and the family performed all over the York area and did a lot for free and helping with fund raising for various events. I had the pleasure of working at WNOW, a country radio station that was very popular in the York area throughout the '70's. James and the family performed at various events free of charge to help us raise money for various organizations. One such even was at the old Williams Grove Park in the late '70's. The great Skeeter Davis was the headline act, she also performed free of charge. We had great fun and James and family we part of it...they did a great job and deserve respect and recognition. God bless you all, Dave Marino

  8. My hat's off to ya. As half of the duo Grinn and Bearitt, we had a good time with the rebel. Maybe he didn't have the best voice or band. But they were out there living their dream, how many of us can say that? We need a few more like him. The granddaughter can hold her head high.

  9. I worked for country singer Randy Travis in the late 1980's. He was always gracious to Rebel and would introduce him during the show and have him stand and wave to the crowd. Rumor was Randy opened for him years before he was famous.

  10. I remember James and his crew as a fixture around York. Also remember the ladies taking guitar lessons at Campbells Music in the 80's, which was the place for up and coming guitarists at the time. We may not have taken Rebel too seriously, but he really did live the life and has my respect now. Honestly, Rebel still is a part of the fabric of York, and remembered well by everyone who lived around him.