Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 9, 1999.
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Harvey Reid: Mills, Barns, & Living Rooms
There are no easy answers to the question, "What
kind of music does Harvey Reid play?" He plays blues, yes, but
he also plays Celtic music, contemporary and traditional folk songs,
his own original instrumental compositions, and the occasional rock
‘n’ roll cover song — usually rendered in an all-acoustic fashion
on a steel-stringed instrument.
Frankly, he says, acoustic music specialists like himself play in
a lot of weird, out-of-the way places.
"When I look at the other people who I consider to be my peers,
we play in people’s living rooms, barns, small theaters, and we call
it the underground railroad. You would somehow think there would be
a little more glory sometimes. And when I pause to question why I’m
driving six hours to play a mill in New Jersey, I look at the list
of other people who have played there, and I say, `My God, these people
are great, they’re my heroes.’"
Reid is featured at the Prallsville Mills in Stockton on Saturday,
June 12, in a benefit concert for the Delaware River Mill Society.
Reid says he sees himself as the modern embodiment of the wandering
minstrel of a thousand years ago. Whereas a millennium ago, musicians
would come into town on a donkey, perhaps carrying a harp, Reid comes
into town in a rental car with a couple of instruments, a cellular
phone, and several boxes full of CDs.
"People are always going to be interested in what the wandering
minstrels have to say and what songs they have to sing," he says.
"I’ve never been able to answer the question of what kind of music
I play," Reid, 45, says from his home base in York, Maine, "but
I’m a human being who plays music first and foremost." Although
Reid is often called a contemporary singer-songwriter and guitarist,
even that is a misnomer, because he also plays autoharp, mandolin,
Since 1982, when he began recording his compositions, on his York-based
Woodpecker Records, Reid has built an admirable grass-roots following
and small business. His 1990 album, "Steel Drivin’ Man," was
selected by Acoustic Guitar magazine in 1996 as one of the "10
essential folk CDs of all time." Since the early 1980s — long
before the Ani DiFranco indie phenomenon — when he put out his
first album on Woodpecker, Reid has sold in excess of 100,000 units.
Not bad for a guy with no distribution or anything resembling a major
record company’s promotion budget. In the last several years, he has
been selling out many of his shows around the U.S. and Canada.
Reid was born in the Mojave Desert in California in
1954, spent his childhood in five or six different places before his
parents, both teachers, settled on the Maryland side of suburban Washington,
D.C. He began playing guitar at 13. Yet his near-fanatical interest
in steel-stringed guitar did not interfere with his education. When
pressed, Reid, the fourth of six children, admits to graduating from
the University of Maryland in 1974, majoring in French and math. He
notes that this has nothing to do with how he has earned his living
for the last 25 years.
"I started out as a person who played guitar all the time. First
it was at parties or wherever there were people," he says, "and
then I graduated to playing bars and clubs, and I did that for about
15 years. I also lived in my van for six years before I finally moved
up here, first to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and then to Maine."
Reid was attracted to Portsmouth because of its bustling acoustic
and folk scenes. "I decided to spend a number of years here learning
my trade and playing five nights a week," he says. He found all
the gigs he wanted within a 100-mile radius.
Whereas many up-and-coming singer-songwriters seek out the elusive
major record company deals, Reid made a conscious decision early in
his career not to pursue that pothole-riddled road.
"I’m just not interested in participating in `the music industry,’"
he says, noting Americans assume that all artists can’t wait to go
to Hollywood or sign with a major record company. "That corporate
entertainment thing has never been of interest to me."
He notes that there isn’t much of an artistic middle class in America,
"and we tend to think that people have to be part of the big time
to survive. I guess I’m proof that you don’t. I lived in Nashville
for a while, to look it over, and I really didn’t enjoy it at all.
I don’t really like what the music industry does to people. I believe
in taking my music directly to the people, I don’t like the idea of
going out and getting `singed’ by a record company," he adds with
To explain his grass-roots approach to marketing himself and his music,
Reid offers up two analogies. In certain fields, like basketball,
he says, the cream usually rises to the top. People like Michael Jordan
— who are the most famous — "are probably the best at
what they do." But the music industry is different.
"When I look at the list of people whose music really interests
me, no one’s ever heard of these people. There are a number of us
who are lifelong artists who don’t participate in the mainstream at
all," he says.
"The other analogy I like to use is food: I look at mass entertainment
music as fast food. It serves a purpose, it shouldn’t be banned, there’s
nothing wrong with it. But the finest chefs in the world are undoubtedly
a little difficult to find, they’re tucked away in little restaurants
making 100 dinners a night. And they don’t get invited to make the
sauce for the Big Mac."
"That’s very similar to good music. When you turn on the TV, you’re
not seeing the best in my field, in acoustic guitar playing,"
he says, adding, "I’m not bitter about this situation, that’s
just the way it is."
Reid credits Norman Blake — a fellow musician who has also performed
at Stockton’s Prallsville Mills — as an important musical influence.
He also cites Leo Kottke, David Bromberg, and John Fahey as influential.
But his main hero is Doc Watson, the North Carolina-based musician
and farmer who freely mixes blues, bluegrass, and old-time and traditional
folk songs into his performances.
Reid points out he’s a thoroughly modern person who grew up with the
benefit of a diverse radio stations around suburban Washington, not
to mention numerous good record stores.
"I wasn’t living in a shack in West Virginia. I listened to the
radio and went into record stores. I had a whole radio dial in front
of me, so I listened to Bach, the Rolling Stones, Segovia, everything,"
But unlike other up-and-coming musicians on the early 1970s folk scene,
"I made a very conscious effort to learn all I could about who
came before me. When I was about 18, I heard Doc Watson on the radio,
and that same year I heard Norman Blake, and I heard all the people
who were at that time the great players of the American steel-stringed
guitar," he says. "Those were all people who really galvanized
In performance, Reid freely mixes Celtic and blues and
country and jazz-oriented tunes, along with traditional songs and
contemporary folk songs. One thing Reid does not do with his music
is get political. Novelty and topical songs wear out too quickly,
he argues. "It’s something I’ve never been interested in,"
he explains. "I follow current events and I make wisecracks about
things in between tunes. I like to scare people, ’cause when they
see an acoustic guitar, they think I’m going to hit ’em with a political
Last July at the George Street Playhouse summer folk series, Reid
had the audience in stitches with his stories of life on the road,
his jokes, and his political observations. Reid says his knack for
storytelling developed by playing in countless bars through the years.
"I believe people like to be entertained on various levels,"
he says, "and a good entertainer should go inward and get very
deeply involved in what they’re doing, but it gets tedious if you’re
doing that all the time. And no matter how good a musician you are,
people just get tired of hearing all music," he notes. He also
credits his abilities as a storyteller to a lifetime of trying to
tune his instruments.
"You have to have something to say while you’re tuning," he
says, "I have electronic tuners with me on stage, but I still
have to turn the knobs, and the more strings I have on stage, the
longer the stories I have to tell. I do like to be in tune. It’s something
that matters a lot to me."
At his Prallsville Mills show, Reid says he will cover a lot of bases.
"I’ll do some fancy instrumental pieces and I’ll do some thoughtful
songs and I’ll do some traditional music and I’ll do something funky
and rowdy and I’ll do a cover tune here and there and I’ll do some
blues," he says. "Variety works against you in the radio marketplace,
but in a concert show, it definitely works in your favor."
— Richard J. Skelly
The songwriter and multi-instrumentalist in a benefit for the Delaware
River Mill Society, sponsored by WPRB 103.3 radio. $15. Saturday,
June 12, 8 p.m.
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