Prallsville Mills

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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.’"

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Prallsville Mills

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,

and banjo.

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

a laugh.

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,"

he says.

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

Harvey Reid, Prallsville Mills, Route 29, Stockton, 609-397-8030.

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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