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Harvey Reid Interview with Boston Herald Sept 15 2002


written by Dan Gewertz Reprinted by permission.

1. Are you a much better guitarist now? How's the learning curve since '82?
I like to think I am getting better as a musician, though there are certainly things I can't do that I used to do. I think my sense of rhythm and timing has definitely deepened steadily, and even as an older guy I can hold down a groove better than I did in my younger days. I am focused more on the whole communication part of music more than just the guitar skills thing. I am of course not the judge of how I am doing, and my listeners don't seem to object to my evolution, and they are still showing up.
2. Were you one of the first musicians to start your own label? Why did you go that route? How many discs have you sold over the years, do you think? Distribution? Mostly at your own gigs and web-site?
I came from the Bluegrass world, and those artists always put out their own records because real label support was unthinkable. I would not in any way suggest that I was the first to do such a thing, though I was among the first folk artists to make an independent CD. In 1982 the world was pretty different, and disco and glam rock were happening. I tried to get Rounder and Tacoma and the other acoustic labels interested, and when they said no, I decided to put the record out myself. I was not setting out to be fiercely ndependent, and certainly thought like everyone else that radio airplay and distribution in the stores was the business model to follow. When I figured out how much it cost to mail LP's to all the radio stations, and how little money I was making selling to distributors and trying to play the Music Business game, I gradually wised up to a humbler business model. I have always seen myself as more like a potter or a crafts artisan than a showbiz star. I make hand-crafted stuff that is quite unlike what the big stores sell, and there are enough people that appreciate the difference that I can earn a living. I have always sold about equal amounts at gigs, by mail, and to stores, though now with the internet iin full bloom it is leaning toward more mail order, which is exciting. I have sold nearly 100,000 records over the years, and since what I do is not mainstream, it is easier and easier for people all over the world who want to find my music to do so, even though the radio airplay and distribution thing is shrivleing up. I am optimistic about the next few years, and don't have a dire sense of doom , like many in the music business seem to.
3. You are a perfect example of a northern roots musician, as opposed to all the southern ones. It often seems like the south, no matter how bad their history and their politics, is the source of nearly all of the significant and "real" American folk music. Disagree?
I am not really a regional guy-- I was born in the desert, raised in the Midwest and the South, with one side of my family from Maine. I was attracted to Northern New England by my heart and by the fact that a working musician can play all the solo gigs you want within about a 2 hr radius of home, counting all the taverns and ski gigs and arts in the parks and what I call the Blue Collar Folk Circuit. I spent many years playing 5-6 nights a week and learning my trade. The South has better PR or something, and the Texas Songwriter mystique sort of bugs me. There are just as many, if not more, songwriters from the North, but the South has a romantic edge. A lot of the "O Brother" people like Dan Tyminski and Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch are not from the South, but are perceived that way. Oh well. I decided a long time ago to just be me-- I was always a lousy actor, and there is more and more theater in everything, even in the world of "authentic" music. There is nothing more authentic than somebody who deos not sound like anyone else, and I guess I fit into that category. In the old days it was tough playing bars and being unable to mimic Jimmy Buffett and James Taylor. I wished I could back then, and now I am glad I couldn't
4. It seems you write your own "public domain" tunes (and, to a lesser extent, songs). Do you consciously ingest the timeless in your compositions, or the sounds and spirit of previous decades and centuries?
I often do consciously write traditional-sounding music, yes. I am quite conscious of my place in the chain of knowledge, and I have studied those before me and the styles of playing. I often write in established forms, like a jig or a rag or a fiddle tune or something. I have learned a lot of country and celtic and classical and ragtime music, for example, and I try to channel the feeling I get when I play them, and use that channel to then make my own things that feel the same but aren't. I have never run out of ideas, and have been creating music since I was 15 years old. I have always been equally interested in instrumental music and in songs, and in traditional music, my own music, and playing covers.
5. The world folk musician, so vague and formless a term, fits you, nevertheless, like a glove. You are as much a "real" folkie as anyone of your generation I can think of. Comments and thoughts?
All fields of endeavor have trouble with definitions, and defining folk music or acoustic music isn't possible. My deepest musical love is for the acoustic steel string guitar, and the way the world works and my eclectic tastes have steered me toward being a solo artist. I have always seen myself as the modern version of the wandering minstrels, and I like that role. I did play electric guitar in some bands years ago, and I love it, but it's not what I do best and I found the hassles of keeping a band together too hard. I have never felt totally happy with the "folk musician" label, because it does not distinguish me from the other 99% of the people under that tent who do not pursue the mastery of their instruments the way I do. Jazz and classical musicians are known more as players, and I am a serious player as well as a folk musician. But it's the best label there is and I'll accept it.
6. Has it harmed your music to spend so much time on the business end of things? Do the two sides of you go hand in hand? Do you have people working for you?
Some days it sure does. It also sort of makes me a true folk musician, since I have a day job, which is running my business life.. It makes it hard to do a bad show, since I never get enough time to play, and so when I get on stage I am not worn out or bored with it. There is a dangerous precipice where I have been-- if you play too many gigs you can reach a point where you play poorly and can't do a good show. I like to think that by making more money selling records allows me to play less tour dates, have more of a life, and not get burned out. It's manageable, though, and technology like cell phones and faxes and laptops and e-mail make it easier and easier to keep up and travel at the same time. And I am in control of my life and I earn a good living and I am not blaming anyone, which not many artists can say.
7. What do you give an audience? Get from an audience?
I have always loved performing, and it is harder and harder to play without an audience. When I was 14 I played all the time and did not want anyone to hear me-- it was an internal need to make music than I still don't understand. It seems over the years I have gotten to where I need to know someone is listening, and I think that may be a more mature form of art. I like to play songs at shows that I did not expect to play, and here is always an excitement at show time. You never ever know what is going to work and what isn't, and you have to be humble and hope for the best. It's never routine. There is a place I go when I am really playing music, and I have always gone there, and I don't know what it is and don't have a name for it, but it is a good show when I go there and stay there. And I always manage to get there somehow. That might be the reason I play solo actually. I have been in groups where I could not transcend, because of the other people, and I have always found a way to do it myself, even in the humblest of gigs.
8. Where'd you grow up? Have you made a living in music since '82? Since '74? How old are you now?
I don't have a good biography. The only regional clues to where my music comes from are from stumbling on some legendary bluegrass musicians who were the town drunks where I lived in Maryland from 1961 to 1974 and was a teenager playing guitar in the streets. I went to a lot of Bluegrass festivals in the 70's in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina, and absorbed an immense amount of that music, in addition to the more pop folk and rock music I was hearing on the radio like everyone else. My family listened to folk and Top 40 and classical, though I had no teachers and no mentors and no friends or relatives really who played, except a couple of high school buddies I sang and played with at parties. I have been a musician my whole life-- 28 years without a "real job." I am 48 now.
9. How often do you gig with Ms. Andersen? Are you a couple? What does she add to your music?
I have played a lot with other musicians in my career, and I love duet singing especially. I have always enjoyed singing with a woman, and playing with a violin, and Joyce is very good at both. It takes me to a beloved place when I intertwine with another musician, and it is neither better nor worse than solo music-- just equivalent I guess. We have been a couple for a couple years now, and we are working on 3 careers at once: me, her and us. She is a really good backup player and I am grateful for what she adds to my sound, though she is also a fine solo artist and songwriter, and does a lot of music that's not really what I do best, and I encourage it. Luckily my fans have totally embraced her, and they seem to like it when I play solo and also when I play with her, which is all I can hope for. It keeps it fresh for me and for them.
10. How does a career retrospective project like this make you feel?
I of course feel all kinds of things. I can wonder why I have remained on the fringes of the music business for this long and not gotten a "lucky break." I can also be thankful that I have a faithful audience who treat me like gold and who have fed me for so long. I am blessed that I still love music so much and have not become jaded and don't question who I am or what I have done. It's pretty hard to understand where I got the energy to live in my car for 5 years, and struggle so hard for so long. Luckily things are getting easier and better so I won't have to think about doing another 20 years like the last ones. I'm always aware of what I had to give up to be an artist, and try not to think about all the lives I could have had. I guess we all do that. I do know that if I am on life support and have the chance to ponder and question it all before it's all over, I will have fewer regrets that a lot of people, and the guy in the next bed who didn't follow his dreams and put his guitar down to lead the "normal life" may well have harder questions to answer when it's that time. And I can't wait to start working on the next CD, which I want to have out in the Spring.


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