1999 Harvey Reid Interview With the Danbury CT
© E. Kyle Minor, a freelance arts writer living in Connecticut)
This is the complete, unabdidged, unedited version direct from the author.
There are those musicians who learn their craft from school
and there are those who learn it on street corners, pubs and any other place
they can draw an audience. Harvey Reid is definitely of the latter discipline.
Reid, who performs next Saturday at North Country Music
Series at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Somers,N.Y. started out busking-street
performing-in 1974. Today he is one of the most popular traditional acoustic
musicians in New England. It may have taken him over 20 years to achieve
that status, but as far as he's concerned, Reid is right on time.
"Four or 5000 gigs adds up to a lot of string changes,
dead batteries, snowstorms, gas receipts, fast food, bad coffee and blown
fuses," he said from his home in York, Maine last week.
"When I was young and strong and starting my career
in 1974 the previous wave of 60's acoustic music was crumbling fast and
Disco and video games the barbarian conquerors," he said. "Now
that acoustic music is hip again, I am no longer young and cute. In a lot
of ways I have been rowing upstream all my life."
Of course there is a healthy positive side to Reid's road
experiences, lest he chuck the whole thing to become, say a teacher. The
multi-string instrumentalist counted hope as chief among the romantic aspects.
"Many of the rewards of the artist life style are
intangible or abstract," he said. "Financially, which is the way
so many things are measured in our what-passes-for-culture, it is not a
richly rewarding life, though the possibility of fame and riches always
looms like a huge lottery ticket."
Reid grew up in Maryland the fourth of six children in a "non-musical
family." He confesses that his Scottish ancestry has steered him to Maine
since its landscape resembles the British Isles.
"Northern New England has long been home of a thriving
blue-collar acoustic music circuit," he said, "where I played
full-time and learned my trade for many years before touring nationwide.
"One of my grandfathers was a Scottish gypsy who owned
a circus and may have carried some genes I know nothing of, since I never
met him," Reid said. "I quit college at 20 to become a street
musician, and nothing I did before that time has had any particular bearing
on my livelihood as an artist."
Reid knew from the start that carving out a career is what
is essentially bluegrass-folk music wouldn't be easy. He could've certainly
made far more dollars playing fewer chords in a punk, rock or disco band.
Reid had neither the ear nor the stomach for that.
"The sound of the music has been the touchstone for
me," he said. "The sound of strings vibrating on wood, and the
singing voice, they way they are used in the various forms of traditional
music have always deeply moved me and still do.
"After a lot of years, many things we once think shiny
can lose their luster," he said. "The sound of an old-time gospel
duet where they are nailing the harmonies and the dynamics right on the
money. Or a lilting fiddle tune, or a haunting ballad-- these things might
even increase in beauty over one's lifetime.
"I have no interest in spending my life designing
contrived entertainment for the masses, and I am content to be an artist
on the fringes of the culture," he said. "The largest concession
I have made to the economics of it all is that it is not practical to have
a band, and I have had to give that up to pursue an art form based on solo
performances and playing styles. I truly love playing and singing with other
people, and don't get to do it often enough."
Reid's music doesn't fit squarely into the bluegrass genre,
though it owes much of its sound to that style. He studied the roots of
American acoustic music, especially the late, great Bill Monroe.
"Monroe took the music that was around him in Rosine,
Kentucky in 1930 or so, consisting of traditional fiddle and dance music,
Protestant church music, some African-American blues and gospel, plus a
smattering of Tin-Pan Alley, and passed it through his personality and his
heart," Reid said. "Had he been born when I was born, he would
have no doubt been influenced differently, as I have, and so I have chosen
to take the music that is around me and do with it as I please, passing
it through me first.
"I play whatever of it I can do on my acoustic instruments,"
he said. "As information swirls more and more, and fewer people lead
the isolated lives that bred certain definable forms of traditional music,
we will see more and more young musicians playing cross-pollinated things,
so you better get used to it. It is what young musicians do and have always
done, and they will continue to do it, and should not be forced into marketing
"I play bouzouki because I have always loved the fiddle
and the mandolin, and neither one works as a solo instrument very well,"
he explained. "Unlike some bouzouki players, I tune mine to octave
mandolin tuning exactly, so the fingering and the geometry of the fretboard
are the same as fiddle and mandolin. The lower pitch gives me enough resonance
and sustains so I can use it to sing with like a guitar, and I can play
tunes like a fiddler.
"In spite of all the wonderful flatpick-style guitar
that has been done, there still is no one that can generate, solo, a pulse
and a rhythm flow the way you can with a fiddle," he said. "The
bouzouki gets me closer to that place than I can get with my guitar."
According to Reid, music, like many of the arts, is an
immediate route to people's souls. "Music is sort of like doing brain
surgery," he said. "People allow you to go inside them, and you
can introduce thoughts and feelings that were not there, and modify ones
that are. It is endlessly interesting and an honor to be allowed to do so.
"I have also never had a job, and therefore have nothing
to compare this to," he said. "If I knew how easy it would be
to work only 40 hours a week for 20 years and to have my health and retirement
and vacations paid for, I might not be able to do this. I've been working
80 hours a week for 25 years, with no end in sight. Most people, if their
car breaks down on the way to work call in and are forgiven and take the
time off work. When you have a concert booked and tickets sold and promotion
paid for, there's a lot more at stake.
"But I take it very seriously, and have never failed
to make it to a show, and have never given an intentionally weak performance,"
he said. "There is so much other stuff you have to do, when you finally
get to go on stage and play it is such a joy that the adversity melts away."
Self-starter that he is, Reid created his own record label,
Woodpecker Records in 1982-long before it became relatively easy with such
technological advances as digital recording and dexterous computers. He
has since released 13 solo recordings.
"I have never been much of a fan of the music industry,
and when my attempts to get a record label to sign me failed, I started
my own" he said. "It is heartening to know that one can play and
record one's music without chasing markets or making artistic compromises.
Enough people are interested in what I do that I earn a modest living without
paying attention to the trends.
The good thing about owning his own label is that Reid
doesn't have to worry about classifying himself-until his product reaches
the retail rack. Then again, it's well out of his hands by that point.
"I don't even technically play Bluegrass any more
in my solo shows, though I am fully capable of it if I am in a band,"
he said. "There really isn't such a thing as solo Bluegrass, so I end
up in the folk bin a lot. Bluegrass audiences tend to like me because I
trained in their world, and I know how to play my instruments well, and
I have both feet firmly in the traditions that preceded me.
"I will probably aim my show more in a Bluegrass direction
when I come to Somers," he said. "I see myself more as a modern version
of the minstrels of old, and I see Bluegrass as one of the purest forms of tradition-based
music that has evolved, most likely because of its lack of commercial success.
It hasn't been polluted by the mainstream waters of big money, and musicians
and fans are drawn to it for its own sake and do it in spite of the hard life
style it requires. Much like I do, and not for the fame or money."
PO Box 815 York
Maine 03909 USA
phone (207) 363-1886
This web site
concerns the music and life of acoustic musician & music educator Harvey Reid.
you don't find what you want, or if you have comments or questions, please email