Harvey Reid Interview with Portsmouth Herald Sept 19 2002
written by Chris Elliott. Reprinted by permission.
Harvey-you are one the finest performers and probably the best promoter of
music that I have ever known personally. I worked for Bill Graham when I was
in San Francisco (FM Productions) but I never knew him, so for the time being
you've got the blue ribbon.
What relative mix between performer and promoter do you like to maintain? Do
the two roles produce synergy or dissonance? At what level does shaking hands
and kissing babies, maintaining a newsletter and a web site, promoting other
musicians' events, and answering dumb questions from reporters impinge on the
integrity of the writing, recording and performance? I would think that the
dangers here are fatigue, inadequate preparation time, and compromised focus.
Or do you enjoy all of the aspects of keeping HR Inc. afloat so much that it
isn't a strain on the music?
I started out as a street musician and worked my way up from bar gigs over the
last 28 years, and I guess I am like the frog in the saucepan who doesn't jump
out when it gets too hot gradually. If you handed me a list of all the things
I do and said "Do all this" I would think you were nuts, but it has
all evolved slowly. First it was a calendar, then a phone machine, and you gradually
get in deeper. A lot of the gigs I do are in areas where I have some history,
and promoting them is not so hard once you have an established audience, for
example. I could not handle doing 300 gigs a year, so I do 125 and work the
other days taking care of business. I don't lie around watching soaps all day,
but I am not that kind of person anyway. Some days I play guitar all day, some
days I am on the phone or I do booking or lick stamps or solder wires-- there
are so many different things to do I sure don't get bored. And that's part of
the reason I still do it all. The mail order part of my business takes a few
hours a week-- not worth hiring someone to do it. Same with all the other jobs
I do. It keeps the music fresh. I would rather be a guy who does not get to
play often enough and go on stage hungry to play than the other extreme. It
would be awful to have a crowd anxious to hear you and not be into it.
You started independent, and remain independent. Did you look into label
deals? What hard questions should a musician ask of him or herself before
deciding to handle virtually everything in house?
I became independent in the days when labels laughed at acoustic music. They
were dropping Bonnie Raitt and John Prine when I made my first record. I did
get rejected by the labels at the time, and I knew I needed a record, so I made
my own. I came from the bluegrass world, and people have always made their own
records in that world, since it was never popular enough to warrant industry
interest. If I were starting out now I am not sure what I would do, but now
that I am established and I have a fan base who buy enough of my music to support
me and a lot of gigs that I sell ouyt every year so I don't need to play the
game the same way beginners do. My record label is my largest source of income.
Why would I want to give away control of the thing that feeds me? I don't mind
at all living on the fringes of the music business. I have never been attracted
to Showbiz. I lived for 9 months in Nashville and I got the picture, and I go
to LA every year and keep an eye on the bigtime, and I must confess I have never
wanted to be part of it. My business model is more like a potter or a weaver
who makes handcrafted stuff and sells it to the small number of people who can
tell the difference between hand-made art and corporate stuff. It's a meaningful
way to live, and I don't think it is wise for independent musicians to compare
themselves and their lives with the big stars.
Can you articulate a philosophy that explains your interest in new guitar
technologies, ancient guitar technologies, odd tunings, advanced capo
concepts, transcription, arranging, unusual instruments, et cetera?
I just adopt technologies when they do things better or more easily. A cell
phone is easier to use than a credit card and a pay phone. A DAT machine was
way better than a reel-to-reel tape recorder. A computer is a way better way
to manage a mailing list than a typewriter and carbon paper. I am not sure why
I like unusual instruments. I instantly loved the autoharp, and the 6-string
banjo also. I think I am drawn to the acoustic guitar, which is the touchstone
of my art, because of the sound. It is an added bonus that it is an unexplored
instrument, and it so exciting because it has not been figured out how to tune
it or how to play it. I love finding new sounds and techniques, and have pioneered
a number of guitar ideas, including the partial capo. I am not trying to be
different just to be different. There is a sound in my head and when I find
it on an instrument I know it. I suspect it has something to do with the fact
that I am not an imitator and I am a lousy actor. I never could sing like anybody
else, and I guess I have always hated being in a position where people wanted
me to imitate. In retrospect I am amazed I survived all those years in the bars.
When they see you with a banjo they want to hear certain things. When they see
an autoharp they have no expectations. I decided a long time ago to not be a
musical actor. A lot of what passes for "authentic" music is theater,
and though I respect theater, I like it better when it admits it is theater.
Folk music is supposed to be authentic by definiton, and when people are pretending
to be cowboys and hillbillies and bluesmen it has always struck me as wrong.
There is nothing more authentic that being yourself, though the theatrical re-creations
of authentic folk musics do well financially and are easy to promote and sell
than being a unique individual. I just don't want to spend my life not being
me, and I am lucky that I can earn a living and get some respect by doing just
that. I've reached a very sweet place in life actually.
Perhaps a brief dissertation here on the prospects for Internet radio, what
has already happened because of RIAA lawsuits (lift from a paragraph or two
from a previous essay here perhaps) and what is ahead, what music listeners
and performers can do to promote and preserve choice in broadcast web media.
I am not an activist at heart, but I keep up on current events, and I tried
to do my civic duty by trying to alert everyone I knew that internet radio was
in danger of being squashed. They did apply the fee, at half the original proposed
rate, but the internet radio stations are still being forced off the air because
they don't really make money and can't afford tens of thousands of dollars of
fees. The American people just lost something vital, and most of them don't
even understand or know what happened. It was a chance for people to be able
to get access to DJ's spinning music they love, and the first new way for people
to get music in decades, and the Big Boys seem to have successfully crushed
it. I suspect that internet radio will soon be playing the same crap you hear
on commercial radio instead of offering us access to the vast catalog of music
that we could theoretically be hearing.
How has the web impacted Woodpecker Records?
The internet is the best single thing that has happened to people like me in
a long time. I'm selling a lot of CD's via the internet now, and it is growing.
For a small-time guy like me, it is a huge task to keep people informed of wat
I am doing, and to remind them that I am alive. I used to have to call them
or mail them something. Now, anybody in the world who wants to know what I am
doing can find out in seconds. I can send e-mails out to announce gigs and recordings,
and it's fast and cheap. As a niche artist, what I do only appeals to a small
segment of the population, and now I have a pipeline to keep in touch with them.
It's wonderful. I can manage most of my business with e-mail, and can keep up
while I am on the road. Phone booths were a horrible part of being a musician.
Actually I should say the phone booths were great-- when they stopped having
booths and made you stand out in the rain with a cord so short if you dropped
your pen you couldn't pick it up without missing part of your phone message--
that was awful. The internet is hugely helpful to people on the fringes of mass
When you were developing your abilities, did you run scales and arpeggios
exercises, or did you mostly just play?
I did both. I studied guitar really hard, though I can't read music. I also
pretty much learned my trade by playing gigs for a living. You can never really
learn about rhythm in your living room, for example. I always understood, since
I started playing recreationally, that communicating with the listeners was
the most important thing. So all the musical training I have done has been with
the intent of being a better performer. I never just played scales in the basement.
I was always playing whole songs.
And what about now? Do you still practice, or do you just play?
I don't practice that much anymore-- I mostly play. There were periods when
I played 12 hours a day though. I wasn't born with anything but the desire,
and I logged the hours that's for sure. When I write music I get lost in it
for hours and hours and that is a focused form of practicing. I also am a highly-skilled
guitar player working in a world of folk music where 95% of the performer can
barely play their guitars, so if I am a little off on my chops and my personality
is on I come across better to the audience. People who come to coffeehouses
and acoustic concerts are looking for a charismatic musician who can make them
feel something more than they are looking to be in the presence of a vistuoso
who goes inward and ignores them.
Are you a ferocious practicer? How many hours per week off stage do you
spend with an instrument?
You're a guitar player, but your fascination with all things stringed is
large part of your musical journey. Which of all of the various plucked
gourds you have experimented with (besides the guitar) has emerged as your
No question the 6-string steel string guitar is my main instrument, and I could
never be happy with any of the others for long periods. I am a guitarist who
plays autoharp and dabbles in the mandolin family. The fact that I divide my
energy between lyrics and instrumental music is the biggest fence I straddle.
There are really very very few muicians who approach both totally sreiously
like I do. Ths fact that I also divide my energy between solo performing and
collaborating is also tricky, and then the further divisions between instruments,
and even styles of the instrument. Most people either play with a flatpick or
finperpick a guitar. I have always done both, and played slide and 12-string
also. I try not to get confused, and I approach each on a song by song basis.
When I find or write a song, I try everything until I find the arrangement
and tuning and style and instrument that works. I guess I would just blame my
eclectic instrumental tastes on my repertoire, which demands certain things.
Describe the dynamic differences between solo, small ensemble, and larger
ensemble playing. And while you're at it, describe a lightly clouded July
sunrise on the coast of Maine.
I have always loved jamming and intertwining with other musicians, and I have
more experience at it than most solo guitarists you hear. Connecting with other
musicians is one of the great joys in life. The cold realities of earning a
living have steered me toward solo playing, and my whole approach to music has
been shaped by finding things that work totally solo. I always go somewhere
-- some kind of a trance or altered state-- I still don't know what it is--
when I play, and I can always get there solo. Playing with other people takes
you other places, which is exciting too, though there is the risk that you won't
go to that special place. I have been in bands where I felt deflated after a
gig because I didn't reach that place. Somehow I can always get there when I
play alone. So now I have been doing a lot of shows with Joyce Andersen, and
we can play and sing together and separately, which allows me to have the best
of both worlds. It also may be easier to connect with an audience as a solosist,
because you are not diluting it by connecting with your fellow musicians. I
get jealous when I hear a good band, though, and can only hope that band players
get similarly jealous when they see a solo artist. They are different and neither
And oh, the sunrise-- to be truthful, as a musician working nights all these
years I have slept through all the sunrises except a small few. If I see one
it is always from the last night side, and I am usually too bleary-eyed to appreciate
them. But they are like watching a slow motion explosion-- the colors and tints
constantly changing. That is assuming it is not cloudy or foggy. Maine is no
place to live to focus too hard on celestial phenomena-- too much disappointment.
If you set aside a night to watch a full moon you are sure to see clouds.
What's next after this?
You don't have to re-invent yourself in folk music the way they do in pop music
so I am just going to go on being me. I am going to start work on an autoharp
record this Fall, which I have wanted to do for years. I am going to book a
lot of gigs and tour a lot on the next year, too, since I really enjoy playing
shows. My focus is life as an artist is to find a sustainable pace-- sort of
a circular breathing thing. I don't like getting exhausted and needed to collapse
and rest. I want to do just enough to stay fresh and stay in shape, and to just
keep doing it. To use the car metaphor, it takes while to find a car and get
it ready to drive and get the brake off and learn to shift gears, and once you
do all that and actually get on the highway it then becomes an issue of how
far you can or want to go. I am on the highway now, and I just hope I have another
20+ years of productivity and music and health. I know I have not run out of
songs or ideas and I hope I can get them all down on tape.
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