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The following article appeared in the June 1996 issue of Acoustic Musician and is reprinted here with permission of the publisher. Julie Koehler is a freelance writer from So. Calif. and Associate Editor of Bluegrass Now magazine, a monthly publication bringing you all the latest news in bluegrass including interviews with top bands and emerging groups, behind-the-scenes personality profiles, columns, reviews, festival listings, and more.

For additional info about either of these publications, their web sites can be accessed at http://www.netshop.net/acoustic (Acoustic Musician) and http://www.bluegrassnow.com (Bluegrass Now).

Harvey Reid -- Music for the '90s (1890s, 1990s, 2090s)
by Julie Koehler

Harvey Reid's business card is simple and to the point: "Harvey Reid," it says, "troubadude moderne." It's an accurate description of a modern-day minstrel who is a hip singer/songwriter with an ancient soul; an articulate, educated man who remains grounded and down-to-earth; an independent entrepreneur with a keen grasp of corporate business practices. Reid is a completely self-taught musician who, during the past 20-plus years, has played venues from street corners to concert halls. His inspired genius on the guitar brought him top honors at the National Fingerpicking Championship (Winfield, Kansas) in 1981, but his musical mastery also extends to 12-string and resophonic guitars, six- and 12-string banjos, Dobro, mandolin, autoharp and bouzouki.

An accomplished songwriter, Reid is just as concerned about keeping traditional music alive as he is with creating new material of his own (which could easily become traditional music for future generations). His 11 albums reflect a blend of old standards and Reid originals, and while concert performances are comprised mainly of his own compositions, Reid's 1994 release Chestnuts (Woodpecker Records, WP 109) focused entirely on those marvelously old and familiar tunes that ring true for us all, "being a most delightful collection of grand old songs from long ago," as the album cover politely explains.

For over two decades, Reid has made his way through life as an independent acoustic musician, handling every aspect of his career. He is his own manager, booking agent, sound technician, recording engineer and publicist in addition to being the musical focus of his one-man shows. In fact, he's never done anything else, and while his early days saw a cumulative total of perhaps five or six philosophical years spent living in his vehicle for the sake of his music, Harvey Reid has at last reached a level of success that he finds highly satisfying and tremendously rewarding. "I like to play music," he says, "and I've found something that brings me great peace."

JK: You seem to have so much business savvy and you're so involved in all areas of your career as well as with the music itself. How do you manage both with such skill?

HR: Oh, I don't know. I started out as a street musician, and you don't need a manager for that. I played in bars for years, and you occasionally work with agents but often you don't. And operating a calendar is not that difficult a machine. You know, the need for those things is only something that grows the more you use them. I learned very early that when you just play music for people, it's a complete and perfect activity and it does not need anything else. All the other things that go with having a career in music--learning how to use sound systems, getting your promotional material together, agents and DJs and promoters and record companies and all the other things--all they are is noise in the channel, and the very best that they can do is to not interfere with the act of playing for your audience.

JK: Is there ever a conflict between business and creativity?

HR: Of course there's never enough time to be creative. I think much of the great art the world has produced has been commercial art rather than art for art's sake. Bach, for example--that was his job, to write music, and he chose to do a good job of it. The Sistine Chapel was a steady paycheck for Michelangelo for a long time, and what made him a great artist was not that he conceived this vision and did it, but that he took an ordinary working situation and chose to use it as an excuse to make a masterpiece.

JR: Well put. Art for art's sake is difficult without money for paint and brushes, or, in your case, instruments and a sound system. Has the need to earn a living motivated your career?

HR: I think the motivation of having to earn a living has been a primary one in my life, and if I had inherited millions of dollars, I'm sure I wouldn't have created nearly as much as I have. The necessity of playing gigs to earn a living--that's how I've learned to play music.

JK: Surely you're not saying that money is your primary motivation, that you say to ourself, "Well, I need some money so I think I'll sit down and write a song today?"

HR: Oh, no, I don't do that. But I've reached an enviable position where I have enough of an audience that wants to hear what I'm doing so I have an incentive to make new recordings, to create, and I always need money, so I think, "Well, better make a new album." And when I set out, that's what usually gets me to get my cheeks on the chair. When I decide to make a new recording or a big gig is coming up, that motivates me to finish a song, or really get something right, and just to do it for its own sake is something that, I don't think, is quite as good a motivator, to be truthful. And I don't think there's a thing wrong with being a working musician, with being a working creator.

JK: True, but the music you've chosen to perform and create, in and of itself, knows nothing about the almighty dollar. Do you have any idea where the music itself comes from?

HR: I honestly don't know. It's a very mysterious place, and I don't know what it feels like not to have that place. I'm proof that music is a genetic mutation of some sort. I come from a world that contained nothing musical whatsoever. I had no relatives who played music. There was little music in my house. I never saw anyone play a guitar until I was in junior high school. I never touched a musical instrument until I was in high school. I never had a music lesson of any sort in my life. I'm musically illiterate. I had no models, no heroes, no mentors. It was something entirely internal, and I still do not understand what it is or where it came from or what has sustained it for this length of time, or what has caused me to give up everything in my life to pursue it. Some day I hope to have the answer to that.

JK: Was there some event in your life that triggered your interest in music?

HR: It's been gradual. I really don't know. I stumbled on a guitar at a party in junior high or high school and was mildly intrigued with it. I played some recreational folk guitar in high school and I enjoyed it a lot, but I was terrible, I wasn't any good at it. It was interesting to me, but it was a gradual descent into the abyss. It wasn't like I had a sudden awareness and I wanted music lessons and I knew that was what I was going to do. I had no idea that I would be a musician. I just gradually kept bumping into unusual things. I'd turn on the radio and hear things that really affected me, and every now and then I would stumble onto a concert. When I look back at when I was 18 or 19, wandering around, I'd meet musicians on the street. I met Buzz Busby and Jack Stoneman, two of the greatest legends of bluegrass music. I met them because I was a teenager hanging out on the street. I also went to bluegrass festivals when I was a teenager just because my buddies were going and it was the thing to do. I went along to party and ended up hearing stuff that profoundly affected me. But I didn't set my own course.

JK: I would have thought you had grown up with music.

HR: No, there was very little music in my house, but what little there was we enjoyed. I'm convinced that some genetic mutation caused me to have this passion, especially for acoustic guitar. For some reason, when I first heard that sound, it moved me. I was probably 18 when I started getting serious about guitar, and within a year I think I either saw or heard almost everyone who was good at that time. I saw Leo Kottke, Doc Watson, David Bromberg, and I heard Norman Blake and all these people that are still some of my very favorite players.

JK: Your atypical background seems to have exposed you to a great many top-quality musicians in the '60s and '70s who obviously had a big influence on you.


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HR: That's true. I'm not a hillbilly from the hills. I grew up in a
world where I had a full radio dial available to me, and I listened to pop music and folk music of the time on the AM radio like other teenagers, and I'd been aware of classical music all my life. I've gone to libraries and read up on traditional music, too, so I've known all along what my place is and what the lineage is, and I've heard most of the people who are of historical significance.

JK: Sounds like you're a child of '60s suburbia.

HR: Yes, I'm a shameless child of the modern age! It was different in 1935 when you lived in a holler in West Virginia. Maybe you did only get one radio station and maybe that was your only influence, but I didn't come from that experience. I think that's part of the reason why my music is so eclectic. But when I look at the people who really influenced me--Bill Monroe being an example--my conclusion is not that I should try to sound like Bill Monroe but that I should try to take the music that I have inherited and make it my own. Bill certainly took all the music around him and synthesized it into his own thing. He was surrounded by the four or five well known kinds of music that were going on at the time--blues and traditional fiddling and church music and old Tin Pan Alley stuff--so I think it's every musician's job to take whatever you have inherited from the culture you're in and percolate it through yourself and play what feels good. And I'm not ashamed of that. In fact, I'm kind of ridiculously eclectic--I wouldn't think twice about playing a Chuck Berry song back-to-back with a Bach piece.

JK: Although you play a host of instruments, do you consider the guitar to be your primary voice?

HR: Oh, absolutely. It's really been the touchstone, the guiding thing, the magnetic force. Something about the sound of a steel-string acoustic guitar really caught me. And by pursuing the sound of the acoustic guitar, I have gone off on all sorts of tangential issues that I've gotten involved in, such as learning how to make recordings and how to earn a living as a working musician and how to amplify yourself onstage. I've also gotten involved in copyright ownership and public domain. All of these have been sideline interests. Other instruments I dabble around on, but there's no question in my mind--if I go on a trip and I'm only bringing one thing, I don't think twice. I just bring a guitar. I don't need the other stuff. The other things are fun, but I only really practice guitar.

JK: When you say you don't practice the other instruments, do you mean you just get up and play?

HR: Yes. I've never really practiced anything except guitar. Occasionally--no, I don't think I've ever practiced autoharp in my life. I just pick it up and play it.

JK: How did you learn to play it?

HR: I don't know, just picked it up and played it. I pretty much learned it all in one night and just started playing. It doesn't make any sense. I don't know how I can play autoharp, I really don't.

JK: Well, there's more proof of your music mutation gene.

HR: There are many mysterious elements of it all, and there is some underlying spirituality to what I do that I can't really verbalize.

JK: What sort of spirituality?

HR: Just the origin of the music. It comes from some strange place. You sort of become an antenna and it flows through you. I play almost entirely unconsciously now when I do a show. I don't even know where I am most of the time.

JK: Performing is that all-absorbing for you?

HR: Yes. At least, that's the way it started, and now it's nice to be
getting back to that. When I first started playing guitar I was about 15
and I have no memory of it at all. It was total space travel. Then
gradually as you start performing for people, you're aware of their presence and that interferes in some ways. Now I feel like I'm getting back to the place where I started, which is just the place where I go into some--I don't know what it's called, if it's an astral state or what, but I learned a lot about it on the street.

JK: On the street?

HR: Yes. Children recognize it, and random people recognize it when you're playing on the street corner. You're sitting there and you're conscious and you're thinking, "I'm really good. How come these people aren't stopping?" And when you're conscious like that, nobody stops. Then somehow you space out and the next thing you know, you've got your eyes closed and you're really jamming on something, and you look up and there's a big crowd, and they always know. But once you look up, it's like, "Oh, wow, there's a crowd," and then poof! they vanish as soon as you become aware again. The street is where you learn a lot about how to perform that way.

JK: But you can't do a concert and be completely zoned out for two hours or your audience might just as well be listening to the CD.

HR: That's true, so I like to be sociable with audiences. I don't think it's appropriate for a performer to completely be in a trance all night and totally ignore their audience, but I think at some point during the performance it's appropriate for you to get completely lost in what you're doing. Then at other times it's appropriate for you to be completely conscious and chatty, so I try to go back and forth. I really think there's something that goes on when you're doing something at that level, in an almost shamanic state, and I think that other humans recognize that and have a reverence for it. It's a very rewarding thing.

JK: So what you're saying, then, is that you allow the music to flow through you?

HR: I heard a great quote from Santana that I really like. I don't know whether it originated with him or whether he was quoting somebody else, but he said, "Music is water, you are the hose, and the audience is the flowers!" I really like that. Oh, you definitely become a conduit, and there's definitely an energy flow of some kind. And I don't know what that energy is. It's a very strange thing, and yet it's a familiar thing.

JK: What's your take on synthesizers, with every instrument in a tiny chip, versus the real thing?

HR: Well, it depends on whether a real musician is manipulating the synthesizer or not. Art is whatever the artist, he or she, can communicate to you, and if there's something that's passed from the performer to the observer, then it has value, and the real artist can do it even with a xylophone. There are people who can transcend with lesser tools, so electrical instruments are not necessarily bad, it's how they're approached. A lot of those instruments, however, tend to be missing crucial elements of tone or dynamics or something that interferes with the music. JK: Given your talent with the acoustic guitar, do you think you could sit down at a synthesizer, select "steel-string guitar" and find your way through that somehow? HR: Absolutely not. I've had fun playing around with guitar synthesizers before, but they don't respond the same way that a real musical instrument does.

JK: Having fun with it isn't the same thing as . . .

HR: Using it as a vehicle for artistic spiritual expression. No, I'm not sure I trust them to do that. The mechanization of music is a double-edged sword. In many ways, the technology has done us all many favors. I, for one, am incredibly grateful for certain aspects of technology. The existence of digital recording, for example, has sparked all these debates about whether or not it's pure, whether it's as good as analog recording and all of that, but I'm a person whose music is in danger of being lost to the wilderness. Every CD that I have out there is like a spore from which somebody can make another one, and there's a much better chance of keeping my music alive in this world of digital recording, so I'm getting less and less concerned about people duplicating or pirating my music. Sometimes I almost want to put a sign on my records that says, "Please make as many copies of this as you can!" You know? Get them out there because we're all in danger of being shoved completely off the playing field by the mega-entertainment thing.

JK: Do you ever feel like David fighting Goliath?

HR: Oh, yeah. Actually, I feel like John Henry fighting the steam drill
all the time. It's an endless struggle to maintain your individuality in
this world of corporate art, and I think it's almost a time of crisis
now. Sony and Disney and Ted Turner seem to own everything. The scary thing I'm now seeing is that they have concluded that alternative is "cool," and so now I'm battling these wolves in sheep's clothing who are all trying to pretend that they are "independent."

JK: For example?

HR: It's like Budweiser making Red Dog Ale to pretend it's a micro-brewery beer. The major record labels are now trying to make everybody look like troubadours or alternative grunge bands, so the illusion of independent musicians has become very fashionable, and I'm starting to get alarmed that the public can't tell the difference. Kids really believe that the rock bands being pushed by teams of publicists on some Sony subsidiary label are just hanging out in their garages playing music and the world discovers them, you know? They don't understand how much spoon-feeding goes on, how the whole thing is rigged from the top down, and the American people are being completely brainwashed into thinking that's all there is.

JK: Do you think the public responds to corporate art or music because they don't know any better or because they have nothing else available?

HR: Trying to sell hand-crafted music in this world is like selling Picassos door-to-door. The inherent value of things almost doesn't matter. You could take ten of the most valuable paintings in the world, knock on someone's door and I'll bet you couldn't get $50 for any of them. Maybe they'd buy one for the frame. En masse entertainment, to me, is like fast food. It's not evil. I'll eat an "expletive" burger now and then, but it's not nutritive and it's not memorable. Yet our mainstream musicians get measured by how many records they sell, and unfortunately, there's no one to tell that side of the story. All the advertising, all the hype, is telling us that we need to go see Madonna on tour and we have to catch the latest mega-thing, when actually the truth is you might have a far better time going down to your local coffee house and seeing somebody down there for five or ten bucks. They might blow you away. There are an awful lot of good musicians in the world.

JK: Which brings us back to money and technology. Many good musicians don't have financial access to top-flight recording equipment or distributors or promotion outlets. Is there nothing we can do to halt the mass homogenization of art?

HR: I've been pondering this for many years. I think there's always a brief fascination with mechanization, and when they invented machine-made furniture in the 1830s, my guess is the handmade guys had a real hard time for a while. Now that the dust has settled, we understand the difference between a handmade dresser and a K-Mart dresser. I'm not sure that we understand yet the difference between handmade music and techno-pop, and it may take a while because the mechanization of music is not even a generation old yet. It's only been 15 years since recorded music has sounded as good or better than the live band, and CDs are still so new. I almost think that with CDs, though, it's helped reawaken our awareness of the difference.

JK: How so?

HR: Look at the progression of recorded music. I have an Edison cylinder recorder, some hand-cranked 78 players, and an electrified Victrola. I have a bunch of 1950s record players, and I have eight-track, cassette, reel-to-reel and DAT machines. I think I have one of every format, or close to it. And with this gradual improvement of sound quality, people have been thinking there's going to be gold at the end of the rainbow. I think what happened with CDs, though, is they got their perfect CDs and now they sit in their perfect surround-sound living rooms and it's still not enough. With so many concerts going on these days, I'm almost thinking that people are beginning to realize, "My god, I've got 500 CDs, I've got fabulous stereo equipment, and you know what? It doesn't move me." And I'm almost thinking that when they finally got CDs that good so there's no noise, it caused people to realize that they need to go find the real thing after all. They kept looking for the answer in technology and now when the technology reaches near perfection, it calls attention to the fact that what's missing is that there needs to be a human being playing it, in spite of the fact that it might be a good recording. Does that make sense?

JK: Definitely, and I hope you're right. Let's switch gears for a moment. Does the music keep you sane, or does it sometimes make you crazy?

HR: Oh, I think it's probably the former. I remember reading once that the ancient Greeks had a theory that there were two kinds of music: the music of Dionysus, which was the music of drunken revelry, and the music of Apollo, which was the music of wisdom and beauty, and they prescribed different amounts of music for different types of people. And I really think there are times in our lives when we want to put on music to rev us up, to give us the strength to get pumped, to go out and do things. I think I've always been the person that, when life is crazy, when things are nuts, I turn to music, either listening to or playing music, to restore a sense of order and sanity to my world, and when I get crazy, I think it's because I haven't played guitar recently enough.

JK: So where does all this leave you, as an independent musician?

HR: Being a modern minstrel is enjoyable because I think people need music. It's an ancient thing and there's something hard-wired into people that makes them like it when a traveling musician comes to town. It's an ancient, ancient thing, and it may be needed now more than it ever was. If you know how to do that, it's a rewarding thing to do.

JK: Then there's hope?

HR: Absolutely. And I'm perfectly content to live on the fringes. Designing entertainment for the people at the center of the bell curve is not really something that's ever been a big attraction for me. I'd rather play for a small audience of people who understand the difference. I have a pretty rewarding life right now as a result. I have good crowds wherever I go, and I get treated well.

JK: What more could you ask?

HR: Oh I have this theory of 20%.

JK: Which is?

HR: Well, I don't want a whole new life because I like what I am and what I'm doing, but it would be nice if I could, say, hit 20% less red lights, and if I could just make 20% more money and have 20% less bad luck, you know?

JK: I see--Harvey Reid's Theory of 20 Percent!

HR: Sure! "Just have mercy on me now and then," I think, is a line I heard once. I don't want Easy Street . . .

JK: Just Mildly Comfortable Street?

HR: Yeah! Just have a 20% longer lunch hour every day, you know? Drink your coffee for 20% longer before you jump up and have to do something.

JK: Sounds like a good theory.

HR: Well, it's a reasonable goal. It's reasonable to think that I could have 20% more people at my concerts. I don't need to play in a stadium, but if I could just get a few more in there, it'd be great.

JK: Has being a full time musician given you 20% more time to think about life? You obviously have done a lot of serious thinking through the years.

HR: Well, you get philosophical when you wake up in your vehicle and you look up at the roof and because you've been exhaling in there and it's below freezing, it's covered with a layer of ice and it looks like a scene from Dr. Zhivago, you know? You look up at that when you wake up in the morning, and you see your breath, and you see this hoary white frost all over the inside of your vehicle, and it causes you to think deeply about what the hell you're doing.

Recording Information: Most of Harvey Reid's direct-to-master recording is done with a Panasonic 3700 DAT machine, though sometimes a Sony DatMan or a Panasonic SV-355 DAT is used. He uses a Mackie 1202 or 1604 mixer, and Audio-Technica 4051 mics. Says Reid, "I look for ways to make my recordings and my performances as much as possible like the perfect act of playing guitar for somebody."


Six-string--Larrivee wide-neck cutaway, Model C-10, rosewood (1994)

Six-string--Taylor wide-neck cutaway 810, rosewood dreadnought (1984)

12-string--Taylor Maple Jumbo Cutaway wideneck (1988)

Dobro--Early 1970s metal body

Mandolin--R.L. Givens, A-model (1987)

Autoharp--Early 1970s 21-chord Appalachian Oscar Schmidt

Bouzouki--Trinity College Model 335 (1992)

Six-string banjo--Deering Maple Blossom MB-6 wideneck (1988)

Picks--Sometimes Dobro fingerpicks, sometimes bare fingers; Jim Dunlop
Tortex flatpicks

Strings--D'Addario phosphor bronze, medium gauge

Harvey Reid is the inventor of partial capoing and often uses a Third Hand Capo All instruments are outfitted with a stereo jack and fed into a Fishman Pocket Blender, which then either goes direct to the house, or else first to an onstage Fishman Acoustic Performer amp (when possible), which he uses for a monitor. Currently Reid has a Fishman Matrix Natural in his six-string guitars, a Lawrence Red in his 12-string, a Fishman SBT guitar pickup in his autoharp (along with an Oscar Schmidt pickup), Dobro, a Fishman mandolin pickup in his mandolin and bouzouki, and a Fishman banjo pickup in his six-string banjo. He uses a Crown GLM-100 Hyper-cardioid mic in each instrument, in conjunction with a pickup. He helped design this system with Fishman and is completely happy with it. He uses Hamilton KB-39 Hanger guitar stands and a Boss TU-12 tuner. He uses a Boss Stereo chorus and an Ibanez seven-band EQ on the autoharp and 12-string, with no other effects.