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Harvey Reid Interview with Boston Live Web-Zine March 27 2003

written by Donna Packard Reprinted by permission.

Boston Live™ Boston's Most Comprehensive Reference to Live Music and Entertainment!
March 27, 2003 an interview with… Harvey Reid By: Donna Lee Packard, Staff Writer, Boston Live

The first time I saw Harvey Reid perform was about 15 years ago in a small theatre in Ogunquit, Maine. He was opening for Leo Kottke. There was something about Harvey's performance that touched me. As I watched his hands magically move freely across the strings of his instruments, oftentimes, it sounded as if there was more than one performer on the stage. He held his Autoharp as if holding on to a precious love so dear, allowing the spirit of the music to make its entrance as he strummed. It was in those moments I first recognized the amazing gift this man holds in his hands. The music he plays has a way of so easily tapping into one's soul, touching upon the places within us that lie asleep and need to be awakened by the songs of this master minstrel passing through. In having the opportunity to attend a recent 20-year anniversary concert, I once again was reminded that Harvey Reid has a way of touching the spirit within us. His stories, woven as the threads of the tapestry of his songs, stir our own stories, emotions and memories. His instrumentals have a way of calming and stirring the soul. He has a way of making the most complex fingerings seem so easy. He simply seems to step aside and allow the gift of the music to flow through him as its vehicle. Harvey Reid is a true independent musician, a forerunner in the field, living his dream. He has followed the heart of the music that flows through him, rather than falling prey to the games the music world often demands, where oftentimes one sells their soul for the fame and forgets the heart of the music itself. Harvey Reid captivates his audience with his authenticity and his awe-inspiring skill that qualifies him as a master musician. He has touched the lives of many with his music, his stories, his words, and with his presence. He can best tell his story:

BL: Tell me about how you started in the music business.

Harvey Reid: I had no plans to be a musician, but played guitar constantly when I was a teenager, and played at parties and then moved on to street corners and passed the hat in coffeehouses. I played my first paying gig around 1976, in a bar in Washington DC. I played bars and every other gig I could find for many years, and gradually pulled myself out of that life into a world where I play concerts and festivals. I learned a lot during those years, but it was hard, especially since the late 70's and early 80's was about the worst time imaginable to start a career playing acoustic guitar. Except for a few month stint playing Telecaster in a country band in Virginia in 1980, I have made all my living playing acoustic guitar. All progress has been gradual, and there have been no "lucky breaks."

BL: Did you feel music in your soul as a child? When did you feel a stirring in your soul telling you this was your path?

Harvey Reid: I had some kind of a profound experience at 3AM at a music festival in North Carolina in around 1973 or 74, when I had a realization that music was what I was supposed to do. It had always been what I loved most, but I had no plans to be a musician or pursue a career. I have never been fascinated with "showbiz" and still am not. I started out playing music for people, and that still is what I like to do. Being a "contestant" in the music biz world is something I have always disliked, and after spending a winter in Nashville, all my suspicions were confirmed about not wanting to play that game.

BL: You seem to be a forerunner in the field of the independent musician. What made you choose that route?

Harvey Reid: I didn't have any choice. At the time I decided I needed a record, labels were dropping people like Bonnie Raitt, and when Rounder and Flying Fish and Tacoma rejected me, I decided to do it myself. I had been playing only bluegrass for some years, and in that world it was not unusual to put out one's own record. I didn't feel like a pioneer. Now that everybody has figured out what was obvious to me, it is no longer unusual to do it yourself. I always had a feeling that I wanted to be in this for the long run, and every time I studied what happened with a well-known artist, I saw problems. I guess I saw that when you play "unpopular" music, and make records that are just a guy playing a guitar, they don't go out of fashion because they never are in fashion. My love for the music I make has always felt larger than the changing trends of fashion, and I suppose I may have consciously avoided chasing any trends. It sort of helped that I just didn't have a voice that could imitate well-known performers, so I had to find my own voice and my own way. Making it in showbiz has a lot to do with luck and trends, and for me music is much deeper than that.

BL: What is your advice to someone starting out in the music business and who is taking the route of an independent musician? Have there been advantages to that? Disadvantages?

Harvey Reid: Having never done it any other way, I am not sure I can compare the two. What I have not done is compromise myself, and I am proud of the fact that nothing I ever released has any elements of passing trends, and I have always looked inward for my art and not imitated. When the music feels strong from within, then you try to find an audience for what you do. You must stick to your vision. If you change who you are to chase a market, then you have two dangerous possibilities: 1) to fail by doing something other than what you felt was really you and 2) to succeed at it, and be stuck doing something you're really not. I have never been interested in designing entertainment for the masses, and have been content to be a fringe artist, and that has led to more satisfaction than disappointment. Don't build your business plan and your future around a dream or around winning the lottery, which is sort of what music biz success is like. Build it around things like finding a regular gig where they want to book you or finding a radio DJ who likes to play your music. And always be gracious and take time for your listeners. They matter more than anyone and if they want to talk to you, there's no harm in that. They'll remember if you learn their names and treat them like real people, which they are. And they are your best bet for being fed in your old age. Your record company generally doesn't care, but your listeners do. The whole "star" thing is bogus, and it is not good for the star or the fans to get into those almost toxic relationships. Other people fix cars and plant gardens and do other things well, and just because you are good at music does not make you superior. It's a blessing to be a musician, where you can do your work in front of a crowd and get applause. Woodworkers don't get that, but they are just as worthy as artists.

BL: Who have been some of your mentors in the music field?

Harvey Reid: Probably the two things that have kept me going are the profound feeling of pleasure I get when I perform, and in the support I have gotten from strangers. People have sent me letters that say the most supportive things, and validated my art more than friends, family or mentors. I don't have a role model I am emulating, but I have studied those before me a great deal. I never chose to focus my art, and have remained equally interested in both songs and instrumental music, and in writing my own and in doing traditional songs and covers. So I have songwriter favorites like Jesse Winchester, John Prine, Gordon Lightfoot, and I have had guitar heroes like Doc Watson and Leo Kottke, and I have other favorite musicians like Nic Jones and Dick Gaughan. I have always been very influenced by artists who write and play and sing their own music and do it all well, and that group includes Bill Monroe, Norman Blake, John Hurt, John Fogerty and Chuck Berry. One of my greatest heroes is a little-known cellist named Janos Starker. His technical command of the instrument is beyond my imagination, yet when I listen to him I find I can enjoy the music as background music, or I can put on headphones and marvel at every note. As a really serious instrumentalist who has always played normal gigs for a living, I have always wanted to make my music accessible on several levels also. There is some music that is impressive but not pleasant to listen to, and I never wanted to be just that.
I started out listening to popular music in the 60's, and gradually learned about the lesser-known artists as I started to explore more. I owe a lot to the "underground radio" FM stations in the 70's, where you could hear all kinds of music, and very knowledgeable DJ's had large record collections and played whatever they wanted. The last 10 years or so, my learning has not been about music or business, but about how to keep doing it. I figured out that the people who matter most are the survivors and the ones who don't quit or burn out. When I spend time with someone who is further up the ladder than me, I am usually studying the way they don't complain about the food, or the gig, or the travel. Once you have learned the music and made the commitment to it, the final step is to not lose your desire. I believe that it is easier to remain steadfast when you run the show as an independent, and easier to get mad at other people and waste energy when you are signed to a label.

BL: Any stories that stand out of your musical journey over the past twenty years that you might want to share?

Harvey Reid: Got three hours? The music life is never boring. The scariest moment as an independent businessman was the year I re-released my Christmas tape as a CD, and sold a lot of them in the weeks before Christmas that would be listened to first on Christmas Day, and then got a call on December 24 from a fan who had bought one and it had some BBC radio program on it and not me! The CD plant was closed for 2 weeks, and I had no way of knowing if a thousand of them were defective or only one. It turns out there was only one, but it was a nervous 2 weeks. The day my first CD arrived in 1988 was an exciting one-- I have always feared being like Blind Man Arnold, a terrific bluesman, who made some 78's, but not one of them has been found intact. LP's warp and scratch and break, and the master tapes to my first LP's are things I don't even have the machine to play back. A CD is like a spore from which more can be made, and I felt like my art and my statement had new and exciting chance of surviving and establishing itself. Each time I make a new CD and it is replicated and there suddenly are thousands of them that get spread all around I feel great relief, and always fear a fire or lightning bolt hitting the studio right before the CD is done.

BL: Tell me more about your anniversary CD "Dreamer or Believer". How did choose the songs to be included?

Harvey Reid: It turned out to be really hard to do the 20-year compilation. It took months of hard work digging through, listening to and transferring a lot of old tapes to digital. Some years I had 20 good cuts, and it was hard to pick one, and other years I had almost nothing to work with. I also wanted the record to be balanced and to show the different sounds and instruments and styles, so if I picked a slide guitar cut from 1988 then I didn't want one from 1990 also. I also had to make some choices based on song length. I ran over the 80 minute limit, and had to re-do the line-up with shorter songs. It was also really hard to put the rough, 20-year-old stuff at the beginning, since I like to think I am improving still and I generally like the later stuff more. But sticking to the concept forced me to release some things, especially live tracks, that I never would have done otherwise, and that is good, since they show a different side of me.

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