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Article/Interview with Harvey Reid from


by Denise Sofranko 1993 (denise@notoriety.com)
reprinted by permission of Dirty Linen Magazine, an international publication devoted to alternative, primarily acoustic music. They also have a web site, http://www.dirtynelson.com/linen/ and are an impressive source of information about non-mainstream music and musicians.

"To describe Harvey Reid is to search for adjectives, not because there are none to describe who he is or what he does, but because you can't settle on any one short list. When pressed, even he has a hard time coming up with three that best portray him.

"It makes it easier to book yourself if you've got three words you can put under your picture on a poster. Scintillating jazz pianist; dynamic blues vocalist. You need an adverb, an adjective and a noun. I've never been able to figure out what those three words are. It slowed my career down by at least 10 years by refusing to focus. If I had wanted to be just Mr. Guitar or Mr. Autoharp or Mr. Songwriter, I could have focused, but I don't think it's really necessary."

I had a chance to sit and talk with Reid at the annual Folk Alliance Conference in Tucson in February and found him to be as complicated as I had imagined he would be. Reid is a mixture of bravura and diffidence. He's been kicking around the acoustic music circuit for more than 20 years now and has developed his audience to comfortable numbers; a loyal group of followers who don't need lots of glitter, smoke and mirrors. His is an audience that takes his music for what it is; finely crafted, pristine, and performed with integrity.

" I hope the smart people can see. I hope people will put my solo folk song album along side Dylan's and realize that I have a lot more depth and that I've actually bothered to learn how to play the styles of guitar that go with the songs I'm playing. If people can't tell the difference, then I'm not sure that I want them. I'm content to be sort of an elitist and to not play for 50,000 people at a state fair. I'm really enjoying the kind of audiences I'm getting right now and I'm not anxious to play stadiums. Bigger is not always better. There're enough people that know about the altemative music scene that 1 can earn a living. If 100 people show up at a coffee house somewhere, those 100 people are looking for something beyond what they've been force fed by multinational corporations. I love playing for a hundred of those kind of renegade people.

"I have no interest, no fascination whatsoever with the music industry. An awful lot of people in the music business have this lottery ticket mentality, that they hope they get discovered. To be discovered means to get ruined as far as I can tell. 1 haven't seen too many artists where I feel that their association with multinational corporations has increased either their sensitivity or their powers of observation or their creative output. It always seems to impede that. They start touring so much they don't have time to write their songs; they start getting shallower." At times in our conversation, I felt that he protested a bit too much about commercial success and his dismissal of some who had achieved it. Coming from a less-accomplished musician, this might have been just a case of sour grapes. But, when you listen to the music, you realize otherwise. Clear proof of that lies in his 1989 Solo Guitar Sketchbook. If there is any uncertainty as to the breadth of Reid's talent, it is dispelled with a listen to this CD. There is little doubt that if he had wanted to go the rock or pop star route, he probably could have. Blessed with a commanding stature and features that would play well on the big stage or the big screen (and with great hair, to boot) Reid could have strapped on a low slung electric guitar, donned lycra and leather and made a name for himself in that manner. Thankfully, he has chosen instead to follow a quieter, more productive calling and become more of a craftsman than a showman. Reid's Solo Guitar Sketchbook should be on the shelf of accomplished and aspiring guitar players alike to remind them how much can be done with one guitar. The tunes range from ragtime to show tunes to classical and include both original and borrowed tunes.

But perhaps the best place for the uninitiated to start is with the 1990 Overview, a selection of Reid's work from previous albums. It's a small sampling of a breathtaking amount of music from a man who has indeed followed the force that called him early in life. "What I'm most proud of I guess, is the fact that I've been able to remain productive and creative for this long. I'm still really excited; I have been writing a song this morning and it feels just like it did 20 years ago. I hope I can go my whole life with that childlike excitement.

Reid first picked up a guitar at 13, and, as he describes it "Just got gradually sucked into the vortex ." By the age of 18 he had decided that it was time to get serious about the music. "That's when I started to really learn how to play the guitar rather than just pound on it and play songs instinctively. When I was about 20 I realized I was going to have to quit everything else. There was no energy left. I was playing frantically all the time." When he was 18 years old, Reid also began learning to play the autoharp and like many musicians, he soon began playing bars and street corners, picking up gigs where ever he could get them. Unlike some other developing talent of his time, Reid made a conscious decision to stay with acoustic music and further his mastery of the guitar, eschewing electric rock guitar and, later, new age music. This might not be considered a sane financial decision, considering the difference in lifestyle for a talented rock guitarist compared to an acoustic musician playing in folk clubs, but Reid seems to revel in the role of the renegade, the independent crusader of his craft. "It was a lonesome existence for a long time. There was no [commercial] interest in acoustic guitar. That's all I wanted to do; just follow that sound. l loved the sound of a steel stringed guitar. It's really at the root of my art. I've just followed it for it's own sound and not for the politics and not for fashion trends.

"The danger of something getting fashionable is that it will get unfashionable again. All these new-age guys were riding pretty high a couple of years ago and I was thinking maybe 1 should do a new age album, too. I can do that shit, too, and maybe I should put my guitar in a strange tuning and robo-noodle and create dreamy music."

Instead, Reid continued to listen and absorb other influences, making a point of learning as much about what he was hearing as possible. He became a student of many of the purveyors of old time music, gospel, and blues; the foundation of today's rock and roll. He learned to play those old time styles and assimilated them along with Celtic and classical influences into a unique amalgam that leaves people searching for adjectives to describe.

"I've always been aware. l'm a shameless child of the modern age. I refuse to pretend that I'm a hillbilly from West Virginia. l'm determined not to do folk theater or put on a pork pie hat and try and be a bluesman or to put on some old baggy suit and be an old timey guy. "My job is to take what's in front of me. I grew up with a whole radio dial full of stuff. There were underround rock stations playing cocaine songs all night long, pop stations playing Simon and Garfunkel and classical music. I like it all and I've helped myself to it all. I don't feel that there's anything wrong with that."

The Coming of Winter, Reid's first CD (originally released on an 85 minute tape in 1986), is a relatively quiet, reflective album that suits its name well. The liner notes succinctly and clearly give the listener a good idea of the origin or the feel of each song or tune, frequently with a bit of wry humor. Often, for individual cuts, he will also add snippets of detail on where, when or how the recording was done. When he does record with the rare overdub, he makes a point of mentioning it in the credits. Reid proves true to his claim that sometimes he just turns the tape machine on and records whatever comes out. "The Hunter's Moon," a lovely tune with Reid on guitar and Brian Silber on viola was recorded on the first night of the session for The Coming of Winter. According to the liner notes, it was impromptu and "almost entirely improvised." On that same album, the title song was recorded during a rainstorm and the sound of rain on the roof adds to the authenticity of the recording. One gets the feeling sometimes that listening to Reid's albums is the closest! you'll get to a jam session where the musicians are a l talented and know when to take turns; so into the music that they forget anyone else is there.

Reid makes a point of letting people know that he is in this business for the long haul. "I'm starting to see the people that matter are the ones who just keep doing it. They committed themselves. I saw Leo Kottke when I was an 18 year-old kid. He's been out there for 30 years and he makes enough money. He could stay home. But he doesn't, and Bill Monroe doesn't. The people that I'm seeing that have really made things happen over the years are the people who made a commitment to just keep doing it come hell or high water. When I work with people that I really admire and I see that they didn't get any sleep and that their guitar was late and see them not complaining.... The rewards of this life are mostly abstract. Yeah, you make some money, you meet some people, you see some things, but there's that sensation when you're feeding people this thing that you've realized that you know how to do it and they need it. It's an ancient and worthwhile thing that needs no other rewards."

Along the way to finding those rewards, Reid has developed playing and recording techniques that others are starting to adopt. He was, if not the first, one of the earliest to work with partial capoing techniques; a technique that for many years was only used by disabled players as a means to finger "impossible" chords. These days, Third Hand capos are seen around numerous gatherings of guitarists at festivals and in backstage settings. It's an experimental technique used by many younger guitarists today, even though Reid first used the technique around 1976.

"It just occurred to me it's a whole new way of dealing with the guitar. To me the guitar is an endless process of running out of fingers. It's such an obvious thing. I was playing 5-string banjo then which is what helped it sink in. It was the only instrument I've ever been aware of with strings of different lengths fretted on the same fingerboard. That's kind of what I've been doing with guitars. Having strings of different lengths rather than different pitches. With tunings you change the pitch, but with capos you change the length.

"If you capo the 5th string of a banjo it's different than if you tune the 5th string up to A; the fingerings change as opposed to when you tune. I really started digging into it and trying to explore useful ways to capo some strings and not others. It's not really obvious at all; it's difficult stuff. If you handed the average guitar player one of those variable capos, most people would have no idea how to use it in a musical or practical way." Reid relates his initial frustration in trying to get other musicians to adopt his idea about the modified capo. "Nobody gave a damn. I spent an hour with Chet Atkins. He didn't get it. I sent it to all the guitar magazines. I did a perfect transcription of classical pieces and sent it to some classical guitarists. Nobody paid any attention at all. I stopped trying to convince people it was a good idea and I've just been doing it. "I've found that a lot of music in me has come out with my tricky capoing and to me it sounds like really good music. I can get some really nice guitar music that I think makes the instrument sound good. I don't think it's any more or less of a gimmick than changing the tuning. I'm very proud to be the purveyor of that idea. I may or may not get credit, but in trying to convince people that it was a good idea, I pushed myself and discovered some new ways to use it. In my defiance, I found some things that I wouldn't have found otherwise and I've made some cool music."

Given all that, it at first seems a bit odd that Reid takes the attitude he does about today's recording technology. He has an overriding belief that while technology is great and should be used to advantage, it has to be used with integrity and honesty. He, for instance, doesn't believe that overdubbing to hide mistakes or to correct insufficiencies is honest. On the other hand, if there are techniques that will allow a musician to get a truer sound, a more impeccable recording, he uses them. He's been a long time fan of DAT recordings, something that some other musicians often describe as cold and sterile. I learned from my mastering engineer that I was the first guy in a thousand CDs that he had mastered that did no edits and no tinkering and repair. "

One of my biggest peeves is classical musicians. I'd often heard various anecdotes and then my CD mastering engineer confirmed that they are the worst offenders. These musicians have done more splicing than anybody. That's really unfair because folk musicians have always felt like the bastard children of the music world and the classical musicians that are the trained pcople have this arrogance about them that intimidates folk musicians. To find out that they're cheating worse than us makes me really want to have some truth in advertising.

"People are gradually poking their heads out from under this barrage [of technology] and thinking 'I've got 500 perfect CDs and I'm bored. I'd better go down and hear a concert and get an injection of reality.' I think that's why comedians are popular now. It's really just them out there, no bullshit. Pavarotti is big because it's just him. I think it's pretty obvious that a lot of the things that are popular are the things that feature direct human spirit." Reid first went to fully direct-to-digital recording with Of Wind and Water in 1988 and has been toying with digital recording techniques ever since. Often, just sitting in his living room with the DAT on and microphones placed just so, Reid will play for hours, capturing whatever comes out of his guitar. in 1992, Reid went back to traditional and old time influences and recorded a group of public domain songs under the title of Steel Drivin'Man. The album includes familiar songs like "John Henry," "Red River Valley," "Streets of Laredo," and lesser-known ones like "Otto Wood," "Jack Tarr the Sailor," and "Danville Girl." An explanation in the liner notes about public domain songs in the liner notes outlines Reid's feelings about preserving the traditions of music as national treasures.

His current project is waiting in the wings and should be out by early summer. "I don't know if it has an official concept. It was gonna be a songwriter thing, then I ended up looking at it and writing a whole bunch of instrumentals that I'm real psyched about. It was gonna be all original, except that I recorded a song by a friend of mine that I think is gonna be one of the highlights." Fans and critics will have to wait for the finished product to see what bottom line Reid has come to, but he has already decided one thing. "I'm doing it all with my DAT machine again. I wasn't planning it that way but I've been on the road a whole lot," he explains. "I've got some cool stuff with three vocals and a couple guitars. I've been doing the old fashioned style of recording, something I've been doing for awhile, but it's harder the more people you get. It's more difficult to do live. If it' s just you and your guitar and your DAT machine, it's a lot simpler. I don't mind doing 15 takes of something, but I hate to ask someone else to do it."

When he's talking about the new recording, Reid's enthusiasm is catching. He can hardly contain himself in his excitement about what he's working on; like a kid with a new toy or a new friend, he's anxious to share his eagerness with a willing listener. "There's gonna be some of the coolest harmony singing I've ever done. I've got an a capella, really snazzy gospel piece I wrote years ago. There's gonna be some good pickin' and I think it's gonna be the funkiest stuff I've ever recorded. It's probably the most intense and thoughtful I've ever done, but it's hard to tell when you're as close to it as I am." The Portsmouth, New Hampshire resident will almost surely have some of his favorite local or nearby New England musicians on the album. Pat Donohue and familiar Reid collaborator Lynn Rothermich are on tracks, as are David Surrette with a duet or two and Moondi Klein vocalizing on a couple more, and perhaps making an appearance on lead guitar. Jay Smith from the Portsmouth Press Room plays bodhran on another prospective piece recorded upstairs at the Press Room. It's obvious that this New England coastal community is a supportive one for musicians, and Reid, as one the long timers there, also seems to be a hub around which many of the other locals revolve. You will find that Reid's studio musicians are friends of his many are from Portsmouth. He has never been on. go out and "collect" name musicians for his album but has instead picked those talented folks with whom he seems most comfortable. Much of his recording is done in a small cabin on the coast of Maine, a place Reid loves because as he writes: "I don't think I could live without a large body of water nearby to stare at."

There's a realization with many talented musicians there is a special gift for communicating their art giving some of that gift to their audiences. Reid understands this at a gut level. He knows that there distinct difference between talent and a gift for sharing and communicating. "The Minstrel's Dream," a mammoth (23 mins!) guitar solo from The Coming of Winter recorded with no overdubs and unedited, is the musical version of this line of thinking. It's an amazing work, that pulls in many of the varied influences that has pulled together throughout his career. "I realized that I could actually go into a sort of trance-like state and you can pull people into this place and give them something. It happened to me as a teenager doing street music. You can make people feel things. You can change people's thoughts. It's a very powerful force and at first it happens accidently. You stumble on it at first. Then you learn to work with it more. You can't count on it. It never happens where you think it's gonna happen. At all my shows, I 'vanish' at some point during the night and I never know which song is gonna do it. I have to approach all shows with total vulnerability. This transmission of music is a really ancient thing and I think we need it now more than ever."

Legal Bootlegs

Frustrated with the home taping dilemma that he found himself and other musicians in, Reid came up with a solution that has met with modest success. In each CD booklet, there is an order form for a tape and a preprinted J-card for the cassette case. Those who would like to tape Reid's CDs for their car or personal stereos can send in the cost of the tape and get the materials to make their own legal tape. "The way to solve the taping problem is to make the ownership of the original more desirable than ownership of the bootleg," said Reid. "That's one reason I like to do lois of liner notes and the highest quality recording I can. I know they're gonna do it so I want to help them do it right and I think they'll feel better about me in the long run. I figured there's no way in the world that anybody who bought a CD would buy a pre-recorded tape also. I know they are going to tape it for themselves." Reid supplies a tape, cut to the right length, stickers with song names and times for the tape, and a J-card with full liner notes to anyone who orders them. Home tapers can set the recording level where they want it, choose the Dolby they want, and make their own recording. "I would rather have people drive around in their car with something other than their own shitty handwriting on some TDK tape. It might help some people. There are some good souls out there who are legitimately worried about infringing on my copyright and they love this because now they feel totally guilt free. What happens is I get some checks in the mail and some nice letters from people who want to take advantage of it, and the rest don't"

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