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Harvey Reid looks like your standard-issue new-age guitarist. But when he speaks about the state of the acoustic-music field he works in, it's clear that there's more behind his flowing locks than initially meets the eye. "A lot of my guitar compadres are still lost in open-tuning mantra stuff and Windham Hill leftovers," he says. "And the confessional singer-songwriter thing has taken on a distinctly wussier bent over the last few years. With the one really refreshing exception of Ani DiFranco, there really aren't too many people wailing much ass in the acoustic genre anymore."
Criticisms like these won't hold up against Reid, who has kicked more than a little musical butt during his 24-year career. Unlike many of his peers, who too often trade soul for chops and technique, he makes unamplified music that's every bit as meaty as the electrified kind. Along the way, he's played close to 5,000 shows and won the top prizes at two major contests held in Winfield, Kansas: the 1981 National Finger-Picking Guitar Championship and the 1982 International Autoharp Championship. (Reid is skilled on around a dozen instruments, including dobro, six-string banjo, octave mandolin and bouzouki.) He also runs Woodpecker Records, a label on which he's issued eleven critically acclaimed solo recordings filled with a wide variety of stately but stirring compositions that hit home in the heart.
"I see myself as a folk musician," he says, "and I have a lot in common with the various uneducated folk musicians--especially American ones, and the cowboy singers, the blues singers and the Celtic troubadors. And yet I'm also consciously involved in studying my instruments. I'm straddling the fence between the high and low musics, I suppose. I still like playing bars, and I like to drink beer and plug in, because I don't want to just give recitals in concert halls. I'll admit that my artistic statement is absurd because it's so broad, but that's okay. And it makes for a good show."
Reid began his career at age twenty, when he decided to make music to the exclusion of everything else. After a few years of gigging at bars and clubs in assorted bands based in the Virginia-Maryland area, he hit the road. One of the places where he stopped for a stretch was Boulder. "That was in my play-music-for-twelve-hours-a-day period, when I really dug in," he recalls. "There was a really cool scene in Boulder then. Tim O'Brien and Pastor Mustard and the Ophelia Swing Band were playing back then, and Johnny Long was my roommate for a few days. I picked up some things and learned some things from those people. I was busing tables and living on food stamps and playing music on the street."
Reid eventually settled in New England because of the plethora of places to play within a few hours' drive. His self-produced debut recording appeared in 1986, and his first CD, 1989's Solo Guitar Sketchbook, received significant praise; Guitar Player magazine named it one of the twenty top offerings of the year. The fiery instrumentals, reworked American standards and occasional pop tunes that can be found on his ensuing recordings are just as strong. Steel Drivin' Man, from 1991, is on Acoustic Guitar magazine's list of the ten best folk discs ever made, and In Person, a 1997 double-live compilation, captures Reid at his in-the-flesh finest. As for Fruit on the Vine, his latest, it's an extremely fresh collection of rustic originals featuring wonderfully masculine singing from Reid and a music store's worth of stringed devices.
"I'm either a multi-instrumentalist or a guitar player with a problem," Reid says. "I'm a pretty hardheaded guy, and I made the decision a long time ago to not design my art around marketability and fitting into a genre. It's much harder but more satisfying."
This open-armed approach may invite the scorn of folk purists, but Reid feels it adds to his credibility. "For any real artist, their art should reflect who they are and what their cultural influences are. And I've flipped around the radio dial all of my life. I listened to George Jones when I was a kid, and I've listened to Woody Guthrie and Simon and Garfunkel and Segovia. If Bill Monroe were around, he'd be the same way. But there are a lot of people in folk music today who are doing folk-music 'theater'--adopting the practices of others. The Freight Hoppers are now really popular, and they're a theatrical re-creation of an Appalachian string band from the 1920s. The Johnson Mountain Boys were the toast of bluegrass music for a number of years, too, and they're college-educated suburban people who loved that music and chose to adopt the mannerisms and costumes. And they get called 'authentic.'
"There's something cleaner and more marketable about theater," he continues. "People love Ain't Misbehavin', the musical, but I don't think they'd want Fats Waller and his band staying at their house or tromping around their high-school gymnasium and taking drugs in the bathroom. It bothers me, because I'd prefer that they liked actual folk music, which by definition is supposed to be the pure expression of the person doing it. It's supposed to be authentic, and therefore folk theater is automatically suspect. Personally, I'm not interested in theater."