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."
Neither is Reid comfortable with the music industry as a whole. "Music happens to be one of the three forms of art that make giant corporations wealthy," he says. "And very clean money can be made in publishing books, making movies and selling music. These three things can be mass-produced and sold at a large profit and owned for 75 years--and if you own a song that defines a generation, then you essentially print money for a hundred years. And you don't have to lock it up. Nobody can steal it, and your workers won't get asbestos poisoning.
"Even with just Warner Bros., Sony and Disney, if you look at their collective vacuuming action of sucking money out of the economy and out of people's pockets, that's an unbelievable force to reckon with. If I had known when I fell in love with the sound of the acoustic guitar that I would be walking into the path of one of the largest economic juggernauts the world has ever seen, I might have thought differently about what I've been doing all these years."
Not that Reid is frightened by the size and influence of these mega-enterprises. To the contrary, he believes that their growth may actually turn out to be good for performers who do things the old-fashioned way. "When an art form becomes mechanized, there's a period of time where the artisans are really squashed. It's my guess that after the industrial revolution, when they invented machines to weave cloth and make furniture, that was the worst period of time to be a seamstress or a furniture-maker. And I think that machine-made music is so new that people have almost forgotten the difference between handmade music and machine-made music, and they're still in a period of confusion. But when the dust settles, people will remember that, oh, yeah, there are people who have a lot of skills and years invested in a true art form, and what they produce is of a different nature than what's being made by machines and corporations.
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"Sometimes I feel like a guy making handmade matches when you can go into any drugstore and get them for free," he goes on. "But other times I think it's getting better. There's a reason why Pavarotti is such a big deal; it's because he's really good and because there's no way to fake what he's doing. The same is true with comedy. When Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock or Seinfeld get on stage, there are no machines. They don't have anything but a mike in their hand and a glass of water, and they can entertain the hell out of people."
So can Reid, whose regular visits to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and venues in other Colorado cities have helped him build a loyal fan base along the Front Range. Because he also has a substantial number of boosters in other areas across the country, he's able to concentrate on his music as well as evangelize on behalf of the Third Hand Capo, a forgotten string-fretting gizmo he's helping to popularize. "It's probably my biggest contribution to the world of guitar," he says. "I was the person who really introduced it to the music world, and I believe I was the first person to write compositions for partially 'capoed' guitar and record them. And I'm responsible for the spate of people who are doing that now. It originated with me." But, he cautions, "if you're considering an invention, don't choose something where smart acoustic guitar players are your market base. It's not a really large group of people. Go for people with headaches or something."
Fortunately, another of Reid's creations--a tune called "Waltz of the Waves"--will likely turn out to be more profitable for him. A version of the song by Scottish comedian/musician Billy Connolly (best known in the States for the TV series Head of the Class and his co-starring role in the 1997 art-house hit Mrs. Brown) became a smash, selling over 400,000 copies in Scotland alone. However, Connolly mistakenly thought "Waltz" was a traditional number and failed to credit Reid as its author. Reid, who learned that Connolly had covered the song after seeing a music video by the singer at a friend's house, subsequently informed him of the problem, and Connolly has reportedly assured Reid that he'll pay him the royalties he's due. This pledge was music to Reid's ears. "I was praying for a windfall," he says, laughing, "but I didn't think an Autoharp instrumental was going to be the one that paid my bills for me. It appears to be a rather sizable amount of money--several times larger than my annual adjusted gross income. Things are looking good."
Harvey Reid. 8 p.m. Friday, October 2, Abstract Caffe, 8250 West 80th Avenue, Arvada, $15, 303-421-2304.