The Song Train
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Welcome to The Song Train

This is the Complete unedited interview with Acoustic Guitar Magzine and Harvey Reid in April 2009. Here is the edited published version

AG: You’re an accomplished guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. Why focus on simple, two-chord songs for such an extensive project as The Song Train?

REID: We sensed a groundswell of interest from people wanting to play music, and we have children now, which really got us thinking about how musical knowledge gets transmitted. We wanted to help pass the torch, and realized that the Song Train was a valuable and unique missing piece in the puzzle of learning that suited our talents as performers and that really would help people get going. If you think really long and hard about it, the idea of the Song Train becomes obvious, though not everybody sees its value instantly. Boomer generation people don't realize how many of the simple songs that enabled them to start playing music were present in schools and in mass culture, something that is no longer the case. We think it all starts with songs in people's heads.

It took us a long time to realize how much was involved in such a seemingly simple concept, and when it was done we realized what a statement it made and what a slice of American music we had captured. It took a while to figure out that we needed to make it a big, beautiful thing, and not make a series of CD's or online lessons, or even a small booklet. People associate books with learning and are comforted by them. You only start once, so a glorious big book seemed like the way to go as a "starter kit."

Songs are the spark that get you going, and there is no better way to get started that to know some simple but good songs that you want to play. Music instruction is not just the delivering of information-- there is emotional, cultural and spiritual context that is absolutely vital. A lot of people want to play music, they know they can, yet they almost never hear an artist perform a song the way they would in their living room. Chefs on TV use a stove, an egg and some flour just like we have in our kitchens, and basketball players use the same basketball and baskets we do. Yet popular musicians almost never just play or record a song with a single guitar, which is the way most songs are written. The Song Train lets us show people some good songs they can play, and we also give them a model of how real musicians play them without a band. We made them real performances and not exercises. No one who heard the recordings we were working on realized that they were simple songs that we had played simply. It just sounded like another Harvey & Joyce CD.

The Song Train is the culmination of a lot of things in my life, including my lifetime as a performer, the evolution of the internet and personal computers (allowing us to research and produce this at home), the community of people around us, and my knowledge and interest in a wide variety of American music. The fact that Joyce and I were able to do this as a husband & wife team makes it vastly more interesting and communicative than if either of us or someone else did it solo. The fact that we both play guitar and sing, and both sing lead and harmony and both played other instrument solos made it a nice model for family music-making. We have both been "cursed" in our careers with being too versatile, and this was a challenge for us in that respect. We both had to stretch to deliver some of the songs, and we don't mind people hearing us reaching. I had never yodeled a Hank Williams song before in public, and Joyce showed a lot of guts delivering solo versions of things like "Tombstone Blues" and "Shake Your Hips." But they work, and hopefully will empower some folks out there to go beyond their comfort zones too.

What made you choose the songs that you did for The Song Train?
We wanted songs that we liked, that were alive and in circulation, and that covered a lot of styles and tastes. We probably could have made a whole bluegrass or gospel Song Train, but we wanted a cross-section, and tried to balance the country, folk, gospel, blues, rock, gospel, folk, etc. We wanted some famous songs, but wanted songs that had some durability, so we skipped topical things like "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Beat Goes On." Our model was a single person with an acoustic guitar driving the song, so we did that with each song ourselves. Some rhythms are too complex, and we left out a lot of 1 and 2-chord songs that just are not one-guitar songs. "Sex Machine" by James Brown and "Heroin" by Lou Reed are 2-chord songs that did not make the cut, for example.

Does your presentation of the information in The Song Train track your own learning experience with the guitar and acoustic music?

Absolutely. It's how we learned, and we wanted it to be something that would have blown us away when we were getting started. People should not only have the information needed to play basic guitar, but also need to understand their place in the culture and the chain of knowledge. The passing of the torch of cultural knowledge that is music is not just about what the famous and skilled are doing, and all the people who bang on their guitars play a part. There can be dignity in being a beginner, and the Song Train conveys that. We also believe that the "big bang" experience that causes some people to succeed at playing music involves the spiritual feeling of generating a song. It's like taking flight or standing up on a surfboard, or cooking a meal that someone else enjoys. We chose the metaphor of jumping on board a moving train to symbolize the way you take a ride on a song when you play it. Even total beginners can do this, and we think it is the key to it all. A simple song can take you there in a way that is like no other pleasure.

It’s great to hear the guitar (and other acoustic instruments) parts so prominently in the mix of The Song Train recordings. How did you record the project? Did you approach recording these songs differently than you did your latest CD, Blues and Branches?

The kind of recording this project needed was right up my alley. I have made 25 recordings since 1982 with almost no overdubbing or multi-tracking, trying to capture living performances, and that experience and those habits turned out to be vital. No click tracks, scratch vocals, etc. We just sit down and play the songs, either solo or together, although a few things we added a fiddle break or something where we had a miking problem. It's as "organic" and "real" as anything out there.

While The Song Train is clearly a potent learning tool for beginners, I could see many experienced guitarists getting a lot out of it strictly for building their repertoire. Who has been your main audience for the project so far?

There is nothing better at a jam session than a simple good song everybody can play. Knowing a bunch of songs like this is valuable for any musician.

We sense that people are responding to us in a sense validating the ancient idea of learning by ear, and we want to "give them permission" to just bang on their guitars and have fun. Our fans like the Song Train, and a lot of people are giving them as gifts. Young people give them to an older person who always wanted to play. and older people often give them to their younger friends and relatives. We are happy to hear that teenagers relate to it well, and we really did not intend it for really young kids, though our 2 year-old absorbed most of the songs as we were working on it.

The web site ( seems like an extension of the book/CD package. Do you see the web site continuing to expand on the concepts or tunes presented in The Song Train?

The internet is the best tool of learning in the history of civilization, and we assumed that people would use it in conjunction with the Song Train. I was hoping to tantalize people with the stories behind some of the songs, with concepts in music theory, names of artists, and encourage them to explore these things as well as the wonderful versions other artists have done of these songs. Our web site hopefully offers the things they can't get elsewhere, and some in-depth advice where we feel it is needed, as well as lyrics and charts. We hope to expand it to include blogging and video, but we have 2 little kids and are scrambling every day just to get by.

If you had to give readers just a thought or two to hang on to from the essence of The Song Train, what would that be?

Music does not get more fun later. Like sliding down a snowy hill-- the first time you do it can be as fun as the 1000th time. I believe that the pleasure in music may be a constant, and if you can get to a place where you are having a great time banging on some simple chords and croaking out a simple song, you have found the secret to it all. If you think you have to develop and wait and become proficient before you can really enjoy yourself, you may never experience either pleasure or proficiency.

HARVEY REID April 2009


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