Digging Up Lost Sounds with Greg Reish
Now that Nashville has a successful Americana radio station in WMOT, I’ve been listening to the station while poking around the website. I was intriguged by a weekend show hosted by a musicologist and performing musician named Greg Reish.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio? What other stations have you worked at, and what were the stations like?
Greg Reish: Actually I worked in radio very little before getting involved with WMOT Roots Radio. Back in the late ’80s I lived in Nashville for a couple of years before graduate school and I had an avant-garde radio show with a buddy of mine on Vanderbilt’s WRVU. The show was called “Music from the Shed.” We started at midnight on Saturday and usually went until four or five in the morning. We played noise and experimental records, world music, spoken word, often with more than one thing playing at the same time. A couple of times we performed live on the air, and even once broadcast the sound of the custodian vacuuming the studio (he didn’t know the mic was on). Once we were playing a record of Tibetan multiphonic chanting and we got a visit from the campus police. A listener called them thinking the station had been hijacked by Satan worshippers. Man, that was fun!
Mainly I am a musicologist, an academically trained music scholar, and historian. I’ve had a career that’s taken me around the country and around the world to teach and conduct research, so I’m really fortunate in that regard. In 2014 I came to Middle Tennessee State University, the home of WMOT, to become director of the Center for Popular Music. The CPM is a research archive and programming center that covers all kinds of American folk and popular music, from colonial times to the present. It’s one of the largest and richest collections of music materials in the country, and people come from far and wide to use our resources.
We operate a Grammy-winning documentary record label out of the CPM, too. It’s called Spring Fed Records, and it focuses on recordings of Southern traditional music that have historical and cultural value. We have done a lot of reissues of recordings from the archive, like a home recording of the great John Hartford playing fiddle tunes with Howdy Forrester, who was Roy Acuff’s fiddle player on the Opry. But we’re also now releasing some new recordings, like the one that came out earlier this year, Old School Polkas del Ghost Town, an album of newly recorded but old-style conjunto music from San Antonio.
Where do you work now?
My show on WMOT is called “Lost Sounds.” It’s a specialty show that airs weekly, Sunday nights at 7 and Saturday mornings at 9 (Central). The idea of the show is to showcase rare and less-heard recordings from deep in American roots music, using the resources of the Center for Popular Music. We have more than a quarter of a million sound recordings in the collection, some of them quite rare and quite old. The CPM is part of the same college within Middle Tennessee State University that houses WMOT, right down the hall, in fact, so a synergy was a natural thing to develop.
How do you describe your show?
One of the best words to describe “Lost Sounds” is eclectic. Since the show is all about diving deep into the archive, it’s not bound by genre or time period or even geographic region. I devise a theme for each episode, something that will enable me to guide the listener through just one tiny slice of this enormous repertory. So, for example, I’ve done shows about cowboy and cowgirl music, New Orleans rhythm & blues, demos and debuts, B-sides, and more focused shows like the music of Lead Belly or King Records. Listeners really don’t know what to expect on my show, but it should always be interesting. I don’t know of many other shows where tuning in you might hear Leroy Carr, Hazel Dickens, Narciso Martinez, Ivory Joe Hunter, Moonshine Kate, or Martha Reeves at a given moment!
Do you have theme shows? How do you prepare for your shows?
The main goal for me is to come up with a solid theme that will make for a cohesive show, even if the content is extremely diverse. I’m trying to shed light on one little corner of our incredibly rich musical heritage with each episode, sometimes taking an obvious approach (focusing on an artist, a record label, or a city) and sometimes a more creative approach that shows less obvious connections. I also provide some history and context to help listeners make sense of it all, to tell them about obscure artists or lesser-known genres, and to prepare them in some cases for really old or poor-fidelity recordings. I try not to give people too much of that in one stretch, as I know that not everyone is keen on listening to 60 minutes of field recordings from the 1930s. And of course I am always thinking about showcasing the CPM, its collections, and its activities. When we had the great Nashville session player Charlie McCoy on campus last fall for a public program sponsored by the CPM, I put together an episode highlighting his amazing career to run the week before he came here.
Do you ever play newer releases, or do you only play old stuff?
My show emphasizes older recordings, and sometimes we go way back. But I do sometimes play relatively newer music, as well. What I like to do even with current or well-known artists is to find something from deeper in their catalog that fits the week’s theme. I just recorded a show about the roots of today’s so-called new acoustic music, and found some pretty obscure tracks from people like Alison Krauss and Bela Fleck. Even if you know those artists, you’ll probably discover something when they show up on “Lost Sounds.” And with the resources of the CPM at my disposal, I can find some pretty obscure stuff, doing digital transfers from 78 and other old formats when necessary. We even have a lot of recordings that are truly unique, one-of-a-kind, that you simply can’t hear anywhere else but from the CPM archive. Field recordings, live recordings of old-time and blues musicians, for instance, that have never been commercially released.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
Before I was a roots music scholar, I was and still am an active musician. I play bluegrass, old-time country, blues, ragtime, and a bunch of related styles. My main instrument is guitar, but I also play mandolin, banjo, fiddle, dulcimer, most anything with strings. Lately I’ve been learning conjunto music on a bajo sexto I recently picked up, and I’ve also done some fieldwork in Veracruz, Mexico, on their regional style called son jarocho.
So my primary exposure to roots music has always been as a player and singer. Still there were some artists and albums that were especially important to me from an early age. Around age 11, my first guitar teacher turned me on to Doc Watson playing “Black Mountain Rag,” an arrangement I tried to learn. I never heard music like that at home, and I was blown away. From Doc I discovered Norman Blake, Tony Rice, Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, The Carter Family, The Skillet Lickers, and on and on. I also grew up with older brothers in the ’70s who listened to a lot of folk rock, so I’ve been a huge fan of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan ever since.
How do you define what Americana music is?
To me, Americana means commercial music that is audibly rooted in the classic American popular genres, all of which in turn are connected to real homegrown folk music of some kind. So any artist today, or even of the last 30-40 years, whose music has clear influences from classic country, early rock ‘n’ roll, blues, tejano, gospel, bluegrass, etc. would come under this big tent because all of those genres developed right out of local communities and regions. And I think the best Americana artists are the one who find ways to take all of these long strands and weave them together in new and interesting ways, so you hear vestiges of not just one but several types of roots music intermingling at once.
What projects are you working on next?
As a scholar and director of a research center, I always have a lot of irons in the fire. One project that I am particularly excited about is John Hartford’s Mammoth Collection. John left behind roughly 70 music notebooks full of original music, mostly fiddle tunes written in his idiosyncratic style. Each tune has a story behind it, involving people Hartford knew, places he went, obsessions he pursued. The guy was truly a genius, soaking up everything around him and with creative ideas coming out in an endless flow. Working with John’s daughter Katie Hogue and with Nashville fiddler Matt Combs (who played in the Hartford String Band), we are working on a book, and anthology of John’s original tunes enhanced with pictures, narrative, interviews, and all kinds of cool stuff that will bring this music to life. Once the book is finished in 2018, we hope to bring together an all-star lineup of acoustic Americana musicians to do an album of the best material.
What are your most proud accomplishments?
I am proud of many things in my musical career, but one of them is the album I released in 2015 with good friend Matt Brown. Matt lives in Chicago, where I lived for a long time, and he teaches at the Old Town School of Folk Music. The album is called Speed of the Plow, and it consists entirely of old-time duets with fiddle and guitar. We recorded it here in Nashville, recorded and co-produced by ace acoustic engineer Dave Sinko. Matt and I both are really proud of what we did, which in my view is not just another old-time fiddle record. There are some pretty unusual tunes and arrangements, and we took some pretty cool liberties with the material at times.