Interview by Sandra Davidson
On Saturday, September 29th Reggie and Ryan Harris will perform at 9:45 p.m. as The Harris Brothers on the North Carolina Stage at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Wide Open Bluegrass Festival in Raleigh, N.C. The Harris Brothers are fabulous musicians who are steeped in the cultural traditions of their home region in the western Piedmont and foothills of Caldwell County. They started playing music through the influence of family members and neighbors, who tutored them in country, bluegrass, swing and blues music that you find in and around Lenoir, which was once a furniture making center in North Carolina. They have also immersed themselves in pop music genres and integrate versions of soul, folk and rock songs into their repertory. Devoted to their family and community, they arrange their performance schedule so that they don’t have to spend many overnights away from home. Otherwise, they would be touring across the country. Music is a way of life for their family, and we asked them to speak about their musical upbringing in this 50 for 50 interview.
Why don’t we start with you describing your family’s culture around music?
Reggie Harris: We grew up in northern North Carolina, and our daddy worked in the furniture industry down there. He started working in furniture factories when he was 16-years-old, and he worked in them pretty much his whole life. Music was an escape for him. He started playing guitar when he was a little boy and traded his first bicycle for a guitar. I’ve got a picture of it. It was a tiny little guitar. It was a tiny little picture. I blew it up, and you can see the guitar has Uncle Sam faces all over the front of it. It’s an old Kay guitar. He’s playing a good G chord. He was very good in my opinion. He was a great singer with a lot of feeling and emotion. [He] just played a clean, country, mountain style guitar [and] bluegrass…some of that too. I don’t know how he got so good. I think my granny liked to sing. I used to hear her sing old songs like the “Wayfaring Stranger.” She’d get your attention if she did it. She was really old when I heard her do it. Anyhow, he just played. His sister married another fellow, Cecil Palmer, who was a great guitar player. They were a great country duo. They would get together and play around the house. My dad didn’t play music for a living or anything, but Cecil did play on the weekends. We just grew up around it, and all our cousins play. My older brother Mark played guitar when I was a little kid. [I] learned a lot of stuff from him in the beginning. Ryan…he’s always been singing. He picked up singing from my dad. All we’ve ever done is play music. Every weekend of our life we’ve been playing music somewhere—involved with it in some fashion or another.
Ryan, what’s your earliest memory of singing?
Ryan Harris: I was always real nervous because it was a lot of pressure. I put a lot of pressure on myself I guess. I remember people would come over, and I’d hear my mom and dad start hollering “Ryan,” and I’d have to go and sing. They wanted to show me off to everybody. I always wanted to play basketball. [I] grew up loving the Wolfpack. Singing was just something I could do. It was something I knew I could do, but it’s a little bit of pressure. But Reggie…he was a natural. I think he had more fun at music than I did.
When did that change for you?
Ryan: I guess when I got out of high school. [I] got my first band with Reggie and we got influenced [by] the Allman Brothers. The blues really influenced me a whole lot. I love all kinds of music.
Would you describe what it was like when you played with your dad? Can you set the scene for me? Would that be a weekend thing? Would it be when he got off work?
Reggie: It could be anytime. You never can tell when we might get into playing music. My dad had an old Gibson—a Southern Jumbo—that he got in 1959. I think my mom got it for him. He said, “Boy, don’t mess with my guitar when I’m not home.” I knew enough not to be getting it out and dragging it around. I was a little kid. I’d open the lid on that thing, and I’d take my thumb and go across the strings. I memorized the sound before I ever even played. My older brother, he might be strumming around. He liked to write the words of the lyrics down in a notebook and then put the chord over the word. He’d switch like that. He was always messing around with a Bob Dylan song or something like that. I finally got my own little guitar.
How old were you?
I don’t know, maybe 5 or 6. I’m not sure.
But you were always drawn to it?
Reggie: Well, it was just fun. Seems like when music was going on it was really fun. I just liked it. My dad, I would listen to him. I remember laying on the floor right between him and my uncle, and they played serious. They’d sing and play. [It] really sounded good to me. Then my cousin, Brent—he was five years older than me—started playing. We’d just all like to play. We’d break out sometimes in the middle of the week. Even up until my dad passed away in 2002, we’d break it out and play all night through the week if we wanted to. We were just into it.
What kind of stuff were you playing?
Reggie: My dad sang old mountain songs like “East Virginia Blues.” Hank Williams was one of his heroes. Country music, some bluegrass tunes —all that kind of thing. He’d sing “Step It Up and Go,” [an] old Blind Boy Fuller song, in a country style. He always had the blues in his music, the blues feel, the blues tones. Soulful. I didn’t know it was called the blues when I was first hearing it, but that’s what I was drawn to.
What other influences shaped the music you play today?
Reggie: When I was a kid, our sister would babysit us like maybe on Saturday afternoon. My mother was a beautician, so she’d be at work, and my dad might be off hunting or fishing. She’d babysit us, and she played records all day. Back in those days, like in the early 70s, mid 70’s there were a lot of hippies around. People I like, you know? They would trade records a lot. So, she would trade records with her friends next door. So, there’s always different vinyl 33s coming in and out all the time. She had her collection, and she’d always write her name on the back, “Debbie.” She would have ZZ Top, lots of Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
Reggie: Van Morrison. Doc Watson. All sorts of different music. What we play is music. We don’t really categorize our stuff.
When did you start performing together?
Ryan: I was 3 or 4 years old. We had songs that he could play, and I could sing. I guess as a duo, probably about the last 20 years maybe or a little more.
Reggie: We still throw our band together from time to time.
Ryan: My dad was always real important about keeping timing. My dad would pat his foot. I remember when I was a kid, I would be downstairs playing. I remember hearing his foot up there playing. Now, Reggie, he plays an old suitcase. He takes a kickdrum panel and hits. I think that come from our dad.
Reggie: I can’t afford a real drummer.
Ryan: Yeah, less mouths to feed.
Was your dad creating original music?
Reggie: Mostly old songs. When we first heard his music we didn’t know who sang them. I didn’t know who the original artist was. My dad would sing “Tennessee Stud.” He’d play his own style. It’s way different than the way Doc Watson played it. It took me a while to get used to Doc Watson’s version because I heard my dad play it since I was a kid. He played it more bluesy. Both great versions. I’d say, “Where’d you learn that song?” He’d say, “I heared that all my life.” He wouldn’t say “I heard it.” He’d say, “I’ve heared that all my life.”
How did your dad feel about y’all playing music together?
Reggie: He loved it.
Ryan: He was proud of us.
Tell me about your creative process. Do both of you write? Do you take turns? How does it all come together?
Reggie: We write a lot of songs. We don’t play all our songs that we write. We just play. People ask us, “Do y’all practice? When do y’all practice? I want to come hear y’all practice.” I’m like, “We don’t practice. We just play.”
Ryan: We’re practicing when we play, basically.
Reggie: Sometimes we get together and work something out, but mostly we’ve played so many gigs, we know.
Ryan: We don’t write a set list out or anything we just—
Reggie: —We go and start playing, and I understand what to do. Because we’re brothers [it’s] like telepathy.
Ryan: I know what he’s thinking. I know what song he wants to play when he puts his hand on the guitar. I can just pick up on it. It’s crazy.
Why do you think music is such a part of western North Carolina?
Reggie: It’s really hard to say. We [just] went to a surprise birthday party for this guy, and there was all sorts of musicians playing. My cousin was over there singing, and she was just killing it. Another friend, was over there just killing it too. [Our friend] was like, “I’ve been all over the world. There’s no place like right here in Caldwell County for music when you stack it all up.” I can’t explain it. Within five miles of where I grew up and was raised, I could name you so many guitar players that are very professional and competent that can play any style. If a Nashville artist called and said, “Hey, I need you to play my show with me this weekend. You got two days to learn.” I could tell you several that could ace it. You know what I mean? I can’t explain it. Back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, there was a harmonica player named Gwen Foster. He came out of Caldwell County. Probably one of the greatest harmonica players that ever lived on the face of the earth.
I guess people didn’t have anything else to do. Part of our county is in the mountains. That’s how people entertain their selves. That’s how we entertained ourselves coming up. We weren’t rich or anything. We just got together and played music and went to parties and played music. From there [we] started playing bars and wherever we could get a gig once we started doing it for a living. It’s a way of life for us.
I don’t see a whole lot of new people coming along playing. I taught lessons for a long time, and I did get some people past the hump that [are] still really into it, which makes me feel good. We just hope people will carry it on some way because it is a rich area.
What do you think Ryan?
Ryan: I concur.
The North Carolina Arts Council’s mission is to ensure the arts are supported in every county in North Carolina. We have asked every artist that we’ve interviewed for this project to reflect on why they think that matters. So, why would you say public funding for the arts is important?
Reggie: Well I think because kids need something. You need to be influenced by music when you’re small. I 100-percent believe that. There’s a thought or a study that says that every baby is born with perfect pitch, but there’s only a small window you have to develop it. You can speak any language you want to learn when you’re just a baby. It depends on which one you hear. It’s the same.
I loved when the music teacher came to class and sang songs. That was my favorite part of school. I think they should give every kid some sort of little toy trumpet or violin. The world’s changing. It’s all about phones. Kids in school need art. They need to see real people sit down and sing and play an instrument. The arts are the key to our humanity. I think our feelings for each other have to do with that and how you treat people. Usually, music people are nice people or good people. Not all of them, but for the most part, people that are in the music get along, don’t matter what race [or] what language you speak. If you like music, it’s something that ties you together.
Do you have anything else to add?
Ryan: He says enough for both of us. When I die, I don’t want to hear speed metal. I want to hear a Carter Family song. Then I’ll be going to the right place.
What do you each respect the most about each other’s musicianship?
Ryan: Reggie…he’s probably one of the best guitar players, seriously, [that’s] ever been. I’m not just saying it because he’s my brother. We were over in France…in Paris. It was the last day there, and he was teaching a guitar class. One of the guys that was sitting over beside me, he could barely speak English, he says, “He never misses a note.” His playing is like a river. It’s just flowing. There are no stops. He never misses a chord. He never misses nothing. He can play every style from bluegrass to jazz to blues with feeling. He’s a great singer too. My older brother, I guess he’s probably one of the main reasons I’m in music really. He’s just a good person too.
Reggie: I didn’t know you felt that way about me. Thanks.
Ryan: I do. I love you, buddy.
Reggie: Ryan…from the time he was just a kid coming home you could hear him get off the school bus. You could hear him singing. There was a couple hills you’ve got to cross to get down to where the school bus stop was, but his voice carried. He was born with a gift. There’s lots of people who sing, but you have to be born with what he has. I always knew I wanted him to be the singer in whatever music I was involved in. It was just how I was going to get him to do it was the problem. I tricked him into it.
Ryan: Once I realized I couldn’t play for N.C. State. That was not [in] the cards.