Abe Reid doesn't have any problem getting his mind right to sing the blues--he's lived 'em. Reid has seen his best friend murdered, been addicted to heroin, nearly lost his wife and daughter in a car crash that collapsed a lung and cost him his spleen, done time in jail, and lost a major record contract--all before his 30th birthday.
The Statesville-based singer/guitarist was all set to be a rock star with his buddies back in '94 in a band called The Blue Rags. Sub Pop records was set to sign the group after a gig at New York City's CBGB's. Reid, who at the time was heavily into heroin, says he brought enough medicine for the trip, but did it all before he got there. "Then I had to go cop, and it all came out. They gave me one chance to get clean, and I couldn't do it." Reid says his best friend had just been murdered three months before, and "I was just using that as an excuse to kill myself." They threw him out of the band and Reid says it took "seven detoxes and two months in jail to get clean."
Reid had wanted to be a blues singer since his mother's boyfriend, who he describes as a "tattooed motorcycle guy who played old-time fiddle," introduced him to the blues. Reid thought the blues started with the Grateful Dead until the boyfriend turned him on to roots music. "I started grooving on the blues," says Reid, "and it got so it was all I'd talk about, all I would listen to. He said, 'hey man, put two more chords and a bridge in it and you can play swing and ragtime.'"
Reid thought he had the hang of it, but he figured the act could use a bit of polishing, "It's kind of hard to take on the persona of an old black dude in your hometown where all the people know you, you know what I mean? So I got down to New Orleans to sing like I wanted to try to sing, and do the things I knew that I could do but you just didn't want to do in front of the guys that knew you and see all your tricks."
After playing street music a few months in New Orleans, and Key West, the guitarist says he felt more comfortable, and The Blue Rags got started after that. When that fell apart, Reid didn't do much until he entered the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society's Talent Contest. He won first prize and a trip to Memphis to compete in the International Blues Talent competition, which he also won. "It helped my attitude a lot, made me feel like I could get out there and do it again. I really wasn't playing much live then. I had just ran down and played in that local competition and won first place, and that's what you won--a chance to compete in Memphis. So when I won first place in Memphis, I got back into the music business pretty serious after that."
But Reid still had a problem. When asked right after the competition if he was going to start another band, he replied, "I'm just so hard to get along with, man. I mean I'm like Adolph Hitler. I got ways I want things done, and a lot of people don't like to be told what to do."
Reminded of that comment recently, Reid says that he's made a few changes since then. "I've been working on myself," he says sheepishly. "I've become a Christian, been in a car wreck, and been knocked down a few levels on my egoness, I guess. My daughter was in the hospital for three months; she was in a coma for about half of that time."
While most bluesmen makes deals with the devil, Reid went the other way. "I just got real close to Christ, and just prayed my ass off. If you'll take care of my little girl, I'll be a soldier for you, dawg," Reid says he promised the Savior. "I've always known the difference between right and wrong. Now my little girl's just as good as new, so I've got to hold up my end of the bargain without making people squirm and stuff."
Reid has stuck by his promise. "I'm just trying to be kinder and not be so mean," he confesses. "It's been some years now (that) I've been trying to be nice. Plus, the blues societies all got together for me and raised money for me. That's pretty humbling, to show up at a place and have a dozen bands all on a weekend night all donating their time and then a guy hands you a few thousand bucks. That just changed the way I looked at the world."
His Hitler complex seems to have been conquered as well. He now has a new band, the Spike Drivers, composed of classical violinist Seth Kaufman on drums and Korey Dudley playing standup bass. "I'm not doing the real strict blues and trying to make it sound like you could close your eyes and in the old days you're listening to the real old blues," says the Christian bluesman. "I'm just doing the music that I love, and then putting the flair to it from my generation."