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Rusty Reid: “Most great artists are their own worst critics. Still, nobody else counts in the scheme of your own art”

Where do I begin when it comes to Seattle-based indie artist Rusty Reid? It was his 2023 album ‘Bayou Line (Songs from Houston)’ that launched my affection for the musician, and in turn, got me exploring some of his earlier work like ‘NWXSW’. Most recently, however, Rusty has been delivering pointedly political tunes with the likes of ‘The United States of Selfishness’ and ‘American Villian’.

Keen to get to know Reid better, I was honoured when he agreed to an interview! Going in-depth about his most recent two singles, his admiration for acts and artists like Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, and The Beatles, and what “being successful” in the industry looks like to him, please give a big welcome to our friend Rusty Reid!

Hi Rusty, it’s awesome to finally have the opportunity to chat with you! We’ve been following your work for quite some time now. Before we get into the nitty-gritty, please tell us a little bit about your musical journey. When did your love affair with music begin?

Hey Jeremy. Thanks for the discussion. My earliest memory is when I was two years old and my dad and I were out in the backyard in the snow with our two black cocker spaniels running around us. I’m not sure I was into music at that point, but it wasn’t long after that I became mesmerized (isn’t that a great word?) by it. My dad’s side of the family was not very musical, even though he had played tuba in his high school band. But my mom’s side made up for it and then some. Seems like all of her relatives were either players or singers or both. She was a good singer, played the piano, and had an eclectic batch of records, which after graduating from “children’s music” by the age of four or five, I glommed on to. This was Elvis and Nat King Cole and Hank Williams and such. And the local hero in West Texas at that time was Roy Orbison, who was from Wink, Texas, about 30 miles from my hometown of Midland. So I was exposed to all of that, plus whatever was on Top Forty radio, and couldn’t get enough of it.

I actually resisted when my mom decided I was going to take piano lessons. But then loved it. Still, I kind of always thought of it as just a hobby, not something very serious. That changed when my mom brought the album ‘Meet the Beatles’ home. She used to say it was the biggest mistake she ever made because it certainly launched me into a different orbit than she would have preferred. She could have been John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, thinking, “The guitar is alright, but you’ll never earn your living by it.” Aunt Mimi was, umm, wrong about that. But, so far, looks like my mom may have been right.

Your latest tune ‘American Villain’ is an all-out assault on the twice-impeached, four-times-indicted former president of America, Donald Trump. Can you elaborate on the emotions and convictions that drive ‘American Villain’?

Absolutely! As you know, good old America is currently split in its evaluation of this individual. Seems about half think he is “sent by God.” And the other half is aghast by this buffonish creature, and even more alarmed by his allure to our fellow citizens. It is at the same time bizarre, confusing and sickening. What is going on here? It makes zero rational sense. It’s all visceral. It’s all emotional. I wouldn’t have believed it could happen. Not here in America. We were making such good progress not long before when we elected a guy named Barack Hussein Obama as president (twice). Now look at us. It’s pathetically absurd. Hitler at least looked the part of a villain. Dumpy Trump, with his orange makeup, garish ducktail, wimpy voice, wandering ignorance and fountain of easily refuted lies, is just a cartoon. He would be hilarious if he was not the most dangerous cartoon we have seen in American history.

This man has already badly wounded America, and therefore, as we are in some senses the “leader of the free world,” the entire planet. His MAGA movement, which is just an escalation of the worst of conservative impulses that pre-existed, has set us back 50 years or more (his three Supreme Court appointees could well muck things up for generations). Not to mention the damage he has done to the efforts to combat Global Warming. And now here he is again, poised to get right back into the White House. If you believe in liberal democracy, it is a cruel joke, travesty and disaster rolled into one. Seems like an all-hands-on-deck moment for those who actually believe in American ideals, or just plain old sanity. Alas, I’m not sure enough people understand the real situation.

The United States of Selfishness‘ was another track of yours that really stood out personally. What does the song mean to you and do you remember its “birth” so to speak?

Yeah, I think of these two songs as siblings. Both are pointedly political, addressing much the same problems and were both written about the same time, with ‘American Villain’ coming out first. It then inspired ‘The United States of Selfishness,’ which addresses the wider dilemma of perennial conservative resistance to moral progress. This has been going on for centuries, indeed, millennia. Every stitch of moral progress made in human history has been achieved by liberals liberating, and staunchly, often viciously, opposed by conservatives conserving. What do conservatives conserve? Only one thing: their own advantage, privilege and power. Nothing else. Liberals seek to liberate individuals (and even things… animals, the environment, etc.) from conservatives conserving. So this has established a dynamic that is ever present and ongoing. If you read history as such, it makes perfect sense, and it’s the only way to understand the commonality between all the issues that conservatives claim to be concerned about. Just poke through the icing, and you’ll find that cake is pure selfishness. No surprise. Conservatism is the Ideology of Selfishness.

Of course, it’s not just America that faces this dichotomy. Every nation does. What is singularly diabolical about America’s conservatives is that they are so defiantly determined to undermine what this nation was founded upon: Liberty, Equality, and Justice for ALL. We the People. They think of themselves as superior, and thus judge themselves the “real” Americans (and also “real” Christians), when in fact they are anti-American. They are the “rot in the belly,” and have been since the Tories, the Confederates, the Ku Klux Klan and a litany of other villains throughout American, and world, history. Who killed Socrates? Conservatives. Who killed Jesus? Conservatives. Who killed Bruno? Conservatives. Who killed Joan? Conservatives. Who killed Martin Luther King Jr.? Conservatives. Who started the Crusade? Conservatives. Who started the last two world wars? Conservatives. Who will start the next one? Conservatives. Where are the violent hotspots in the world today? Wherever the most conservative conservatives are in charge.

Who are some of your biggest musical influences? Who did you grow up listening to? And would you say that your tastes have changed over the years? 

I’m a child of the 1960s, so very influenced by that era of music. There was an innocence, hopefulness, and positivity to so many of those songs, and even the propagation of spiritual (not religious) concepts such as universal love and harmony. That kind of mystic thinking had rarely, if ever, been part of popular music. Suddenly “peace and love” was everywhere. So much positive seemed to be happening in the Sixties, including Civil Rights, which in the music sphere manifested as Black artists not being excluded as before but being brought right into the mainstream of the Top Forty. Environmentalism became a thing… and you had songs extolling Mother Nature. The hippies enshrined women’s rights, free love, and “unisexual” approaches to everyday life, and I think this helped spark the LGBTQ movement, which had its beginnings in that era. My particular heroes, after Chuck Berry and Roy Orbison and Hank Williams and The Beatles, were Simon & Garfunkel, The Doors, Glen Campbell, Jimi Hendrix, The Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cream, and later The Eagles, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello. And many others. I’ve always been open to the latest and greatest. 

I do think my tastes have matured and further diversified over the years, but I still look for melody, interesting chord structure, singular voices, cool guitars, an organic “style,” and great musicianship. I don’t like clones, and I’m afraid I do find too much “modern” music very clonish. Not to mention entirely vapid in theme and lyrics.

Einstein famously said, “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician.”  If you were not a musician, what would you be?

Yeah, Einstein would have probably have taken music into the cosmos. He would have come up with some stuff! It’s probably not entirely a coincidence that musicians like Brian May and Brian Cox became astrophysicists. Actually, I don’t really consider myself a musician. I noodle around on guitar on keyboards, and I think I have some talent for melody and coming up with catchy licks that serve the song. But it would be an insult to real musicians to put me in that category. I guess I consider myself first and foremost, a songwriter. And secondly, a singer. I hit the right note more often than not.

But wondering what I was going to “be when you grow up,” was kind of looking dubious for a while there when I was a pre-teen. I looked around at all the men I knew, and what they did for a living, and thought to myself, “Ugh. I don’t want to do that!” Then The Beatles came on the Ed Sullivan Show, and I watched it in awe and said, “That’s what I want to do.” And so set off on this long, strange musical-philosophic-political-spiritual journey, upon which I feel like I’m still carrying the banner, the spirit, the head and the heart of those crazy Sixties.

What would “being successful” in the music industry look like for you? And do you see it as an imperative or more of a cherry on top?

I think any artist must consider “success” just creating something that they feel “succeeded” as art, as some pretty close approximation of their original vision and goal. That’s the baseline, which is not always easy to reach, especially as most great artists are their own worst critics. Still, nobody else counts in the scheme of your own art. Everything else beyond your own approval as an artist that comes to us is that “cherry on top.” The “cake” is what you as the artist think of the piece. If one other person likes it, great. If millions of people like it, great. If you make $10 million on it, great. If you make nothing on it, great. If you go in the hole making it, great. It can make you rich and have people fawning all over you, but it’s still a failure if you, as the artist, and as the creator, don’t think the creation actually succeeds. Not that I’ve ever experienced anything like this scenario just described. I’m sure being able to buy a Maserati or a mansion with your “failed” art goes a long way to assuaging your disappointment.

As for myself, I’m not in the music “industry.” I get what you are saying, and the “industry” is a real thing. But I’m not commercial. I’m not a product. I’m not a part of the “star-making machinery” Joni Mitchell described. No corporation can own, sell, or hurt me. My stuff is for sale, but barely, and it’s “art,” not a commodity. I’m so far in the hole money-wise in this “business,” that I’ll never break even. I’m just doing this for me, and throwing it out there for anyone else to maybe notice and enjoy, or not. Of course, it is gratifying when people respond positively, but if I were to ever throw something out there that I knew wasn’t that good, wasn’t up to my standards, and people swooned over it, I would think, “Well thanks, but you’re wrong.”

If you were allowed to collaborate with one musician or band, who would you choose?

I’ve been asked this question before, and I answered The Byrds. They were right up my country-rock alley, and I think my songwriting and voice might have melded well in that situation. But reflecting on this possibility further, I remembered a near-miss in my own real life. A singer/songwriter named Emitt Rhodes was very influential to me back in the early 1970s. He put out five dazzling albums and was one of the pioneers of home recording. Do check him out. But, speaking of the “industry,’ it chewed up Emitt, leaving him jaded, disappointed, and broke, having had his music stolen by the record label. 

Well, fast forward two decades and I was living in a suburb of L.A. called Hawthorne. Yep, the hometown of The Beach Boys. And also, Emitt Rhodes. I had entirely forgotten that Emitt was from Hawthorne. Nor did I know that, while The Beach Boys had long since moved to Malibu, Emitt still lived in Hawthorne. This was pre-internet, so you couldn’t just look people up, though, if I had thought to look, he was right there in the frickin’ phone book! Only years later, after I had moved to the Pacific Northwest did I finally research Emitt’s whereabouts on the internet and learn that he lived two blocks away from me in Hawthorne. I could have walked over there and knocked on his door! What if I had? Would he have come over to my house for a good home-cooked meal? Would I have been able to cajole him to get back to writing and recording? Would we have written songs together? Would we have formed a band? Would we have recorded together? Magic might have ensued in one way or another. Emitt finally released one last great album in 2016, and he died in 2020. We never met. Oh, if I could travel back in time to when I was living in Hawthorne and learn that the great Emitt Rhodes is hanging out two blocks away.

Thanks again for chatting with us Rusty! It’s been great getting to know you a bit better. Before we let you go, what comes next for you musically?

Yes, thanks again, Jeremy. I’m re-mixing my 2019 album, ‘Head to Heart,’ which I consider my opus. I call it a ‘Revolutionary Manifesto in Song.’ It’s the fifth anniversary of that album, and I’ve learned so much about mixing in the meantime, I feel like I really should go back and spiff up this album. Every song on it is either philosophical, political and/or spiritual (not religious). That re-mix will be released this year. I’ve also got at least three other albums pretty much in the can, they just need tweaking. That material will be released down the road a bit. Hope you will continue to give a listen.


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