Reggie Harris' new album, "On Solid Ground", comes three years after the release of his first solo recording, "Ready To Go". A lot has happened socially and politically in the United States in the time between albums. For an artist like Reggie, who is the 2021 recipient of the Folk Alliance "Spirit of Folk” Award, it was a time of soul searching. Reggie has based most of his 40-year career on educating, storytelling and using music as a "community building vehicle". Much of that time he was part of the duo "Kim and Reggie Harris".
"Like so many I was looking at the situation of the world, and in particular our nation", he says from his Philadelphia home. I thought to myself when I wrote the first two songs, ‘What am I going to do with these? Why would I put out a CD at this time?' The more I wrote, the more I thought the concerts I was doing online and the outreach I was getting from people (was) saying to me, 'We need music at this time'. That just inspired me and spurred me further to continue writing. So by the time I had the nine songs I thought I'm not just going to sit on these. So I called up Greg (Greenway, who produced the last album) and we had a listening session and planned some things out. I called the studio and we decided to start the project and see where we went. It just came together. I won't say with ease but we all felt we were working on something that needed to be put into the world."
Given the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on music, there were no problems getting musicians to participate in the recording sessions.
"It was easy to get musicians because nobody was working!", laughs Reggie. "But also I think for all of them it was an opportunity for expression in a very challenging and frustrating time. They all came in with this amazingly open spirit to really hear the songs. The whole thing came together with such amazing grace. This is the easiest I've ever sung on an album in the studio. Even though there were some really hard days and some hard things going on in the world it just felt like I was really working on something that people could use."
Three of the songs from "On Solid Ground" got their start as a result of audience reactions to Reggie's online concerts and the thankfulness they felt for his gift of music.
"In the case of 'Let's Meet Up Early' I was just so inspired after doing a concert one night. The (Presidential) election was coming up and every one was so concerned about the mail and the this and the that, and I said, 'We're all going to have to work together to make sure folks get out the vote'. I thought we're going to have to work morning, Noon and night, (so) I thought 'Let's Get Up Early'. (Then I thought), 'There's an idea!'. Before I knew it, I was two hours into writing that song. Several of them happened that way. I think this is the thing with being a songwriter or artist, you see the world around you and you respond to it. And you don't always know where that response is going to go when you start."
As someone who educates and enlightens his audiences through his songs, Reggie knows today's achievements in social justice and equality are based on the foundations built and sacrifices made by those in the past, as expressed in the song, "Standing In Freedom's Name".
"One day I was sitting on my couch and I pulled up that (video) clip of C.T. Vivian confronting (Sheriff) Jim Clark", he says. "I met C.T. Vivian in 2015 and I was aware of him but wow, what an astonishing, graceful presence he was. He was at a conference the 'Living Legacy Project' did. We talked for a few minutes and then I just watched the openness with which he greeted every human being."
Vivian, who died in July of last year, was a minister, author and a leader in the Civil Right Movement along with Martin Luther King Jr. He lead a group of prospective Black voters to the Courthouse in Selma, Alabama only to be stopped by Sheriff Jim Clark. After repeatedly refusing to let the crowd enter the building the Sheriff and his deputies started assaulting Vivian and his supporters. Civil rights leader Andrew Young later stated there would not have been the Voting Rights Act if not for Vivian's courage. This was a month before the famed march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what has been remembered as "Bloody Sunday".
"I knew where that connection for human beings was when I looked at that clip and he turns to (the crowd) and says, 'We are willing to be beaten for justice. Am I right?' and they all say, 'Yeah!'. So I was watching that video and as often happens that (opening) lyric came to me and I was off and running. The inspiration just kept coming and I was open because there was nothing else to do!", he laughs. "But here I was in an open space for creativity and I just had the hours to devote to letting the songs come."
Fitting into the mood and musical textures of "On Solid Ground" are two cover songs, "All You Need Is Love" and "Hello In There".
"I've always loved 'All You Need Is Love' but I heard it in a very different way. The message of it really connected with the fact there happened to be so much hate in the world. The Beatles said it so perfectly. It really is simple in a sense that we need to understand that we are enough and that love really does heal. (With) 'Hello In There', John Prine has been such an astonishing force in our community and in the world for connecting snapshots. We were so isolated (because of) COVID, unable to get together with our friends, but particularly our relatives. (There were) people dying and unable to see the folks they loved. I just thought that song was such a great snapshot of people not being seen. Sometimes we don't get to see and say the things you want to say to someone. That was happening time and time again through the pandemic."
Reggie is currently dealing with a wrist injury so his performances are curtailed but he has definite plans for the future.
"This album is a wonderful compliment to the work I'm doing and I have so many opportunities both on the lower school level, the college level and with my adult concerts. Conversations on race and race relations, as a result of all the uprising and all of the awareness being revealed, is creating more opportunities to do what I truly love to do, which is get people in a room, open up with some songs, then begin to hear stories and unpack some of this stuff, the level of fear and awkwardness people (feel) in having these conversations. I want to encourage more people to talk to their families in ways that don't promote the discord (and) the argument, to sharing the real essence of who we are as human beings. Song is one of the best ways to do that and I'm looking forward to really continuing to do concerts where I'm getting people thinking, I'm getting people feeling beyond all that rhetoric and all the red, white, Democrat, Republican stuff that happens. You know we have to begin to see each other again and hear each other. I don't know a better way to do that than using music."
For more on Reggie Harris and his new album, "On Solid Ground", go to reggieharrismusic.com.