Monday, November 20, 2000

Ex-Bengal's music career blossoms

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mike Reid
        Writing music, says Grammy-winning songwriter and former Cincinnati Bengal Mike Reid, is an imperfect thing.

        “You have to get the feeling of it in your body first,” says Mr. Reid, explaining from his Nashville home how he wrote his latest piece, Prairie Songs. “I memorize the text. I take it on walks and get a feel for what these words mean to me. The words say, this is the journey we're going to take, and the music says, this is the way in which we're going to take the journey.

        “That's how I go about it. The academic composers might totally disagree. But I'm by nature a theatrical writer, probably as a result of being a songwriter.”

        Prairie Songs for string quartet and chorus receives its Cincinnati premiere at the Aronoff Center Tuesday.

  What: The Amernet String Quartet, with the Northern Kentucky Chamber Choir, Randy Pennington, director; Patricia Corbett, narrator.
  When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
  Where: Jarson-Kaplan Theater, Aronoff Center
  Tickets: $20; $7 students (at the door). Subscriptions for the Amernet Quartet's season (including Jan. 9 and April 10) are $50. 241-7469.
  Program: Prairie Songs (Cincinnati premiere) by Mike Reid; also, Beethoven, Elegischer Gesang, Op. 118; Haydn, Quartet in B Minor, Op. 33 No. 1; and Grieg, Quartet in G Minor, Op. 27.
  Preconcert talk: Mike Reid chats about Prairie Songs at 7:15 p.m.
        Since leaving the NFL trenches after a brilliant career in the early '70s, the strapping 6-foot-3 former all-pro has made a name penning hit tunes for the likes of Willie Nelson (“There You Are”), Ronnie Milsap (“Stranger in My House”), Kenny Rogers, Tim McGraw, Bette Midler, Wynonna Judd and Bonnie Raitt, whose rendition of “I Can't Make You Love Me” sold more than 6 million copies.

        The songwriting pays the bills, while Mr. Reid returns to his classical roots and pursues musical theater, chamber music and even opera.

        While he was still playing ball for the Bengals, the former piano major at Penn State was visiting the Cincinnati Pops and other orchestras, where he tested his musical talent.

        “I sang and played, and Gail Stockholm (the Enquirer music critic) said in the review, "In choosing a career between music and football, Mr. Reid has obviously made the right choice,' ” he says with a guffaw. (He was still playing football.)

        Today, his one-act opera, Different Fields — set against the backdrop of a professional football team — has been performed by several companies, including Cincinnati Opera Outreach. His chamber piece, Tales of Appalachia, has been performed more than 200 times. His musical, The Ballad of Little Jo,just ended a successful run in Chicago. He and his librettist, Sarah Schlesinger, have “begun to begin” Shane, a new musical headed for Broadway.

Acquired skill

               A savvy professional, Mr. Reid has analyzed how to write a pop hit, compared to a classical theme.

        “Popular music can, if you're not careful, become less about music and more about hypnotizing somebody with a "hook,' repeating something relentlessly over and over until the listener gives up and is forced to listen,” he laughs.

        Mr. Reid doesn't mince words about his ability, nor about how hard it is to write “serious” music.

        “I always felt deeply about music; I never quite understood the language, though,” he says. “It's an acquired skill; you don't sit and wait for the muse to descend. You just get your ass to work.

        “The more you work, the clearer things become. Prairie Songs is another step toward writing the truest, most honest music I can write.”

String music challenging

               Writing for Cincinnati's Amernet String Quartet presented its own challenges. “I learned you could probably spend an entire lifetime learning to write for strings,” he says. “I'm not afraid to ask a string player, "Can you do this?' however simple or idiotic the question may be.”

        “He's not trying to be what he's not,” says Erez Ofer, first violinist of the Amernet Quartet. “We had several meetings with him; it amazes me how clearly the music conveys the words. He's also open to suggestions. He's changed the score so many times, we never quite know which version we're playing!”

        For the text, Mr. Reid collaborated with Ms. Schlesinger to write original words. The imagery is evocative, poetic and very American.

        “The beginning, the "Song of the prairie lark,' is about the existence of the world, and along comes this noisy, messy creature called man,” he explains. “I love the last poem, "I dance in Statler's Field' . . . Those words make me feel more than I can properly express. It's the idea that, to live fully, one must say yes to all aspects of life: The ups the downs, the joys the sorrows. Easy for me to say!” he says.

He can do this

               Indeed, Mr. Reid's life in Nashville, where he lives with his wife, Susan, and their two teen-age children, is “rich.” He could rest on his football laurels and his two Grammy Awards. Yet Mr. Reid thrives on a new kind of adrenalin rush.

        “Someone gave me the five stages of accomplishment. The first stage is, I can't do this. The second is, maybe I can do this. The third is, there is absolutely no question, I cannot do this. The fourth is, oh my God, what if I can't do this. The fifth one is, hey, I've done it. Let's have a beer,” he says, laughing.

        Meanwhile, he is pursuing his dream to write the great American musical, to someday “walk into a New York theater and see a show that I've written, and see if it can find an audience,” he says.

        “I'm going to keep writing either way. The most I hope for is that somebody will hear it and just be glad that I wrote it.”


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