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Mike Reid
Jack McCallum
July 02, 2001
He's an award-winning songwriter and that's really all you need to know. (Psst: He was four times an All-Pro tackle.)
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July 02, 2001

Mike Reid

He's an award-winning songwriter and that's really all you need to know. (Psst: He was four times an All-Pro tackle.)

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"I loved football in almost a mythic way," he says. "For me the game wasn't grounded in reality. It was about die uniform you put on that turned you into a warrior. It was about die mythology of die battle, the victory, the defeat, the struggle. I looked at the game in almost dramaturgical terms, and the more I realized that it was a business without a mythic component, the less I wanted to play."

Besides, he had something else to do. For five years after his retirement Reid hit die road, performing in coffeehouses and roadhouses, building up a reputation as a singer-songwriter and somewhat of an ivory-tinkling jokester. He may have been a novelty act at first—"People wanted to come in and hear the Singin' Tackle," he says—but he got asked back because he was an accomplished and entertaining musician. One night in 1978, honky-tonk legend Jerry Jeff Walker heard a tape of Reid's Eastern Avenue River Railway Blues. Walker recorded it on his next album. Soon after that a Nashville music publishing company offered Reid $100 a week to write songs.

So it wasn't the lure of rhinestones or The Grand Ole Opry that brought Reid to the country music mecca; it was the opportunity to work in a songwriting environment. "This is a community that has always held a beautifully crafted song, any kind of song, in high regard," he says. Indeed, though Reid has had his share of country hits (he broke through in '83 when Ronnie Milsap recorded his Inside, and he won a Grammy for another Milsap-recorded tune, Stranger in My House, that year), he has reached a far wider audience than most Nashville songwriters. He wrote I Can't Make You Love Me with three vocalists in mind: Midler, Raitt and Linda Ronstadt. Raitt turned it into a classic that has sold more than six million copies as a single.

In the early 1990s Reid toured behind his own albums, Turning for Home and Twilight Town. He's fond of pooh-poohing his vocal abilities—pooh-poohing being one of his favorite activities—but he has a terrific voice, a lyric baritone. When he got off the road, Reid was restless to push his musical envelope, the natural course for someone with such diverse influences. As a kid he had listened to the Righteous Brothers and the Ronettes, yet he recalls a singular moment when, as a 13-year-old, he had the "rattling experience" of hearing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. In college, as others were listening to Hendrix and The Byrds, Paterno's 1969 music-major co-captain was holed up in his single room immersed in the works of the 20th century Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich.

When Reid, by then a Bengal, finally got into Dylan and the Beatles, he played them obsessively, yet maintained his lifelong affection for American composers such as Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland and Walter Piston. Over the last several years Reid has created an astonishingly diverse body of work: a piece called Quilts for the Tennessee Dance Theater; various chamber performance pieces that include a vocal element; a collection called Prairie Songs for string quartet and chorus; a one-act opera, Different Fields, that includes the haunting Bright November Morning; Little Jo; and, now, Shane. "What's unusual about Mike is his ability to take the drama that's in a three-minute song and apply it successfully to the drama, the opera or the musical," says Michael Ching, creative director of Opera Memphis, with whom Reid worked in writing Different Fields. "Mike has also shown that people shouldn't be pigeonholed, that athletes aren't soulless automatons and that classical music isn't just for geeks."

In a sense that's what Reid has been fighting to prove his entire life. He frets that some in the musical world still consider him the eternal Singin' Tackle, while some in the sports world still consider him the flake who jumped off the glory path to pound on a piano. "He's got to get over that," says Landesman, "because everyone in our business realizes he's a serious musician. He shouldn't care about the others."

To a degree, though, Reid's desire to prove his worthiness, to constantly reinvent himself as a writer, is what has made him successful. Deep inside his restless soul, he probably knows that. As his candle burns and his keyboard sends out a quiet hum of energy, Reid ponders the road he has taken. "I can't say for sure if football was good for me," he says. "I have some great memories, particularly of playing for a man like Joe Paterno. But what I do know is that the constant in my life has been music. Music has made my life infinitely better. Music is what it's always been about. That will never change."

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