Center for Popular Music Director’s Dual Passions Come Together for Performance

Gregory Reish,  who became director of MTSU’s Center for Popular Music last year, will perform songs from a repertory of “old-time” music he has built through years as both a performer and a scholar of music at 8:00 p.m. Wednesday night at the T. Earl Hinton Music Hall.

Reish, 49, says he will be playing both ancient and modern music from centuries-old English ballads, 17th- and 18th-century songs and even some songs by living songwriters, all fitting under the broad genre banner of “old-time music,” on guitar, banjo and fiddle.

“While I don’t try to recreate those sounds in a slavish kind of way, I am inspired by them,” Reish said. “A lot of what I do comes from my study of that period.”

Reish’s career has taken a wandering, garden-path route of discovery of music and of self. Starting out with the dream of being a performer in Nashville, Reish has devoted much of his life and passion to the scholarly study of the history and form of music that was new to him. He now studies the songs of the antique styles of the rural south, the kind of songs he grew up loving, and performs them as well. That garden path has led Reish in a circle, and brought him someplace entirely new.

A musician from a young age, he started taking music seriously when he went to a performing arts high school in Atlanta, where he grew up, and pursued a bachelor’s degree in jazz guitar performance from the University of Miami. After receiving his bachelor’s, he headed to Nashville to start a career as a songwriter.

Like many Nashville transplants, however, Reish’s naiveté about the nature of the business and lack of direction kept his career from taking off.

“That was an interesting time in my life, and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do … I thought my talent would be enough to open doors almost magically,” Reish said. “I was well-prepared as a musician, but I was not well-prepared in the workings of the business.”

Reish started doing a lot of reading—taking a stronger interest in some of the theory and history he had been exposed to in his coursework as a music performance major.

“I became deeply interested in these other styles that were not a part of my musical background,” he said. “It was a matter of one door opening while I was sort of wandering around this room aimlessly trying to make a music career work, hoping these other doors would open magically.”

This new door led him back to his home state and the University of Georgia, and he received a masters and a PhD in musicology which, he said, “is a fancy way of saying ‘music history’.”

At Georgia, Reish’s focus of study was on European music. His doctoral dissertation on early 20th century Italian Avant-Garde composer Giacinto Scelsi won him a Fulbright scholarship to Italy.

As a graduate student,he fell in love with teaching.

“That was one thing that sealed the deal for me,” Reish said. “Now it all made sense.”

After years of research and teaching around the country, he “came full circle back” to the music he loved playing growing up: a music with European roots that took on a life of its own on the other side of the Atlantic.

“I had not been playing very much for quite some time, and I was getting back into playing, and looking for new research interests, and they sort of came together at that point in traditional American music,” he said. “So what I do now is I research and write about old-time music and bluegrass and other kinds of related traditional American genres, and I also perform them.”

“Having what you might call an ‘insider’s’ understanding of how the music sounds as a performer certainly gives you insights that just studying the music from the outside, so to speak, will never give you,” Reish continued.

While Reish does work from the outside-in from time to time transcribing and analyzing music, his area of focus within musicology is style: a study of the way music actually sounds and is performed — how limitations of an instrument or personal flourish can give rise to technique, and how technique can shape the effect of a performance. For Reish, being involved with music as a musician—playing, jamming with others—helps him “understand why other performers have done things the way they did, because you’re doing them yourself.”

Coming from a time when the oral tradition was still a vibrant and essential way to pass on information and culture, he said the lyrics of these songs can often have a “journalistic passion” in a way that isn’t often seen today. Tonight’s recital features some songs that are humourous, and some that are violent and “deadly serious” in a way that Reish predicts will surprise people.

“(The songs) helped people deal with and process current events that on the surface of them are very hard to grapple with,” Reish said.

Reish also plans to play the fiddle and sing simultaneously, something he says is rare even for people who listen to folk or old-time music, because the fiddle is not traditionally thought of as an accompaniment instrument like the guitar or banjo is.

“It’s a very archaic sound,” Reish said. “But I feel it’s appealing and intriguing for that reason.”

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