It is with heavy hearts that we relay the news of the passing of blues man Nathanial “Nat” Reese of Princeton, West Virginia. He was 88. Our sadness is only tempered by our deep gratitude to Nat for his lifetime of wonderful music, his passion for life, his dear kindness, and the lessons and wisdom he so generously gave to us. To say that we will miss Nat is beyond an understatement.
The first time I saw Nat he was jamming in the ballroom of the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington, Virginia, during one of the legendary Smithsonian Folk Festival hotel parties. He was leaning back in his chair wearing his signature beret adorned with colorful pins celebrating his military service and participation in various blues festivals, his guitar plugged into a small, fuzzy amp. The first song I heard him sing was “Just a Dream,” with a playfulness that made me laugh out loud, and an electrifying passion that made it difficult for me to sleep later that night. Nat and I soon became friends, and for years afterwards we had him play on various Virginia Folklife Stages, and later produced a solo album of Nat, Save a Seat for Me, recorded at Eastwood Studios in Cana, Virginia, on two consecutive nights without a single second take. Before Nat’s passing, we recorded a number of tracks of him with harmonica wizard Phil Wiggins, for a regretfully unfinished album.
Nat was born in Salem, Virginia, in 1924 (thus we have always proudly claimed him as a Virginian). At age four his father moved the family to Wyoming County, West Virginia, to enjoy the “riches” that awaited him as a coal miner. Nat was introduced to music by his parents—his mother played accordion and his father played guitar until his hands were crushed in a mining accident. Nat soon took up the guitar himself, largely influenced by the itinerant blues musicians who came through the coal camps as part of the chitlin’ circuit from the Mississippi Delta, as well as the countless other musical styles of the diverse communities of the coal camp. As a young man he performed in various string bands that played throughout the coalfields in the days before racial integration. Nat spent a number of years in the coal mines and learned quickly that coal mining wasn’t for him. Though he only was permitted to have an eighth grade education, Nat received second prize in an art contest and was admitted to Bluefield State College where he earned a degree in commercial art, while continuing to develop his musical career. For a time, he led a group called the Starlight Gospel Singers, based in Itmann, Wyoming County. Later, Nat concentrated on blues and swing music, often appearing with renowned fiddler Howard Armstrong. Howard and Nat traveled and performed extensively, including several European tours, where they appeared in Switzerland, Belgium, France, and East Germany. Nat was a fixture at local festivals such as the Blue Ridge Music Festival in Ferrum, Virginia, as well as many music camps such as the Augusta Heritage Center.
To talk to Nat was to get a glimpse into a life that was both completely unique and quintessentially part of the American experience. Many of the events of Nat’s life are the stuff of blues legend. As a young man he was run over by a coal truck, leading the doctors to conclude that he would never play or walk again. He sat in on an illegal card game (immortalized in a number of songs) where a particularly obnoxious participant was actually shot at the table, then pulled over to the corner so that the game could continue. Nat himself was shot on stage in a roadhouse called “Big Mama’s” outside of Bluefield, with the bullet piercing his cherished Gibson guitar into his side. And yes, he was most disappointed about the Gibson.
Like most African Americans of his generation, Nat endured a tremendous amount of discrimination and bigotry in his life. Still, he always remained resourceful, independent, and in control, caring for his family, mastering numerous trades, including commercial art, construction, television and stereo repair, selling newspapers, mechanics, coal mining, and, of course, music. Nat never played the victim.
Nat played music his whole life, and many felt that he only got better as he aged. Nat was honored with the West Virginia Vandalia Award and the John Henry Award. He performed at both the Smithsonian and National Folk Festivals. He is a member of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. Still, it is fair to say that Nat was largely underrated as a musician, and had not received the kind of recognition his talents deserved. I fully expect that this will change over time. If you never had a chance to hear Nat play, I hope that you will look into some of his old recordings and video footage of his performances. If you haven’t heard an 88-year-old man belt out, “I got a pretty woman habit, because big legs upset my soul,” then you just haven’t lived.
While Nat will always be remembered as a singer of the blues, he always thought of himself as a gospel singer at heart. One of his favorite lines to sing was “If you make it into Glory before I do, save a seat for me.”
I have no doubt they did.
–Jon Lohman, June 9, 2012