“Billy Harvey is better than everybody else." - Bob Schneider
If you ever happened to be in earshot of Bob some years ago, there's a pretty good chance you heard him say something to this effect. Billy was playing lead guitar in Bob's band at the time. He was also the guy prone to wearing a large pair of retro headphones on stage. In the back of Schneider's tour bus circa 2003, Billy Harvey could often be found working on songs that would eventually end up comprising his cult classic, Pie. All these years later, Pie will finally be released on vinyl. Astonishingly, it’s the first of Billy Harvey’s studio recordings to have made it to this medium.
With a pile of D.I.Y. releases that date back to the early 2000s, a voice that is emotionally riveting and unmistakably his own, a guitar style that is equal parts melody-central and atmospheric wizardry, and a back catalogue chock-full of enduring songs, Billy Harvey has been inexplicably flying under the pop culture radar for nearly two decades. Yet, in certain musician circles coast to coast, he has often been cited as one of the best-kept secrets in the business. He's worked with scores of artists as producer and sideman (including Patty Griffin, Charlie Mars, Rhett Miller, the aforementioned Schneider, and Steve Poltz), done some acting, written a kick-ass poetry book, won the John Lennon International Songwriting Contest, and even made a documentary film while he toured in an old Mercedes Benz rigged to run on vegetable oil. So, congratulations to you if this is the first time you’ve ever heard of Billy Harvey or his music.
Billy was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1967, but eventually landed in Austin, Texas. (If you think his music bears more than a passing resemblance to Jeff Tweedy’s, please consider that the Wilco frontman is 8 months Billy Harvey’s junior and that they hail from the same part of the country. Maybe there was something other than lead in the ‘67 Illinois drinking water?) Harvey relocated to California as a teen and played in bands there before moving to Texas in the late ’90s. The first 6 of Billy’s 9 full-length releases were done in a little house he owned off North Burnett in Austin. Pie was the 2nd of these and originally came out in 2004. His close friend and Austin music legend, George Reiff, would occasionally come over and add some bass. Other than Reiff, though, what you mainly hear on Pie is the work of a one-man band: the band of Harvey!
Pie kicks off with “Stupid Daniel,” an endearing pop tale with an insidiously catchy melody. Its unlikely protagonist might not technically be as smart as the rest of the kids, but “he knows more than everyone.” Stupid Daniel is a misfit and, just like the Kinks and the Replacements, the misfit is Billy’s lead character of choice. In “Like A Boy,” Billy casts himself in the role: “I hate it when your father treats me like a boy.” How’s our hero supposed to keep the girl he loves when her father thinks he’s a no-good loser? The song bobs along over Reiff’s moving bass line, and the listener is swept away by a wordless melody that feels less like defeat and more like a celebration. Billy Harvey is clearly having fun on this record. From the rapid-fire rhymes found in the Beastie Boys-esque “Dope Wings” to the could-be-arena-rock pop of “Invisible,” Pie is an effortless exercise in perfect pop hooks that would’ve been lauded and snatched up in droves if greater-known acts like Beck or Wilco had created them.
It’s fitting that this timeless record came from an underground, D.I.Y. underdog misfit. It’s even more fitting that Pie finally makes it to vinyl 16 years after it was recorded. A musician only motivated by marketplace successes would’ve thrown in the towel long before this release ever saw the light of day—but not Billy Harvey, who is still going strong writing and recording new music in his latest home, Nashville.