On June 8, West Virginia blues multi-instrumentalist and gospel singer Nathaniel Hawthorne “Nat” Reese died, at the age of 88. Reese was born in 1924 in Salem, Virginia, to parents from Alabama, both of whom were musicians—his mother played the concertina, and his father played the guitar until injuries to his fingers made that too difficult. In Salem, Reese’s father worked as a coal and ice truck driver, and a custodian at Hollins College, and also owned a restaurant. When Reese was five years old, the family moved to West Virginia to take advantage of the economic opportunities surrounding the coal industry there.
As a child Reese began learning to play his father’s guitar, at which point his family bought him a 12-string Martin tiple. Soon he was so accomplished that he received an invitation to give a performance at a local school. Reese, who was nine years old, answered, “Yeah! It don‘t make me no difference! I‘ll play anywhere! Railroad, riverbank, on the train, off the train, don‘t make no difference!” John Maeder has written of this time in Reese‘s life that, ”This engagement led to a long string of performances at coal camps in the region such as Black Bottom, Fireco, Pineville, Welch, and others, usually as the warm-up entertainment at speaking engagements given by visiting executives of the coal companies. Nat sang songs he had learned from the itinerant coal camp musicians, his parents, radio broadcasts, and from 78rpm records played on the family‘s spring-wound Victrola.?“While still a boy, Reese also developed an interest in the music of a local gospel quartet, and became so familiar with their music that he was invited to join the group when one of the members died in a mining accident. Reese and his brother Thomas, along with John and Walter Mozelle, formed a gospel quartet called the Harmonizing Four. They toured throughout the Southeast, singing on radio broadcasts and at churches.
He formed a musical partnership in the late 1930s with veteran blues and string band musician Howard Armstrong, of Tennessee Chocolate Drops and Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong fame. Armstrong and Reese would play together for many years.
Reese attended Bluefield State College, during which time he played in a dance band that toured the coal country. In World War II, he served in the Army. In the 1950s he and his wife Bessie Smith Reese lived in New York and then in Detroit, Michigan, where he was a member of the renowned Heavenly Gospel Singers.
Returning to Princeton, West Virginia, in 1959, he worked for the State Roads Commission, and later for the Rockwell aviation plant. He continued to play music, and he and Howard Armstrong toured Europe together. Following his retirement, Reese continued performing and touring. He was an instructor at the Augusta Heritage workshops at Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia, and, in his late eighties, at the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival in Port Townsend, Washington. Reese received the Vandalia Award in 1995, and in 2009 he was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame