Behind The Beard.The Backstory of Whispering Beard Folk Fest
Being in the local music community, you must have at least heard of The Whispering Beard Folk Festival. Beardos are a strong support all year to local music shows and venues. We see them, we know them, we love them. But, do you really know about Whispering Beard? Yeah, yeah, another music fest, big deal, right?? Wrong.
Last summer was my virgin voyage to Whispering Beard. I honestly had some anxiety about the weekend. I’m not a camper but I’m not a wuss either. I have terrible allergies (August kicks off hay fever season) but I was prepared. Neti pot, every allergy tablet known to man and a special group of friends who took unbelievable care of me! And, keepin’ it real, Justin Townes Earle was Saturday’s headliner and I was going come hell or high water! I thought I knew what to expect, but little did I really know.
I made the drive with my friend Mel, it only took a little over an hour, and pulling into the town of Friendship I was immediately charmed. It’s kind of like you’d picture Mayberry might be. Little country homes surround the few businesses in “town”. There’s a gas station, bank, tavern and general store and that’s about it. You pull into the camp grounds and to the left are two stages side by side (I thought this was pretty ingenious). There’s no break in music, behind a pulled curtain, one stage is setting up during the other stage’s performance time! There are vendors of handcrafted items and food, especially COFFEE! I was so excited to learn I could get really good coffee at the festival! This wasn’t exactly the “roughing it” I anticipated (dreaded). On the edges of the campgrounds are tents of all the Beardos and Musicians who come to settle in for the weekend. With the exception of one big open space in the middle of it all, which is where the nightly bonfire takes place. We set up camp (Okay, so I made sun tea. I already told you I’m not a camper. Again, thank you wonderful friends!) and listened to the music already going on the stages. This was all nice, but it really wasn’t until that evening that I felt the shift in my consciousness take place that made me realize how truly special this festival is.
We watched music for several hours that evening and the night’s final performer was Langhorn Slim. He put on a very high energy set and his banjo player particularly stands out in my memory. The guy was playing banjo like he was playing rock music. Slim’s final song “Past Lives” is a soulful tune about those strange connections we feel to loved ones and strangers. He jumped off the stage, with mic still in hand, climbed over the metal barricade and sang right in the middle of the crowd. The refrain, “Do you believe in past lives? Haven’t I met you before?” floating over the place like some kind of anthem. Truly a beautiful moment, it was hard not to get a little choked up. The stages shut down for the night. Everyone is making their way back toward the campsites and as we’re walking you can see the bonfire has been lit. A few people are hanging around, some with instruments. Things are kind of quiet and peaceful as folks are absorbing the performance they just got to actually be a part of and then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes two familiar voices wailing an old Hank tune at the top of their lungs making their way across the field, guitars in hand. Timmy Carr (Arlo McKinley & The Lonesome Sound) and Todd Lipscomb (Kentucky Struts), inspired by the night’s music, heading toward the bonfire like two men on a mission. Within seconds a crowd forms as the fire shoots sparks up into the summer sky and everyone is singing and many are picking along and you are overcome with warmth and happiness and just a total feeling of welcome and joy. This is my most prominent memory of what Whispering Beard is truly about.
The amazing music and talent that this festival has attracted, since its inception in 2008, is how you hear about Whispering Beard. Most folks go the first time because of a headling act but they start coming back every year because of that vibe. We need moments like that in our hectic lives and those moments are created by attendees-The Beardos and by the very philosophy of the creators of this festival.
I sat down with Wabs (Matt Wabnitz), Big Dan (Dan Williams) and Mulekick Murray (Adam O’Neil) to get insight into the story behind The Beard one evening at The Crow’s Nest on The Westside. It took, oh about two minutes, of talking with these guys to understand exactly why this festival feels so much like a return home, rather than a first time outsider experience. The very first thing that came out of Big Dan’s mouth was that they feel like they are merely “stewards of the festival” and that the fans really own Whispering Beard.
The first festival was actually a house party in Wab’s backyard and hosted by Wabs and Matt Williams (a co-founder of the fest). He was living on Wessleman Road at a place with some land. About 200 of his closest friends came and camped, there were 8 bands and a stage was built by some very inexperienced carpenters; Wabs, Moose Gronholm and Pat Gronholm. They constructed an extremely heavy duty stage inside a barn without realizing it was too big to move out the barn doors. They had to cut it down and reassemble it once outside. After that party was such a great time, conversations quickly turned to going bigger and making it a yearly thing. The name, by the way, came from Pat getting lost on his way to help and explaining he was on a road called Whispering Farm, which somehow lead to some teasing of Wabs for his newly grown beard, his “whispering beard” and it stuck.
In 2009 the festival moved to Morning View, Kentucky, where it would be until 2011. They were able to attract Peter Rowan and The Hakensaw Boys to headline and the crowds were steadily growing. The success of the festival created two separate schools of thought amongst the original board members. Wabs, Big Dan, Murray and the current board, strongly believe that there’s really no place at Whispering Beard for corporate sponsorships or big business. They want local vendors, a lot of local music interspersed with touring acts and the festival to be the fan’s festival. They funnel all monies made at the festival back into the coffers to allow it to grow the next year and possibly attract even bigger performers. Some of the former board members were less committed to this grass roots approach, there was an amicable parting of ways and a move was made to the festival’s current locale, Friendship Indiana. Friendship has proved to be a perfect fit for The Beardos, right down to the little town’s name!
I asked the guys some of their favorite moments in planning the festival. Wabs told a story of being at work and getting a call from an unknown number and the person on the other end of the line saying it was Guy Clark (a personal hero). Wabs assumed a friend was pulling his leg and was saying, yeah Guy Clark and playing along to only about 3 minutes into the conversation realize it really WAS Guy Clark! “I have no business on the phone with Guy Clark!” Wabs chuckled. He said, in a way, they have that feeling all the time. It’s a roll of the dice and praying everything comes off without a hitch. The Sundays after the festival each year they sit around and just soak in a feeling of somewhat disbelief that, “hey, we did it again. It worked.” These are friends that have built something great that last year attracted @2000 of their closest friends and is literally built on grass roots, keeping it local, good intentions and the true power of music.
This year the festival hosts Jason Isbell (please Lord, get me an interview with this man) Dead Man Winter, Spirit Family Reunion, The Tillers and a host of others. The entire lineup can be checked out at www.whisperingbeard.com. The Vendor Village is expanding to over 30 vendors including Eli’s BBQ, Jay Damon’s Wood fired Pizza, a variety of artisans and crafters and The Kids Village.
Watch for previews of some of the performers here at CincyMusic.com and I will be blogging from the festival! If you’ve never been I really encourage you to come experience this amazing weekend for yourself. I think the website sums it up best, “WBFF isn't just a festival, it’s something greater than that. It's something you just feel in the pit of your stomach like a first kiss or spring. It's about you and me and us...for three days it's just about us.”
Whispering Beard Folk Fest
Whispering Beard Warm Up with Jeremy Pinnell and the 55s, Red Cedars, Buffalo Wabs and The Price Hill Hustle and The Rabbit Hash String Band!
Saturday, July 27, 3-9 pm
3313 Riverside Drive, Cincinnati 45226