It’s an old baseball glove
It’s my granddaddy’s knife
It’s a good pair of boots
It’s a farmer’s wife
So begins the song, “Life is Beautiful”, which Willy Tea Taylor introduces to explain to people where he is from rather than naming the northern California town where he was born. The reflections on simple things that make life meaningful are threaded through lyrics to songs that make large rooms and festival crowds alike stand silently and sway as they nod to the truth they are listening to. On a tenor guitar with just four strings, Willy artfully weaves melodies and textures with lyrics that can range from funny and playful to downright powerful. An honest, genuine songwriter, Willy Tea is the perfect candidate for playing the Whispering Beard Folk Festival. He does not write down his lyrics or prepare a set list. His adaptability and creative tendencies will often allow a song to evolve over time. The “52-Week Club” he began with two friends in Colorado Springs became a model for Cincinnati songwriters to get together challenge themselves and each other to create original music based on nothing more than a theme drawn at random and a challenge to have a new song when the group meets again a week later.
Although this year will be the first Whispering Beard Folk Festival for Willy Tea Taylor, it will certainly not be his first appearance in Cincinnati. In fact, his music has been preceding his presence even before Willy Tea’s first visit for the Whispering Beard Folk Festival’s Christmas Party in December 2013. Before Matt “Buffalo Wabs” Wabnitz had the Price Hill Hustle, he was playing a song introduced to him by a friend living in Fort Collins, Colorado. Wabnitz was sent a video of this scruffy looking mountain man scratching out a new song in the corner of a dark room. The song Taylor was singing was “The Very Best”, written on the topic of the same name for a 52-Week Club challenge. Wabnitz began mining YouTube to find everything he could, and down in YouTube’s rabbit hole he found a version of “The Very Best” performed by a band called The Harmed Brothers. The Harmed Brothers’ version takes a different approach to the song but captures the same haunting feel. The version Wabnitz started playing was influenced as much by Harmed Brothers as Taylor’s, and he soon began playing “The Very Best” at open mics. When Casey Campbell began adding his percussion and powerful harmonies, the Hustle started to find its sound. To this day the song remains one of the trademarks of the Price Hill Hustle, and they also honor Taylor’s songwriting with a stirring rendition of “Everywhere Now”. The Harmed Brothers have since toured with Willy Tea Taylor, and visits to Cincinnati by both acts have helped solidify a remarkable relationship between them and the Price Hill Hustle that is centered on one song. Well, one song and baseball.
Wabnitz sought out The Harmed Brothers and invited them to play at the Whispering Beard Folk Festival in 2013. Wabnitz is well known as a baseball fan, with past Whispering Beard events including baseball in its themes. During the Festival, Wabnitz said he spent a considerable amount of time walking around the Festival grounds and talking about baseball with The Harmed Brothers’ Ray Vietti. The two found common ground over their shared love, and it helped to solidify a memorable start to a friendship that has endured. Willy Tea is also a baseball fan and has his share of baseball-themed songs, but perhaps his most memorable is the song, “A Brand New Game”, a reflection on life and family using baseball terminology as metaphors to describe people dear to him and the meaning of participating in each other’s lives. Wabnitz will occasionally get a text message from Vietti or Taylor with nothing more than quick updates and thoughts on baseball, but the friendships they share also share deeper layers than a simple game. This weekend’s festivities will surely lead to some mean wiffleball action among the musicians, but it will also allow the bands who share common loves to influence each other through music as well. When all three acts have been together in the past, there is usually a culminating moment when Willy, The Harmed Brothers, and Buffalo Wabs & The Price Hill Hustle sing the song that has brought so many Beardos together. Over time, those who have heard the numerous performances will hear elements of each band’s take appear in each other’s versions.
Whether it is over music, baseball, or the friendship that has formed between Willy Tea Taylor and other Whispering Beard Folk Festival musicians and fans, this weekend’s festivities will certainly be The Very Best of all three.