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If you asked me point blank who I thought was the best songwriter of our generation regardless of genre, scene, commercial or critical success, I would tell you without hesitation that it is Willy “Tea” Taylor from the interior valley cattle town of Oakdale, CA. His ability to enrich the perspective of life and all of its many wonders is unparalleled.
Willy “Tea” Taylor is an enigma, while at the same time being the most down-to-earth person you would ever meet. The co-frontman of The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, who also has a robust solo career, is cherished amongst his songwriting circles as someone who both challenges and inspires his contemporaries, making better songwriters out of the artists he comes in contact with. This is the motivation behind the 52 Week Club that Willy founded with fellow songwriters Tom VandenAvond and Chris Doud. Set in a game format, it pushes songwriters to increase their output and refine their craft through healthy competition, and has resulted in some of the remarkable output we’ve see from songwriters such as Olds Sleeper.
The mythos that bonds the songwriting circles around Willy “Tea” Taylor is embodied in the phrase “Searching for Guy Clark’s Kitchen”— inspired by the moments in the classic Outlaw country film Heartworn Highways where legendary songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Steve Earle shared their most intimate compositions before they were known outside of Austin. Willy and Tom VandenAvond have a living film project shot in both HD and Super 8 also called Searching For Guy Clark’s Kitchen. “It’s gonna be at least 10 years, maybe 20 years before we finish it. I mean, do you ever find Guy Clark’s kitchen?” Willy says to me when he was gracious enough to sit down for a conversation ahead of a show at Austin’s White Horse Tavern.
Willy also shared how his love for baseball is interchangeable with his love for music and friends, why his tool of choice is a 4-string tenor guitar, and what makes him tick as both a songwriter and a person.
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The people that know about Willy “Tea” Taylor, almost to a man will say that you’re the best songwriter they know, but not many people seem to know Willy “Tea” Taylor. You don’t really come across as a guy who wants to promote yourself. What is your goal with music?
I’m not sure. I think I’m a lot like my grandad. He passed away a couple of years ago. He was just a cattleman, and that’s all he did. Until the day he died, he went and fed his cows. I’m a lot like him, because I think I’m just a songwriter. He surrounded himself with cattlemen. He wasn’t a world-renown cattleman, but around his circles, he was one of the best damn cattleman they had ever met. That’s just kind of what we know I reckon. It’s what I know. I really like meeting people. That’s probably the main thing. We’re all in the same web. If we’re really going to live together as one and be at peace, we should meet as many of each other if we can. And I think that’s kind of fun. So maybe it’s just fun to be an ambassador to my family and friends, go around and meet awesome people and introduce them to each other, and that’s a big part of it.
Kind of using music as a forum to break down barriers between people and create relationships and connections?
And create. It’s like an old ball glove. You can just smell it. That’s kind of how I want to feel as I live, is that smell. And everything I want to do and portray, that’s like the foundation of me is that smell of old saddles and old leather. There’s something swift going on, and it even gets me sometimes. It’s going way too fast for a lot of people to catch up, and most of us, we have a hard time just taking a break and realizing what’s real anymore, and what that baseball glove smells like. Then it’s hard to even trust anything anymore, and then you forget how to trust. And it’s all just going so fast. And it’s got me a little depressed as a human.
How important is your hometown of Oakdale, CA to you and your music?
It’s all of it. 38 years. I’m almost 38. It’s pretty much everything I reckon. Going through the country, there’s other inspirations, but I always seem to come back to where I’m at. Tom VandenAvond, he sings about every town. He just pulls from everywhere and it’s so amazing. He’s such a great writer, such an observer, and a thoughtful person. I think I maybe just get more self-absorbed in my town and my history, maybe just trying to figure myself out. Once I decided to just be a songwriter…because I used to be a construction worker, I used to be a glass blower. I used to be a pizza guy throughout my life. I’m like, “I’m just gonna be a songwriter.” If I can say I’m a construction worker, I can just as easily say that I’m a songwriter. And it magically starts providing in this weird way if you become what you really are.
You’re also in a band called the Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit with this other excellent songwriter Chris Doud. The relationship y’all have is as dual songwriters for this band. Do you see it as more like a healthy, friendly competition, or ….
That’s definitely it. When me and Tommy (Tom VandenAvond) started the 52 Week Club, that’s all it was, and Chris Doud has always been in that spirit since we were young. He’s one of the best creators I know. He’s a teacher, he’s got 2 kids, he all over the place, he’s always recording, and I have no idea where he finds the time. But he dazzles me all the time. He’s one of the best songwriters I know. When me and Tommy first met, every song from there on out has been from that meeting. It was like, “Hey, where you been? There’s my best friend.” And then it’s just been this creation and we started this giant web of songwriting. Like, “You want to write a song? Bring it! Do it!” And there’s so many people that had never done it before, and Chris, Me, and Tom just came out on fire with that. Chris keeps up on it all the time; he likes that game a lot. I imagine he’s got like hundreds and hundreds of songs that are just great and nobody’s ever heard, and he’s always working on something. I’m just the total opposite. It just comes when it comes, you know. It’s all about finding where your groove is I guess.
I want to talk about your guitar. You play this 4-string tenor guitar. Your original one, was it a Gibson?
Yeah, a 1929 Gibson.
And now you showed me today a new one you got.
A 1927 Martin. This one’s a little smaller. But man is she groovy. I like her a lot. I love the Gibson. I haven’t played it in a while. The Gibson is beautiful. I just learned to play the banjo first, and then I learned to play the mandolin, and I thought there’s got to be something in the middle there. And I always remembered there was an Irish guitar I saw in a book. I’m like, “Well that’s got 4 strings.” Tune it like a banjo, and there you go. A ‘G’ tuning mostly. I’ve found all kinds of fun tunings, but mostly just in a standard open ‘G’.
Does baseball and music have more similarities than people would think?
Oh yeah. Baseball has more similarities to Earth. It’s quite a sport, I’ll tell you that right now. It’s pretty special. The more I learn similarities is being on the road with your pals, and you realize, we’re actually a barnstorming baseball team right now. We’re going from town to town, and you’re obviously a starting pitcher, you’re obviously a 3rd baseman in the way you play the banjo and just carry yourself. You can see the similarities of who a second baseman is, or who’s got potential as a pitcher, and you learn your friends. And if you learn your team, you can go to The World Series, or you can be the Bad News Bears, which is fine too. That’s kind of what the baseball movie I’m making is about. It’s basically a team of ten dudes, and all the characters are based on all my friends who are traveling musicians. If you were like, “How do I go back to a barnstorming baseball team? What we’re they thinking?” And then I’m sitting in a van with Larry & His Flask for a month and I’m like, “Oh, I know what they’re thinking.” It’s exactly the mentality of it. It’s great. You know your buddies and you’re like, “Dude, you’re going to The Show.” There’s no doubt about it. He’s batting .400. And you watch your friends and they go to The Show. It’s far out.
You’ve talked about how you feel the world is speeding up too much and people are becoming cattle. Do you have an underlying theme or message that you’re trying to convey through your music?
I’m just trying to pull myself out of the herd. I don’t necessarily want to preach to anybody. I’m afraid of going through the cattle shoot myself. I’d rather live as a rogue bull. I guess if I was to evaluate my game if I was catching, my music is just kind of notes I take. Maybe it’s something to look at myself. I find that I write songs that, I don’t know why I wrote them, but then three years later it’s like, “Oh, I wrote that for myself, and now here I’m at,” and I get past fucking it up again. You know, from being with women, being with my kids. You know, just learning how to live. Sure, sometimes I like to make a fun story up, but usually there’s a purpose behind it that is partly to do with my learning in life.
There are songwriters, and then there are songwriters; those folks that so effortlessly set words to the moods and moments of life and that can make you weep like a baby or wildly happy to be alive. These songwriters are there for us, creating a soundtrack for our most enduring memories, making the most of the life experience by enhancing it with music.
But the best of the best songwriters can do something even more. They can set our lives on a completely separate path by showing us the way to discovering ourselves. Something that they say can make us quit that bad job, leave that bad relationship, start a new relationship, or rekindle lost love. It’s not always about preaching or teaching, it’s about showing us a new, better path by touching something inside of us through song. He are a few songwriters who are capable of such magic.
If you only have time for one name of a songwriter that could change your life, I would go with Willy “Tea” Taylor. As a solo artist and the co-frontman for the California-based Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, Willy’s song catalog works like a medicine cabinet for the soul, with a cure at the ready for any type of emotional ailment. Like the antidote or vaccine for the most common and debilitating of human inflictions, it should be an international imperative to spread the songs of Willy “Tea” far and wide. Willy “Tea” Taylor is where your quest to find the best music you’ve never heard ends.
This Canadian country star is a master craftsman with words, but unlike many of his songwriting counterparts that tend to ace only one aspect of the human condition, Corb Lund can tickle the full palette of human emotions. He has the bone-splitting wit of Shel Silverstein, the cutting emotion of Townes, and the common man understanding of universal struggles of Willie Nelson. And the most unfair part about Corb’s songwriting is that he makes it all seem so damn effortless. Corb Lund is a Canadian treasure the whole world can share in.
You want a musical experience that will change your life? Then get your ass front and center at an Austin Lucas show and watch the man spill his guts out right in front of you in an experience that can be one of the most life-altering mixtures of music and emotion. Whether he’s playing for thousands of people like he did on the Country Thunder Tour in 2011, or a last-minute house show for 7 people on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, Lucas and his songs can leave you speechless. It’s not just about the song with Austin, it is also about the evocation of the emotion and inspiration behind it. This Indiana native now living in Nashville is poised to blow up in 2013. Get on the bandwagon now.
The great thing about Chris Knight is that he’s not some wildly gifted wordsmith who seems to call upon a limitless fountain of vocabulary brilliance to stagger the mind, he’s the everyman poet that works with raw and real language that you can relate to no different than the words of your brother or your neighbor or your best friend. Chris Knight’s authenticity is as real as wood, and when he writes a song, the characters he conjures seem to be culled right from your own world, going through the same struggles, sharing the same simple pleasures. There is a warmth and familiarity of Chris Knight’s music that is unparallelled.
Fans of the .357 String Band already knew Joseph Huber was a skilled composer, but when he stripped it all down after the departure of .357 where it was just Huber and his thoughts, a shimmering brilliance emerged, evidenced on his first solo record Bury Me Where I Fall, and the follow up Tongues of Fire. Huber takes an overarching sorrow and impales it with wisdom to the delight of the mournful and yearning ear.
Arguably one of the greatest American songwriters that nobody has heard of, the enigmatic and influential Will Oldham who performs and records under the stage name Bonnie “Prince” Billy is a songwriter that songwriters listen and look up to. Johnny Cash performed Will’s song “I See A Darkness” on 2000′s American III: Solitary Man, but that is just where Will’s songwriting credits and influential clout begin. You’ll struggle to find a song composer in the greater alt-country/Americana world who doesn’t take the Bonnie “Prince” Billy name with reverence.
If there is one many who can completely lose himself in the music and let it take over every fabric of his being, and then commune that complete loss of self with the crowd to where the experience borders on the religious, it is Texas school teacher turned music madman and spiritual medium Possessed by Paul James. With PPJ, it’s not just about the music and words, it’s about the entire human experience, the bubbling up of emotion and memory with music simply being the excuse. You will walk away from a Possessed by Paul James experience a changed person.
Others songwriters that can change your life: Billy Don Burns, Olds Sleeper, Joe Pug, McDougall, Charlie Parr, Jason Molina, Justin Townes Earle, Tom VandenAvond, Micah Schnabel of Two Cow Garage, and….
It speaks to the glutted nature of today’s music world that I’m only now sitting down to write a review for what I’ve discovered to be one of the best albums to be released in all of 2012 here some 20 days after the end 2012. It also speaks to how hard it is to attain a copy of Old Excuses. No, it’s not available on Amazon, iTunes, CD Baby, or Bandcamp. No updates to the band’s ReverbNation or MySpace pages shed any light on where it can be found. And don’t even think about Wal-Mart or Best Buy. You sort of have to be in the know already about the Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit to partake in its bounty.
But isn’t that the way it is with all the music worth listening to these days? The artists worth your time are so often aloof when it comes to self-promotion, so the music will never just fall into your lap. You have to work for it. You have to seek it out, or it must seek you out, and in many respects this imparts an even greater value to it than the already elevated value of the music itself compared to the music you encounter inadvertently through most popular media. The “thrift store” analogy is a good one for the Thrift Store’s music because the intrinsic value it has to you personally is so much more then it would have as an everyday item, just like that cool trinket or article of clothing that awakens memory or nostalgia in a way something new and shiny never would.
The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit features a tag-team of two of the best songwriters you will find out there in music right now. And yes, I understand how powerful and presumptuous that last statement was, but I stand behind it 100%, and you will too if you procure yourself a copy of Old Excuses.
Let me put it like this: You could take one of Willy “Tea” Taylor’s songs, just one of them, and it would lay to waste entire discographies from many other artists. Entire label rosters from some of Nashville’s largest imprints become laughable to the power of a single Willy Tea composition. The man is a songwriting virtuoso at the very apex of the discipline. His ability to put words and music to the task of describing life’s most precious moments is unparalleled, and is only rivaled in its touching nature by those precious moments themselves.
Chris Doud’s songwriting gives nothing up to Willy Tea, though his method is more allegorical. Doud is also the one that brings the meat and potatoes to the Thrift Store’s sound. Songs like “The Wolfman” and “Chuck” are studies in how to convey wisdom through music, while “Little Bit O’ Livin’” and “Highway Religion” are just plum fun to listen to. Together, Willy Tea and Chris Doud touch on all of the colors of the songwriting spectrum, and compile a list of songs on Old Excuses that sends you reeling through the wild range of human emotions.
Though Good Luck Thrift Store may start as a songwriting collective, Old Excuses is a fully fleshed out, expansive and exhaustive musical endeavor with a total of 14 players contributing to the project. I’m talking horn sections and piano, pedal and lap steel, banjo, dobro, fiddle, whatever. Whatever a song calls for is found and fitted to the recording. Furthermore the instrumentation and arrangements are tasteful and honorary to the songs they clothe, from Willy Tea’s finger picking, to the blazing, in-your-face guitar solo on “Highway Religion,” to the settled-back, big-eared drum work of Aaron Burtch, there’s little on Old Excuses to second guess.
Many of Willy Tea’s songs on this album sound similar to those now legendary recordings of Paul Simon in his post-Garfunkel days, where the songwriting is superb, and the style is really laid back and smooth. It’s very rhythmic, but with lots of adeptness and technique being showcased in the background. Then Willy pulls out this magical falsetto, like on one of Old Excuses‘ standout’s, “One Yard.”
“The Wolfman” is the album’s most epic track, showcasing a brass section and settling in near 8 minutes. Though I wondered initially if the song would’ve made a better last track than a first one because it may leave you a little leery for what you’re in for, the last track was definitely more fit for Willy Tea’s masterpiece “Everywhere Now.” These two songs are the perfect way to bookend Ole Excuses. And in between, from boot kickers to heartfelt ballads, the Thrift Store runs the gamut of musical textures and interprets them all better than most.
Old Excuses is worth your time, worth the wait, worth the hassle to get, and worth way more than any monetary value you can name from the enrichment it will bestow to your musical life.
Two guns way up!
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If you’re a tragic, tragic audiophile like myself, then you understand just what a blessing it is when out of the blue you discover an artist that really speaks to you, and it opens a brand new vein of music for you to enjoy for years to come. This is the experience most people come away with when hearing Willy Tea Taylor for the first time.
Willy’s approach is very simple. Just him, his songs, and an ancient parlor-sized four string guitar with a hole in the sound board big enough for Arnold Schwarzenegger to drive his Hummer through. For those who like to rock out with your sock out like a Chilli Pepper, then yeah, this may not be your aesthetic. But for the rest of us searching for that chicken soup for the soul of the audio persuasion, stuff that napkin down the front of your shirt and get to slurping.
Willy Tea has two types of songs: good ones, and great ones. And the great ones are so great, it is hard to listen to them and then say that better songs have ever been written. And this isn’t just from the lyrics, but the way the lyrics mesh with the chords, and Willy’s soothing voice.
I think the greatest asset of Willy Tea Taylor’s music has nothing to do with the music, but with Willy Tea himself. The man has this remarkably calming presence that comes across in his recorded music just as much as it does live. It’s like a cool, easeful wisdom, or a warm, soothing place you may have experienced as a kid, like the arms of a favorite uncle. Willy Tea is the cure for high blood pressure, or a hurried state of mind. There is something very cherubic about him, almost caricaturist with the big beard, wide hat, and round features, that has the effect of disarming you, of slowing you down, of causing a reflective inspection of your priorities.
But in no way is Willy Tea preachy whatsoever, far from it. Some may see the beard, or that he’s from California and think this is the same preachy hippy-like singer/songwriter bit they’ve heard many times before, but Willy is surprisingly grounded, singing about baseball and chicken fried steak. There’s no judgement here. He even has a song about long-time Bay Area baseball pitcher Barry Zito, that on the surface is inaccessibly specific, but the deeper meaning is to be willing to let go, when it is time to let go.
As is illustrated perfectly on the cover of 4 Strings, Willy has a lot of Shel Silverstein in him. I could see kids being drawn to him instinctively, yet his fountain for adult entertainment is just as appealing. For the songs “Hummingbird” and “Life Is Beautiful,” Congress should seriously pass a law that every human on the world planet has to listen to them. These are songs you feel in your tear ducts, in the depths of your spine, in the hairs on the back of your neck, in the deepest recesses of your brain where only the most precious memories are kept.
The murder ballad “Molly Rose” takes Willy’s soothing presence and voice, and contrasts it against the words and story of a madman as he eeks out haunting words of death. “Bones” is a fun, foot-tapping tune with a more visceral approach played higher on the neck than the rest of the album. “Cattleman” and “Wrong Way to Run” bookend Willy’s real-life wandering spirit that is so fun to vicariously experience through his music.
Like so many albums that take the stripped down approach, there is just less to criticize, allowing the pureness of the music to flow. I cannot give you one reason not to like Willy Tea Taylor or 4 Strings, only reasons you’d be a fool for not loving it.
Two guns up!
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