Music, just like sports, is mostly a young man’s game. Most certainly there are wily veterans out there taking the field and taking the stage, but many of them made their name when they were young. It’s hard to hold onto the dream of making the big time the older you get, whether you’re trying to strike out opposing batters, or sing on the stage to strangers.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t avenues to success and accomplishment out there for older individuals who still want their taste of “The Show” as they call it in baseball. One avenue to salvaging a pitching career as a baseball player gets older is to learn the knuckleball. Not relying on speed like many other pitches, the knuckleball deceives the batter with its strange trajectory and behavior, but it can take years of experience and trial to perfect.
After struggling at the major league level, current baseball pitcher R.A. Dickey decided to switch to the knuckleball in hopes of turning his career around. As a regular pitcher, he just didn’t have the stuff to stay in the majors, so he worked at the knuckleball and clawed his way back up the ranks until in 2012 he was selected as a starter for the All-Star Game. In 2015, pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays, Dickey was one of the key players to getting the team to the American League Championship Series. At 40-years-old, he’s only one of two major league pitchers left throwing the knuckleball as his primary pitch. He’s in his “knuckleball prime.”
Willy “Tea” Taylor, a songwriter from Oakdale, California, and a member of the Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, is like that career minor league pitcher in his late 30’s who is just now coming into his knuckleball prime, and is getting his chance in the big leagues in an unconventional way. Willy is a much-revered songwriter in certain circles, whose 2011 album 4 Strings included some of the best-written songs in recent memory, but only included Willy and his four-string tenor guitar.
Now, offered a chance at the big time by the unexpected benefactor of the Blackwing Pencil Company who have launched their own record label, Taylor was matched up with a whole team of major league-caliber music personnel in the form of producer Michael Witcher (Dwight Yoakam, Dolly Parton), Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Gabe Witcher and Noam Pikelny of The Punch Brothers, Sara Watkins, Andrew Combs, and pedal steel guitarist Greg Liesz among others. Knuckleball Prime is Willy’s big shot to show the world what he’s got without any financial or logistical limitations.
Where before Willy had to rely on the sheer power of his words, Knuckleball Prime allows arrangement and instrumentation to help tell some of the story. And unlike some top flight songwriters of the past who found the process of producing their songs foreign, and the results fairly underwhelming or even counterproductive (see: Townes Van Zandt), the marriage of Willy songs and wise studio work results in a rising action of Willy’s expressions as opposed to a smothering of them.
This was the biggest test for Knuckleball Prime, because Willy Tea can do some things with four strings that many multi-piece bands can’t accomplish in multiple albums. Maybe the biggest barometer for how things would go was the song “The Very Best” which also appeared on Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit’s album Old Excuses. Though there was nothing wrong with the original version, the new version does what all great production and arrangement does: find the best attributes of a song and emphasize them. It’s the same old Willy Tea, but now the songs are allowed to blossom in a way they never would have before. The production even takes some chances, like with loud, purposefully-abrsive electric guitar in places, but it accomplishes its job of setting the proper mood.
The heart of Knuckleball Prime is a very personal one, centered very much around Willy Tea’s own life and experiences in interior California, and traveling on the road playing music. “Bull Riders & Songwriters” aches with the trials and tribulations of a traveling musician trying to make it in the world while the priorities of home life linger as guilt-riddled and ever-present reminders. “Brand New Game” doesn’t just bridge Willy’s love for baseball with his love for music, it bridges his upbringing to his adult life, and eventually the raising of his own son, and the Willy Tea spirit of always finding a reason to smile even in a world of adversity. That takes you to “You Have My Attention,” which slays the listener with the all too important message about how we choose to spend our time in the world. You also get a couple of songs in “California” and “Chickamauga” set in a historical context, yet with themes that resound still today.
Knuckleball Prime is an excellent songwriters album, maybe one of the tops of 2015. But I would be dishonest if I did not say that I thought the songs from Willy might be a little weaker that on previous efforts. Songs like “Hummingbird” and “Life Is Beautiful” from 4 Strings, or “One Yard” and “Everywhere Now” from Thrift Store’s No Excuses could probably trump most, maybe all of Knuckleball Prime‘s selections. But producer Michael Witcher really understood how to take this material, find the melody and make the chorus rise to where a wider ear will latch on to what Willy Tea is trying to say, which is a virtue his previous albums may have not have included.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up (8/10)
– – – – – – – – – – – – – –