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.