Album Reviews

Willy Tea Taylor

Knuckleball Prime

Artist:     Willy Tea Taylor

Album:     Knuckleball Prime

Label:     Blackwing Music

Release Date:     10/23/2015

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Willy Tea Taylor hails from Oakdale, California, a mythical landscape that lies roughly halfway between the Sierra Nevada and San Francisco. Also known as “The Cowboy Capital of the World,” this small cattle ranching community is abutted by the Stanislaus River. This is Steinbeck country whose geography and legacies, both fabled and familial, work their way into Willy’s repertoire. In fact, Taylor’s tremendous album, Knuckleball Prime, is put out by Blackwing Music, originally a manufacturer of fine writing utensils used by Steinbeck and others.

Mr.Taylor is a big baseball fan and used to play quite a bit until a knee injury. As the album title implies, he is hitting his stride. “Most baseball players peak in their twenties, but knuckleball pitchers tend to blossom in their late thirties and early forties. I’m staring down my knuckleball prime.”

Youtube videos of Taylor performing live usually show him playing a 1920’s tenor guitar with no additional accompaniment other than his plaintive singing. Knuckleball Prime elevates these songs with lush production by Michael Witcher and was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee with top notch musicians including Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), Greg Leisz (Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton), and Gabe Witcher and Noam Pikelny of the Punch Brothers.

Each track hums with an intimacy that features Willy’s woeful vocals front and center. The elegant instrumentation further draws the listener in revealing mournful, moving lyrics. “You Found Me” embodies the sense of sadness prevalent throughout this record. “I know what it’s like in a lonely home. Days are fast and nights are long.” The title track, “Knuckleball Prime,” uses baseball as a metaphor to demonstrate Taylor’s desire to make an impact on the world of music. “Give me a shot at the title, I won’t let you down.” On “The Very Best” we hear of “hard times and heartaches.” The catchy chorus “I might not be too good at most things I do, but I’m the very best at missing you” speaks of a continual longing for love. Dreamy pedal steel licks create the rich sonic texture on “Bull Riders & Songwriters” with lyrics that speak of the hardships of the traveling musician’s life, “And this road led me to you and it’ll take me away. All I can do is pray that’ll I’ll make it back one day.” Existential themes permeate “California” as Taylor asks, “What’s it all worth? Our sweat in this dirt? There’s just enough water to turn hope into hurt” and leaves us teetering between promise and despair. With lilting banjo licks and emotive fiddle runs, “Chickamauga” powerfully imagines a dying Union soldier’s final thoughts as an ethereal love letter to his gal back in Ohio. “We couldn’t wait to be absorbed in all that glory. We were too young and we were too swift to die.” Set during the American Civil war, but with timeless themes of the futility of fighting, this is perhaps the most powerful track on the album. Listen close; it’ll leave you in tears.

There’s a lot going on in each of these seemingly simple songs: baseball, love, loneliness and California. Simply put, this is one of the most impactful albums of 2015. Willy Tea Taylor deserves to be known as a master song-crafter who mines gems from the Sierras of his soul and sings with tremendous heart. There’s gold up in them hills. Dig it.

– Mike Cobb

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