“You’re going to the show, Willy.” Those are words every kid who has put on a baseball uniform dreams of hearing. Going to the show means getting called up to play in the big leagues. Willy Tea Taylor was never called up to the show in baseball, but he sure was in music.
An often poignant storyteller and singer-songwriter, Taylor first raised some dust at his hometown musical sandlot called the Strawberry Music Festival near Oakdale, California. Taylor often writes songs about baseball, or uses the game’s expressions as metaphors.
“I am dreaming every day. Hell, I dreamed my life away.
Like when I was a boy, I’d grow up catching for Detroit.
My brother was a Yankee, my buddy Whitey was a Met.
We’d all win the pennant with a game-winning hit.
Now Whitey’s digging ditches, and I’m unemployed.
Grounded out on wishes, far from little boys.
We never thought life would get so real.
Because we all thought life’s a baseball field.”
-From Willie Tea Taylor’s song “Brand New Game”
Taylor made a solo album and three more with his band Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit. Then he released a second solo album, “4 Strings,” and the record label Blackwing Pencil Company took notice. Willy Tea got the call.
In October, while the Royals and the Mets battled in the World Series, Taylor was in Nashville, the Yankee Stadium of music, to record a studio album. He batted cleanup in an all-star lineup that included Gabe Witcher and Noam Pikelny of the Punch Brothers, Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Greg Liesz, who’s played with Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen, Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek and esteemed singer-songwriter Andrew Combs. The producer was Michael Witcher, who was in the same position for Dan Rowan and Dwight Yoakam.
“It was pretty surreal to play with those guys,” Taylor told Tahoe Onstage. “That caliber of musicianship is unbelievable. They just bleed music.”
The album is called “Knuckleball Prime.” Like a knuckleball, Taylor’s instrument has an atypical pitch. It’s a 4-string guitar with banjo tuning. Taylor noted that as someone in his late 30s, he is the same age as when baseball’s greatest knuckleball pitchers were at their best — Wilbur Wood, Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough.
Taylor, who sometimes sings of heartache, said he was devastated when his favorite player, slugger Darrell Evans, left the San Francisco Giants and signed with the Detroit Tigers. He was disillusioned by the 1994-95 Major League Baseball strike. He was disgusted with players use of steroids later that decade. He said he lost interest in the game.
“But in 2008 I saw Tim Lincecum pitch at a Giants game,” Taylor said. “He was a little guy who threw 100 mph. I said, ‘OK, I’m back.’”
His renewed interest in the game inspired his songwriting, which resonates with fans of music and baseball and for him has been as fortuitous as a bloop double. He’s been on a big-league circuit playing in a duet with Tom Vanden Avond. They are wrapping up an East Coast tour, which included a show inside the Grandstand Theater inside the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
“It was part of the Cooperstown Concert Series, which is held throughout the town,” Taylor said. “Not many people get to play in the Hall of Fame but they knew I had baseball songs. They are big songwriting fans and they knew all of my songs. I got to hold Babe Ruth’s bat and I was invited back next year.”
Soon, Taylor will tour Europe for the first time, but on deck is a Thursday, June 9, appearance at the Heritage Restaurant in the Whitney Peak Hotel in downtown Reno. It is part of the summer-long Artown celebration. Taylor will perform in a duo with Jeff Mooneyham.
It’s sure to be a hit.
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- Willy Tea Taylor
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, June 9
Where: Heritage Restaurant in the Whitney Peak Hotel, 255 N. Virginia Street, Reno
What: Part of Artown, the Heritage Sessions is a series designed to promote up-and-coming indie musicians and innovative cuisine.
Reservations are required. Please call 775-398-5454 to make a reservation.