Nomadic Beardos Wander Home

The Whispering Beard Folk Festival, which takes place the third weekend of August each year in the tiny wooded, hilly, and bucolic Friendship, Indiana, turned ten this year—that’s something like fifty in human years. The Beard has matured nicely and established itself as an important cultural event while simultaneously maintaining its youthful good looks and clarity of vision.

The Beard’s appeal rests on several philosophical and logistical decisions made by its founders. Notably, by limiting its size and refusing to enter the yearly musical steroid wars and concomitant chase for sponsor dollars—bigger bands, bigger gate, more money, bulk up or die!!!—its owners have not only ensured the Beard’s ongoing viability, they have created an event and venue which is both culturally and artistically constant and unique.

The festival continues to take place in the very small town of Friendship—population 87—and is an important contributor to the local economy. The net effect is a working relationship predicated upon mutual respect and need. Despite having a near monopoly on food and beer, none of the local businesses jack up prices based on the influx of festival-goers. The locals are happy to welcome the festival and are invariably cheerful and kind on what is almost always a very hot weekend. Concertgoers, in return, respect the town and show appreciation for this unique opportunity and beautiful setting.

For four days, the festival becomes more of a commune than for-profit music festival. Concertgoers are encouraged to bring their own food, libations, and water, which allows the Beard to remain affordable and focus on the music and the people. Attendees set up communal kitchens and self-contained tent villages. Artists and guests mingle freely. On grounds, there are unique vendors of hand-made goods and food which is also sold at very reasonable prices. Ticket aside, I didn’t spend $100 in the four days.

By resisting the urge to grow the festival like a NFL lineman on steroids, the owners have created a situation wherein the festival is more akin—as you hear time and again—to a family reunion than a music festival. The same three thousand or so people return year-after-year. Such familiarity breeds both respect and peace. The people who attend the Beard are not better human beings, but they are kinder simply because no one wants to look like a belligerent jack-ass in front of friends. And, people pick up after themselves.

The Beard has kept its aesthetic focus over the years and bring to the festival bands which are talented, deserving of exposure, and musically consistent with the festival culture. They refuse to play the brand name game where a festival is defined by who is playing for an hour on Friday and Saturday nights.

The Beard’s owners, who are damned fine musicians themselves, year after year bring insanely talented musicians to the Beard, many of which have never or barely been heard of. Some of these lesser-heard of musicians become household names shortly after playing the Beard. Jason Isbell, who played in 2014, is a classic example.

While damn near every set of the weekend was great, to see Willy Tea Taylor, a beautiful and talented fiddle player, transfix a crowd with nothing but a toy-sized, four-string 1927 Martin and a handful of deceptively simple and eloquent songs was astounding. Beautiful, simple songs from a burly, ginger-bearded man in dusty overalls, extracting gold from dross, was astounding.

His slow, thoughtful song Wandering Boy nearly broke me. It made me think of my oldest, somewhere five-hundred miles east, now exploring his own life. “Where is my boy tonight / where is my boy tonight / my heart overflows / I love him, he knows / where is my boy tonight / my wandering boy tonight.”

Festival principal, Katfish, sneaked onto stage for a surprise puppet-duet, love ballad with Willy. This did break me—and everyone else in the house. Wow.

Such spontaneity and creative risk taking is hardly new at the Beard. The home-like, stream-bisected, wooded setting created by the owners and volunteers, has generated an atmosphere, a creative sanctuary, where people feel free, feel safe, to artistically explore. This is the ultimate advantage, the ultimate beauty of the Beard. It is not so much a music festival as it is a four-day master class.

The respect extends not only to the musicians, but to all artists. For many reasons, being a festival photographer can all too often be a painful gig, but at the Beard, my fellow photographers and I are always treated ridiculously well.

For all artists, attending the Beard is like coming home and going on a great four-day retreat simultaneously. The music goes on long before and after the official schedule. There are early morning and late-night jam sessions. People pair off and woodshed constantly. You can judge the quality of the performer, not by the ubiquity of his or her name, but by the number of talented musicians standing around the stage or intently listening from the empty box truck adjacent to the stage. That number grew with each passing hour both Friday and Saturday.

By the time the Fairfield Four took the stage on Friday evening, the sound of the crowd was considerably louder than one would have expected for the numbers present. And so it went throughout the weekend. Four elderly black men took the stage, and we all went to church. A man from Duluth took the stage with a resonator and a 12-string Guild, and we had a lesson on the blues. And there was bluegrass and rock and every kind of musical amalgamation one could envision. There was great music morning, noon, and night. A virtual lovefest of arts lovers and artists taking shelter for just one weekend from the more insane world at large. And therein lies the true value of the Beard—it’s a shelter from the storm. Which is why you should walk to your kitchen calendar right now and save the date for Whispering Beard 11.

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