Molly Rose, I’m comin’ for you, and I’ll kill anybody that don’t want me to. The blood’ll spill an ocean and then we’ll set sail. Molly Rose, my darlin’, get ready for hell.
The lyrics to Willy Tea Taylor’s “Molly Rose,” sung solemnly with intense passion on our Tiny Porch are a stark contrast to what most people might be used to hearing: the poignant phrases about life and death telling a story in the well-loved “Everywhere Now,” by The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, a past project of Willy’s.
No, this death ain’t gonna hold me down, I’m everywhere now. I’m everywhere now. I’m the pillow for your head, mama. I’m the dreams in your bed, mama. I’m everywhere now … I’m the salt in your tears, child. I’m the whisper in your ear, child. I’m everywhere now … I’m the banjo for your strings, brother. I’m the song that you sing, sister …
But the strong and the soft side of Willy, who goes by his simpler name Will in person, are actually one and the same. And if you must know, my friends, Molly Rose is actually about a time when someone asked Willy to move his van, and the metaphorical meanderings of his thoughts spurred by the instance.
In fact, the guy called “Will” behind Willy Tea Taylor — a household name well-loved throughout the Sierra — is a master of both strength and sensitivity, bringing a deeper meaning to life, existence, and often exploring themes associated with death, through his music. So, when he performs and you see that boisterous side of him (he’s just a musical comedian really, he says), don’t be fooled. There’s an ancient Japanese monk under that beard, brimmed hat, and flannel shirt who’s been sitting still on a rock by a river somewhere for several thousand years, just observing the wind and figuring out how to one day commit life’s purpose to lilting tunes on a banjo or tenor guitar. And that voice — that deep, raspy, yet somehow soft and sweet “cigarettes and whiskey” voice. It’s honest like no other.
The softer side of Willy requests green jasmine tea and honey, marvels at the petit teal porcelain tea pot it’s served in, and sips it slowly as we stare out at the churning Truckee. “I’ve always been a river guy,” he says.
Looking out across the snow-dusted bank, he recalls the feeling of preparing to jump in the ice cold water back home, likening it to an experience that touches on music’s power to carry emotions. While explaining to some friends how he slows his breathing and musters up the courage to plunge, he was reminded of how tribes come together to lift themselves up in preparation for war.
“A thought occurred to me about how when people are going to war … you would just have a bunch of scared people if war songs didn’t happen,” he says. “You have war parties staying up all night and just lifting themselves into it and they don’t know what it is but it is definitely something that’s underneath. [When] you walk outside, the wind’s making music, everything’s making music that’s affecting us and we emulate that.”
Fresh off the road and asked about the wear of traveling as he sets off on a month-long tour, he says, “It’s adventure, that’s the hobbit in me. Just the meeting of people is where it’s all at for me. That’s what makes life worth living; sharing life with people. So many connections — instant connections and slow, building connections, it’s just great.”
When he makes such connections from beneath hot, harsh, blinding stage lights, somehow it’s like he can still see into the crowd. Audiences both big and small fall completely silent when he begins to sing. His friends call it “the red fog.”
“I don’t really know what it is. I think maybe it is part of the intention of sharing an absolute moment,” he reflects.
At heart, Willy is a simple man, with a thirst for adventure, a passion for music, but most of all, he’s completely in love with the journey he’s on, made even more meaningful due to his humble beginnings.
“I used to be a carpenter and a handyman, and one day I was like ‘why do I keep saying I’m a carpenter? I’m a song writer.’ I’ve never looked back. And it’s been completely difficult. I used to make so much more money,” he says. “Something about owning it and doing it, all’s provided for in a way that you don’t expect. The support of my family being like ‘yes!’ They didn’t do that when I was a carpenter, but [now] there’s something more. They love to see that I’m doing something I love so much. There’s a true intention to it and I think if you live there, all is provided for.”
At 43, as a career musician, father, and soon-to-be husband, Willy is honest that he’s no stranger to the shadow side of the music business. Long nights on the road and days that blur together can make you question what your passion for music really is, he says.
“Just to find the balance is a wild struggle because you deal with emotions, especially when you’re far from home, and you’re not really putting them in the right spot,” Willy says. And then days bleed into each other … You get caught up in it, too, and all of a sudden your buddies are making 10K a show and you’re like ‘that would definitely make it more worth it to my family to do that’ and so you realize, well, there is some sort of branding that happens in it — the “Willy Tea Taylor” — and it kind of gets away from you after a while … and then you’re like, holy shit, I’m like Nabisco now.”
But, coming home to Tahoe to visit and play shows is somewhat of a respite for Willy. As a boy, his family moved around California a lot but always drove through Tahoe on their trips. Fascinated by history, Willy poured through stories of the Donner Party, especially inspired by their strength. So, though Tahoe isn’t actually home, it reminds him of that magic. He pictures a little girl and her 2-year-old brother, not unlike his own children, huddled in a snow cave while their parents went to try to push onwards one more time.
“That has to put some magnificent magic into [a place], because we’re right here. It could’ve been right where we are standing. I’m completely fascinated by her strength. How do you do that, little girl?” he wonders. Practicing empathy for others and their struggles threads into the purpose of his music, he says. “To feel something like that, and have that empathy, that’s the intention, I think. To [understand] how people must feel, when they are having such a terrible time, and when they’re having such a great time.”
For Willy, it’s the evocative quality of music that he’s in love with, and it’s one that endures time and transformation. Sometimes it isn’t the musician guiding at the helm of that riverboat, though. Sometimes, it’s the instrument, or the music itself.
“When I first got my banjo, I was living up in Eureka … [one time] I played this banjo like I’ve never played it. It’s almost like my whole life [now] is getting to what the banjo showed me I could do,” he says.
Another time, while heading to an event to play with some friends’ band, he learned their song in the car on the way down and its beauty particularly struck him.
“I learned [this] song, and it changed me. And then, the whole weekend changed me. It’s almost like a spell or a chant. And when you can do that as good as Gandolf, the more that the spell becomes you and you love it. Even if it’s for nobody, it does become like a charm or a spell,” he says. “I think about that often, with different moments. Where you’re sitting by yourself and you just start singing so amazingly and then later it’s like ‘where was I?’.
To Willy, who’s on this journey, it’s those glimpses of life showing you “that’s where you’re gonna be if you keep following this …”