words MICHAEL KEARNS | photography MICHAEL KEARNS & MATT STEFFEN
The Whispering Beard Folk Festival, an Americana/ Folk affair, occurs each August in Friendship, Indiana; population, about eight hundred. The Beard-as the festival is known by its adherents (who themselves are called Beardos)-is a smallish festival by most standards, and a quirky one, even by music festival standards.
Friendship lies about an hour west of Cincinnati on the Ripley/Deerborn County line. It’s the quintessential small town, pure Midwest. The festival draws about three thousand people each year and is happy with that crowd. Year after year, the Beard stubbornly refuses to grow. Year after year, it’s the same old faces.
Which is a very good thing. Because the Beard remains small, and is operated in a sane manner by intelligent and caring people, the festival is also free to eschew corporate sponsorship and advertising.
This pretty much means that the owners can do whatever they want, without having to worry about pleasing the man. Which is, undoubtedly, in no small part, why the Beard is such a happy place to be.
The Beard is also distinguished by the quality of its acts, local regional and national; and is known also for the festival’s ability to search out talent, just before that talent becomes a household, or at least, an industry phenomenon.
Jason Isbell and Tyler Childers are just two performers who have graced the Beard’s stage, just prior to hitting the proverbial big time. Arlo McKinley and the Lonesome Sound, Krystal Peterson and the QCB; and/or Justin Wells may very well join that list in the very near future.
The Beard is also known for its concomitant love of baseball (more on that in a minute) as well as the Beardos’ love of, well, each other-but we’re getting ahead.
The Festival was started by friends and fellow musicians Adam O’Neil, the very charismatic Casey Campbell, Dan Williams, his brother Matt “Katfish” Williams and, Matt “Wabs” Wabnitz-of The Buffalo Wabs fame.
Some, or all of these guys, I can never keep the story straight-living on the other side of town as I do-are part of the Price Hill’s Crows Nest mafia: a collective of spiritually related musicians who know one and other and everyone doing anything worthwhile in the Americana field.
I don’t know if this is exactly right, but I do know that they are, collectively, hot-wired to more talent than God and that much of this talent appears year after year on the Beard stage.
The festival is also unique in that the host venue and the festival are not only close, but seemingly inseparable. The Stutler Family-who owns the fairground site, has been-from the start-both supportive and generous in welcoming the returning Beardos each year.
Businesses in the town, in return, befit from patronage far beyond their usual monthly numbers and, in return, cheerfully sell various goods, foods and carryout beer to festival goers at uninflated prices. It’s a win-win relationship which has served all parties well and which, hopefully, will continue for some time to come.
The festival doesn’t even sell beer, you either bring your own or walk across the street and buy a twelve pack, from the tavern, at Kroger prices. Think about that next time you pay $7.00 for a small warm flat plastic cup of craft beer at some hipster Jubilee.
And while the festival doesn’t sell beer, it does, and has, for a number of years, hosted the same contingent of baristas from Deeper Roots Coffee, who pour, each morning, brilliant $2.00 cups of deep rich steaming orgiastic Colombian nectar from seven a.m. on.
In order to perform this service, the Deeper Roots staff also sleep in the heat and storms, in tents next to their mobile kitchen; as do the staff at J. Damon’s Pizza who have, for years, been serving upscale and stupendous pizzas, as big as your head, for all of $10.00.
The tavern across the street also sells a full, and very damn delicious country breakfast buffet complete with sausage and biscuits, eggs, bacon, country ham and hash browns, and so much more, for the very reasonable fare of ten dollars. And they smile the whole time you’re there.
Tell me that’s not love.
Families come, year after year, camping in the same spot each year. One knows their neighbors. This is partially why the primary manta, hung on the Beard, year after year, is that the Beard is more family reunion than music festival. A family reunion in which the family members actually get along, actually hold a deep affection for one and other.
And the Beard is that.
Each year there is a multicolored tent village which mushrooms around a hand built wiffle ball field. Each Sunday, at the end of the festival, after chores have been completed, the Beardos throw down against the Smokin’ Lefties.
There are those, like Beard performer, Smokin’ Leftie catcher and Beard regular Willie Tea Taylor, who are so enamored of the game, that they believe the festival exists only as a cover for the ballgame. But then, we’re talking about a man who wrote, “Life’s a baseball field / And even if we lost / You’d never hear us complain / There’s always tomorrow / And a brand new game.”
Whether or not this baseball conspiracy is true, there’s no doubt that the festival means a lot to many people. It’s an event which is designed and structured to welcome all. It’s a festival which values people over money.
Take a walk, see for yourself.
To the north, at the entrance to the grounds, is a large red pole barn which serves any number of functions including Thursday night party site; indoor children’s activities’ center; as well as general storm shelter for when the inevitable late summer storm comes rumbling through the grounds.
Further south is a large field bisected by a long gravel road. To the east are the festival grounds which are comprised of two stages side by side with a sound man between. Behind the stages is the artists’ campground.
This arrangement allows festival goers to plant themselves in the field, just before the stages, without ever having to travel elsewhere. The set-up also means that the Beard can present as many acts as possible in an uninterrupted format.
A long chain of affordable, inventive and decidedly not corporate food, hard and soft good vendors rings the sitting area. Beyond the vendors is Laughry Creek, which depending upon the rain in any given year, passes as either a small trickling creek, or small river.
Beyond the concert ground proper is an empty field in which a large bonfire is lit each night. The shelters and fields about the bonfire host nightly jam sessions which often become early morning jam sessions. The enthusiasm around these late-night performances often outstrips the professionalism demonstrated by the Beard’s earlier and more professional acts, though no one seems to notice, let alone mind.
Beyond the bonfire is the tent village and the wiffle ball field. In addition to the previously discussed annual Sunday bloodletting, there are also, throughout the festival and well into the early morning, any number of impromptu pickup games and/or spates of batting practice.
We first met singer/songwriter, Maria Carrelli, in 2017, at the ballfield, at one a.m., while she was learning, from a friend, how to hit a curve ball.
All told, it takes about five minutes to walk the entire grounds from end to end. Most people, after their first year, can walk the entire grounds in the dark, or with their eyes closed-as if they were at home.
Which is not to say that the Beard is a complete secret. After 11 years, the festival has gained a modicum of notoriety-yet fame and profits seem to remain a secondary consideration. Sure, the founders are quick to sell a t-shirt or disc, but at the end of the day, they’re all about the music and the love.
Moreover, to the degree that most people know anything about the Beard, outside the regional music community, they’re slow to sign on. When confronted with joining on, most people simply tend to offer vague looks and say something along the lines of, “I’ve heard of it and I really want to go sometime but….”
What they don’t want to say is that they can’t find any sane reason to camp in the middle of August in the middle of Indiana farm country when the temperature and humidity are both certain to be north of ninety. Which is fair, except, that you can’t be a Beardo unless you’re willing to swallow the bitter with the sweet.
For it’s a serious point of pride among all peoples at the Beard, that if you want to be a Beardo, you must be willing to suffer. It’s not enough just to buy a ticket and show up and then leave when things get wet, or electrical. The Beard is an astral, life-altering and miserable experience which must be experienced in its totality.
The heat is intense; and sleep is limited. The humidity lies lurking in the cornfields, waiting for the ubiquitous thunderstorms which appear, without fail, each year.
After the storm, the molten late August sun then returns to set the grounds afire, after which the humidity invades from the nearby corn and soybean fields to hold the festival hostage. Everyone sweats like pork and shirts are fecklessly changed every five minutes. Think of New Orleans, Cairo in August. It’s a truly unpleasant miserable experience
So why go?
You go because, like New Orleans, there’s heaven in that hell.
I was sitting in a bar in New Orleans about three years after Katrina, speaking with a local.
“How are things now?” I asked.
“Really,” he said, “things are great. There are a lot of headaches and hassles,” he confessed, “but everyone here wants to be here. You really have to love this place and its people to be here now, so it’s a great place.”
The same principal is true of the Beard. People know one another and have been sharing, for over a decade now, their stories and lives, their dreams and goals. This makes the Beard a warm safe place in an angry world; a place filled with people worthy of trust. People treat one and other like brothers and sisters, in the best possible sense.
Best of all, the music and associated arts are real.
In a world where so much of the art produced in America today, possesses the depth, sensitivity, sophistication and aesthetic power and clarity of a Happy Meal, the Beard is real. The Beard is a reminder that art can possess power; can function as strong medicine; can heal a broken heart or lacerated soul.
In a time when so many people are abjectly indifferent and apathetic to anything happening outside their tiny self-absorbed fields of attention, the Beard is a reminder that man is a pack animal who relies on one another, not just for protection, but for happiness. The Beard is a reminder that sooner or later, that even the most dominant alpha dog must return home to reconnect.
Which is why people, year after year, come back to brave the silliness of camping in Indiana farm country in August; because the odds of locating a place offering such an alchemy of love and world-class music, anywhere, let alone in your own back yard, is so fantastically remote that most Beardos would crawl ten miles on their hands and knees, if need be, to reach the festival.
At, the end of the day, people go to the Beard to be happy. At the end of the day, people go to the Beard because they believe.
Such a portrayal may sound wishful or sentimental or bloated, but it’s not. The Beard is a place where thousands of people of all stripes and demographics, from five to eighty, reliably come, for one weekend a year, to be happy; to be in love, with one another. Whether or not others believe in such magic is immaterial.
As the Beard notes on its own website, The Beard “isn’t just a festival, it’s something greater than that. It’s something you feel in the pit of your stomach like a first kiss or spring. It’s about you and me and us…for three days it’s just about us.”
The Whispering Beard Folk Festival is held on the last weekend of August at the Old Mill Campground in Friendship, IN. Highlights from the 2018 festival included Willy Tea Taylor, Arlo McKinley and the Lonesome Sound, Danny Schmidt, Lost Dog Street, Krystal Peterson & the QCB, Banditos, and JP Harris & the Tough Choices to name a few.