he founders/organizers of the annual Whispering Beard Folk Festival in Friendship, Ind., (about 50 miles west of Cincinnati), seem to like nicknames.
A quick scan of the festival’s website (whisperingbeard.com) reveals that Matt Wabnitz claims the handle “Buffalo,” while co-founder Matt Williams’ go-by is “Katfish.” A logical assumption would be that the two Matts did this in order to differentiate themselves from each other. Good thinking, except that one of their favorite pastimes is to refer to each other, and everyone on the WBFF planning/coordination team, as “Dan.” (This is complicated by the fact that Williams’ brother, the festival’s logistical tactician, is actually named Dan.)
Whispering Beard began as an elaborate party at a place Wabnitz was renting in Cleves that had some land attached. Wabnitz had been connected to Cincinnati’s Folk community; he played in a sporadic duo with Mike Oberst, but was discouraged by the small turnouts. When Oberst offered Wabnitz the bass slot in what ultimately became popular local Folk trio The Tillers, he waffled.
“I kept giving him the runaround and they got Jason (Soudrette),” Wabnitz says. “I’ll be that old guy in the bar in like 40 years when the jukebox comes on; ‘I coulda played with those guys, I shoulda been their bass player.’ ‘Get the old man another beer.’ ”
In 2008, Wabnitz and Williams channeled their love of old time music (they played together in what Williams identified as “Uncle Swampfoot and His Thrusting Union Suits featuring the Marmalade Parade and the Easy Tom Eby Experience Orchestra with the Do Not Seek the Pleasure Band”) and their respect for the greater Cincinnati Folk scene into the first Whispering Beard event. They credit their discovery of John Prine and a viewing of the Townes Van Zandt documentary Heartworn Highways with sparking the multi-band gig idea. There was no thought beyond having a memorable party.
“There was no vision of what it’s become; we called it a festival almost as a joke,” says Wabnitz, who books the WBFF based on his personal taste. “It was just going to be a gathering of basically our favorite local Folk groups, a one-night house party. About 200 people showed up for it, straight word of mouth. After that, so many people came up to us saying they had a great time and, ‘When’s the next one?’ “
The Whispering Beard name came from Wabnitz’s friend, who had gotten lost trying to find his place. Wabnitz used the Whispering Farm subdivision across the street as a landmark, and when the two were reconciling the directions on the phone, Wabnitz’s friend referred to it as “Whispering Beard, or whatever.” The name stuck.
“We did (plan to) have a beard competition the first year, but we never really had it,” Williams recalls. “I didn’t get anything out of my whole harvest except for one cucumber and someone stole it, so we didn’t get to give the beard prize away.”
Once the idea was floated to continue Whispering Beard annually, Williams’ older brother “Big” Dan was tapped to manage the festival’s business end (“To make sure we didn’t lose too much money,” Wabnitz says). After taking WBFF to Morning View, Ky., the next two years, a tip from The Tillers’ Sean Geil led them to the current site in Friendship, Ind.
“We fell in love with it,” Big Dan says. “You just get that feeling, and numerous bands have said the same thing. I think it’s the best move we could have made. The town loves us; if you went down there tomorrow and asked what’s their favorite part of the year, I think everybody would say, ‘When Whispering Beard comes to town.’ ”
“I think they were a little apprehensive when we wanted to do this and it’s been great how they fell in love with not only us doing it there, but with the people who come down,” Wabnitz says.
For the aptly named Friendship, Whispering Beard offers the tiny village an opportunity to host a crowd more than 40 times the town’s actual population. Wabnitz and the Williams brothers give special credit to Gary and Judy Stutler, whose land provides the stage and camping areas, and to the Stutler’s son and his wife, who own the essential general store.
“Our first year down there, we’re running around like we know what we’re doing and I see Judy coming out of the shitter with a Johnny mop and a bucket, just cleaning them for us,” Williams says, incredulously. “Seventy-something years old. That’s when we knew we were in the right place.”
For fans (known affectionately as Beardos), WBFF has grown well beyond its original local-showcase format and become a regional/national talent draw. This year’s headliners include former Drive-By Truckers guitarist Jason Isbell and Trampled by Turtles side project Dead Man Winter, impressive names on any marquee; previous big names have included Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Justin Townes Earle, Guy Clark and Todd Snider.
“For me, it still feels surreal; you book these bands but you turn back into a fan — you’re not a promoter,” Williams says. “Wabs does all the stage work, Big Dan does front gate and whatnot and I’ll be doing camping, and we have to schedule with each other what show we can make. I think that’s the best part about it.”
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the WBFF is that the organizers (who also include merch guru Mulekick Murray, camping specialist Tim “Boy” Ripley and new planning strategist Patrick Gronholm) accomplish this completely on their own, with a passionately dedicated volunteer staff and no corporate underwriting.
There is no advertising budget either; word of mouth has advanced technologically with the use of social media, but it remains, by definition, word of mouth.
Everyone agrees that if the right corporate deal presented itself for the right reason — i.e. a philosophically compatible sponsor that could help draw a huge name — then there would have to be a serious discussion, although Wabnitz notes that it would be a “knock-down, drag-out” meeting.
“We’ve not made money for this long,” Williams says. “We can not make money for a couple more years.”
“There’s something pure about the way we do it,” Big Dan says. “It’s always easier to do things the way we want to do them. Our focus is always right; it’s all about the Beardos, so to speak.”
“My favorite part is driving around … Sunday afternoon and people coming up to me and saying, ‘Thank you.’ ” he continues. “That’s what makes it all worth it, when people are willing to spend their hard earned money to do something that we have fun doing. That’s what it’s all about.”
THE WHISPERING BEARD FOLK FESTIVAL takes place Aug. 23-25 in Friendship, Ind. Visit whisperingbeard.com for tickets, directions and more info.