If you’ve never listened to The Tillers, Hand on the Plow is a great album (their 5th) to get your ears initiated. Hailing from Cincinnati, they are a three-piece string band that draws you in with their musical chops and grabs hold with potent, literate songwriting that can be equal parts fun and heartbreaking. Obvious influences of old-time, Appalachian folk, and bluegrass are present but never once do The Tillers sound derivative. They throw down their own unique brand of music with respect and gratitude for the artists they admire who’ve come before. They’re damn good at it, and they deserve to have an audience that keeps on growing.
The Tillers certainly make good albums, but they’re one of those bands you must see live. I’ve seen them live three times and am always impressed: the first they opened for contemporary North Carolina bluegrassers Chatham County Line, the second was at a little dive bar called The Green Lantern in Lexington, Kentucky, and most recently was last year when they opened for the inimitable Iris Dement at the 20th Century Theatre in Cincinnati. I don’t know if Iris knew or had even heard of the band before the show, but she asked them to join her in a rousing rendition of “Keep On the Sunny Side of Life” for the closing number. It was fantastic. (You’re in luck, it’s on YouTube. Click HERE if you care to watch.)
Now, finally, let me tell you a little bit about the band and their new album. The Tillers are multi-instrumentalist Mike Oberst (banjo, fiddle, spoons, dulcimer, harmonica, accordion, bowed bass) and brothers Sean and Aaron Geil, who play guitar (and some banjo) and upright bass (and some guitar), respectively. The eleven-track album Hand on the Plow was released on Muddy Roots Recordings on July 5th and it was cut straight to analog tape, giving the album an immediacy and down home feel that just seems natural for recording roots music. It sounds as if each member was standing around one mic—that’s how they play their live shows—in the middle of your living room.
The songs that comprise Hand on the Plow are somber tales of travel (“The Road Neverending”; “500 Miles”), simple living (“Shantyboat,” inspired by the life of Kentuckian Harlan Hubbard, who lived a few of his middle years on a hand-built boat with his wife on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers), and unrequited love (“Can’t Be True,” which includes the line, “Your love can’t be true unless the other’s love is too”). “Tecumseh on the Battlefield” (tipping its hat to Doc Watson, as many of their songs do) and “Treehouse” are straight up fiddle-laden hoedowns that’ll have you foot-tappin’ or headbangin’ to your soul’s delight. On the paranoid and devil-possessed “I Gotta Move,” J.D. Wilkes adds some soulful harmonica. My favorite song on Plow, and what I think is one of the best songs of the year, is “Willy Dear,” a story that, as legend has it, played out at the building that used to be the music venue the Southgate House in Newport, Kentucky. It’s a gut-punching, chill-inducing, timeless classic, deeply felt and so well written. It’s a wonderful example of how powerful story and song can be when combined.
Oberst and Geil (Sean) both trade out lead vocal duties; Oberst’s voice is a raspy traditional high and lonesome tenor while Geil’s is more deep and gruff, making for a nice contrast, and they lay down some slick harmonies with the help of other Geil brother, Aaron. Oberst says of The Tillers’ art, “Playing folk music, you have to be just as much a historian as a musician,” and it’s evident from their music that reverence and respect for the past is what drives The Tillers’ passion. Their songs betray a staunch conviction of disinterest in bringing this music to contemporary ears with tricks and bells and whistles for popularity or relevancy’s sake. The music, pure and unadulterated and unburdened of boxes, speaks for itself. It’s music that’s truly of and for the people, the kind of music that will always be truly relevant. With the help of bands like The Tillers, the old will continue to become new again.
(The Tillers begin a tour of the UK with Pokey LaFarge on November 2nd. See ’em!)
Great outdoor performance, with story, of “Willy Dear”:
Official music video for “The Road Neverending”:
Live WDVX Blue Plate Special performance of “Shantyboat”:
Buy Hand on the Plow