Earth and Water Move for Tillers Of Song
The Tillers dig deep into musical earth along the banks of the long, lingering, and rolling waters of the Ohio River surrounding Cincinnati. The young men are wedded to the river and the city, the area’s history, people, and music. They’re stayin’ there, they said,after a recent concert at the Red Wing Roots Music Festival in Twin Chimneys Park near Fredericksburg, Virginia. For sixteen years, these young guys have been plying their musical trade in Cincinnati, not moving to Nashville, nor to Ashville or Austin. They’ve developed their own rootsy sound, distinctive in the Americana flow around them. Rooted in both the landscape and their own autobiographies, their songs’ subject matter includes stints as underage river boat casino dishwashers and self-gardening cooks.
They are ingrained in their environs in more ways than music, especially lead singer Mike Oberst, who by turns runs a community garden and an area music festival while raising two small boys and keeping up an active year of touring year after year. In moments apart from this, he’s a prodigious song writer, an arduous pleasure shared with banjoist (etc.) and vocalist Sean Geil, who is raising two small boys of his own. Other band members are Aron Geil, on upright bass, and Joe Macheret, on fiddle. All of them sing and most play multiple instruments.
At Red Wing, they did several new songs. And, songs of the sea came in lapping waves of sea–strong cadences with lyrics like, “You can’t love them if they don’t love you. You’ve got the heartbreak blues.”
Why aren’t you more famous, I asked, with the incredulousness of looking at two decades of talent with not a great deal of recognition from the music world. Their songs are worthy of attention. The rigorous and unique linger with salt and sweetness, with attention to both roots and exploration.
“Mike and I came together eleven years ago through a love of Woody Guthrie, the Carter Family, Doc Martin. It went on from there,” Sean said. “We’ve been grateful to be able to do what we love to do and to be able to support ourselves. If we can do that, we are happy, and surprised. We still haven’t gotten used to the idea of people coming to pay money to hear us do what we love to do.”
They have a song about being glad to sing all night someone wants it. And, they had the good experience of opening for another hero. When they opened a festival show for Guy Clark, they got to meet him. And they found out later that Clark was backstage throughout their set, with his guitar out, playing along, picking up the chords as they went along and joining in, enjoying it.
“We are doing what we want to do, being creative andfeeding our passions,” Mike said. At home, they play in other bands as well, not wanting to stop, Mike’s being an Irish band.
They will be headlining Norfolk, Virginia’s NorFOLKFestival this fall. They’ll bring with them the rivers of Cincinnati. “The rivers have stories,” Sean said, “some are real and some are tales based on the real, some we grew up with, and some are our own, but they are there, the stories, the rivers.” They tap river waters,channeling legend, rhythm, emotion, and the musicalsoul of the Midwest. The band evokes a variety of musical traditions near the Ohio river and in Cincinnati f, where players like the Tillers, from jazz to blues to folk, continue to develop their craft and shape their creative adventures.