Review: “Hand on the Plow” by The Tillers
Cincinnati bluegrass and folk-punk trio The Tillers are truly a shining beacon in an increasingly crowded roots scene, and as such they have lured their share of roots enthusiasts and would-be fans in with their music in recent years. What makes them stand out to such a degree is their wholly original take on the musical styles from which they have drawn so much inspiration—old-timey Appalachian folk, down and dirty Americana, lively bluegrass, working-class country, pre-war blues, and just about any other organic style of roots music to which one can stomp and clap, hoot and holler, and dance and drink and sing. And The Tillers’ new album, “Hand on the Plow,” which is also the inaugural release for the Muddy Roots label, is an exceptional collection of roots numbers, recorded directly to analog tape in all of its raw, gritty, top-o’-the-mountain picking, strumming, bowing, plucking and thumping, and all of its shack-shaking, foot-shuffling acoustic energy and rustic glory.
“Hand on the Plow” by The Tillers is one of those very rare albums whose songs prove equally good from start to finish. Plenty of heart and guts, style and grit, youthful energy and old-soul wisdom, and a score of other priceless ingredients are just as much a part of The Tillers’ sound as the instruments they play. Old West Side, The Road Neverending, I Gotta Move, Tecumseh on the Battlefield, and 500 Miles are all standout tracks on “Hand on the Plow.” Granted, I realize these selections speak for half the album, but choosing songs from such a fine collection can be a rather difficult task…and that was certainly so in this case.
The Tillers have acquired quite the fan base since they formed in 2007, a fan base which has steadily grown on account of the trio’s tireless work ethic and persistent gigging. On top of that, they have released three full-length albums—“Ludlow Street Rag,” “By the Signs,” and their latest “Hand on the Plow”—so their fans can take The Tillers’ songs home with them. And from what I have heard of The Tillers’ material thus far, I can say without any hesitation whatsoever that their music occupies the same high shelf upon which sit fellow roots artists The Devil Makes Three, The Dirt Daubers, Water Tower Bucket Boys, The Dinosaur Truckers, Old Man Markley, The Can Kickers, and Bread and Roses, just to name a few.
On the invisible border separating the Northeast from the Midwest, The Tillers hail from Ohio, a state with a rich history of roots music…or at least both it and its surrounding areas. That is to say, Ohio is only a short distance to the Appalachian Mountains, where artists like Doc Boggs honed their awesome skills, and Pennsylvania coal country, where many a folk and bluegrass artist have started out, playing hillbilly music for hillbilly natives and their kith and kin. Gray skies, thick forests, rocky slopes and dark, flowing rivers mark much of the terrain outside of the metropolises; a perfect environment for writing and playing such music. And The Tillers’ songs seem to speak to that land and its history—soundcapes which mirror the landscapes—becoming, in the plying of their craft, the connective tissue between the old and the new, the past and the present, and a way of honoring those meaningful people whose visages live on only in faded black-and-white photographs and the beating of their hearts.
The Tillers’ have certainly fashioned their own sound out of available roots elements, and even added some of their own. And because the members of The Tillers—Mike Oberst (multi-instrumentalist, including banjo and vocals), and the Geil brothers, Sean and Aaron (guitar and vocals, and upright bass, respectively)—came up in the Cincinnati punk scene, apparently a deep-seated influence that has unavoidably attaches itself to much of their music. This isn’t a bad thing, of course, and it gives The Tillers’ sound an edge it would undoubtedly lack otherwise. Much of the banjo playing is based on percussive picking techniques, just as much of the acoustic guitar strumming is rough and pronounced in the same places a punk song might be. The bowing on the fiddle goes from hauntingly rustic to highly spirited. The upright bass works in tandem with the percussive picking techniques, providing low-end undercurrents to the rhythms. And the vocals are neither country croons nor bluesy growls but confident, flowing deliveries. All of which broadens The Tillers’ appeal, since their music can be appreciated by both roots purists and those with decidedly more adventurous musical tastes.
Even Col. J.D. Wilkes (Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, The Dirt Daubers) commented on The Tillers’ sound, saying, “Much of the Tillers’ material (and the name of the band itself) hearkens back to a bygone American work ethic. But if their superb-yet-tasteful musicianship, mind-blowing songcraft and relentless touring schedule are any indication, that work ethic is alive and well. Check these guys out.” That’s one hell of an endorsement for any artist in the roots scene. Courtesy of Plowboy Records, Wilkes also contributed some of his wild signature harmonica playing to The Tillers’ new album, for the song I Gotta Move.
If you are a fan of today’s roots revival, whether you are into the purer side of roots music or the more experimental side, The Tillers’ “Hand on the Plow” may just be the album for you. Be sure to give ‘em a listen.