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As the members of The Tillers awaited their Cincinnati Entertainment Awards Folk/Americana win this past November, the trio was busy fomenting a feud. In a Queen City Folk version of the East Coast/West Coast Rap skirmish, The Tillers and Magnolia Mountain had crafted a war of words.
“A few weeks prior, I told (Magnolia Mountain’s) Mark Utley we should do something crazy at the CEAs and stage a Folk fight,” says Tillers vocalist/banjoist Mike Oberst with a wry smile. “So the music scene in Cincinnati will know not to screw with us. We’re not just singing ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone.’ ”
Magnolia Mountain’s Utley hacked The Tillers’ Facebook page (“You should vote for Magnolia Mountain ... we bow down to Magnolia Mountain”) and ultimately posted a photo of The Tillers’ acceptance speech with a nicely Photoshopped image of Kanye West (“Magnolia Mountain had one of the best albums of the year!”) on The Tillers’ MySpace page. And his Misfits-inspired rendering of The Tillers’ “new album cover” was real enough to upset Tillers bassist Jason Soudrette’s grandmother.
“She called me up irate and said, ‘Is that your new album? I’m not buying it,’ ” Soudrette says with a bemused laugh. “I thought she was going to disown me.”
It was all fiction. In fact, Utley provided The Tillers with their favorite song from their soon-to-be-released sophomore album, By the Signs.
“It’s one of the best songs we do,” Oberst says of the Utley-penned “There Is Enough.” “It pretty much blows everything we do out of the water. He wrote it just for us. He said, ‘I think this says everything there is to say about you guys. Do whatever you want with it.’ ”
What The Tillers did is surround Utley’s song with nearly a dozen more of equal wonder and beauty. Drawing on new influences as well as the trio’s core inspirations, By the Signs is an amazing achievement by any yardstick, especially coming on the heels of the band’s 2008 debut, Ludlow Street Rag.
“We wrote a lot more on the new album,” says guitarist Sean Geil.
“The first album was more traditional songs, but we still tried to be fresh with those, too. We can’t deny the generation we grew up in.”
“With the new one, we just let it be more free and more melodic,” Oberst says. “We didn’t try to hold too close to any specific style of Folk.”
“It’s a little more Tillerish,” Soudrette says. “It’s more of us than our influences.”
The Tillers evolved quickly, with Geil and Oberst’s jams in mid-2007 shifting to a full-fledged band with Soudrette’s addition a few weeks later. Although all three come from Punk backgrounds, Oberst and Geil channeled their longstanding love of Folk/Bluegrass/Old Time music into band work.
“I was playing in the Mt. Pleasant String Band and Mike was with the Blue Rock Boys,” Geil says. “We played a show together and met and liked what we were doing. I checked out Mike’s MySpace page for his own songs and found out we were into a lot of the same stuff.”
The pair’s first eight-hour jam revealed their mutual love of the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Roscoe Holcomb; within a week, they played their first show. After club gigs and numerous hours spent busking on local street corners, Geil and Oberst decided a bass player was essential and recruited Soudrette, Oberst’s bandmate in the Punk band Disarmed, in 2000.
“We knew he was a hard working guy and could catch on quick,” Geil says. “We’d do a two chord song, throw in a three chord song, then give him a one chord song and take it easy on him. Before we knew it, he was able to play a half a night with us.”
Soudrette was unfamiliar with the songbooks that inspired his bandmates, plus they wanted him to play stand-up bass, which he had never attempted. With a few rehearsals and gigs under his belt, Soudrette accompanied Geil and Oberst on an afternoon slot at a music festival then sat in for a second set at the old Northside haunt, The Gypsy Hut, that night.
“My fingers were numb,” Soudrette says. “I’m not even sure if there were flatwound strings on there; roundwounds are like cheese graters.”
In addition to the CEA win, By the Signs’ imminent release and the upcoming festival season, The Tillers are excited about their inclusion in an upcoming USA Network documentary and series of reports about people who live along Route 50, produced and hosted by veteran TV newsman Tom Brokaw. Oberst heard about the special and sent Ludlow Street Rag, featuring their original song “There Is a Road (Route 50),” to Brokaw, but he never received the package. Weeks later, Oberst received a call from a producer who had Googled songs about Route 50; The Tillers’ popped up near the top.
“At first they just wanted to use the song,” Oberst says. “But we talked for a long time, and he liked our story and said, ‘We might want the band to be featured as a part of the documentary.’ So we’re representing Cincinnati and struggling Folk musicians.”
Last June, Brokaw arrived at Oberst’s Sayler Park home on Route 50 to interview the band. They arranged a backyard show with a few dozen friends as an audience, which was taped, and then Brokaw sat down with the band for an interview.
“Tom Brokaw was a super cool guy,” Geil says. “I don’t think he’d ever seen our (‘Route 50’) video, so we watched him watch it. He said, ‘Well, we’ve got everything we need,’ then he kept talking to us. All of a sudden, he was like, ‘Get the cameras up again, we’ve got some good stuff going on.’ He has that way; that’s why he is who he is. He probably had that planned all along.”
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