“We got haircuts,” guitarist Sean Geil deadpans, alluding to his closely cropped hair and vocalist/banjoist Mike Oberst’s obvious lack of braids.
In addition to their tonsorial shift, the Cincinnati-based Folk trio changed bassists in February of last year, from Jason Soudrette to Sean’s brother Aaron. It was an easy transition, as Aaron and Sean had played in various Bluegrass outfits together and Aaron had been filling in for Soudrette when he was unavailable (all four Tillers played Soudrette’s last show).
“It was when the band first started traveling hard,” Aaron says. “It was a lot of catching up on songs that were already staples in the set. We were learning songs in the van. That first tour, those two learned a song and Sean was yelling chords at me as they were playing while I’m driving so I could play it that night at the show. It would have been harder if I was trying to play.”
“That was difficult when that happened,” Oberst says over beers at Northside’s Comet on a quiet Monday night. “It’s a weird time when you lose a member that’s one of the originals, and you’re a three-piece. But bringing Aaron into the band was a must, and he knew exactly what we needed to do.”
The past 24 months have also seen the airing of The Tillers’ segment on Tom Brokaw’s Route 50 documentary, American Character Along Highway 50, their featured track on a Relix Magazine sampler, a pair of opening gigs for the legendary Doc Watson, their second Cincinnati Entertainment Awards win for Folk/Americana Artist (and their third nomination) and tons of touring miles traveling to music festivals all over the country, including events in Wisconsin, New York, Virginia and Austin, for their first South by Southwest.
“We’ve been going (on tour) wherever we can,” Oberst says.
“We went to SXSW, and played on the streets in New Orleans. And we went to Woody Guthrie’s hometown, Okemah, Okla., almost like a pilgrimage to view the tumbleweeds. It wasn’t a business venture for us, we went to be there and feel it.”
The release of the all-covers Wild Hog in the Woods brings more good news for The Tillers. A collaboration between the band and local Bluegrass legend Uncle Mike Carr, Wild Hog’s release will be celebrated with a combination festival/benefit at the Southgate House this Saturday (Carr will be on hand for The Tillers’ set). The event, dubbed “To Sing with You Once More,” has been planned for nearly a year and will feature The Tillers along with a variety of supporting acts to raise funds to battle multiple myeloma, a plasma cell cancer that claimed the lives of famed Folk singer Mike Seeger and Oberst’s mother.
“There’ll be 17 acts there, including us,” Oberst says. “It’s a benefit/memorial show for my mom and Mike Seeger, Pete Seeger’s younger brother who was an old-time banjo player and member of the New Lost City Ramblers since the late ’50s. We’re going to be raising funds for the Mike Seeger Scholarship Fund, which is a music scholarship.”
Wild Hog in the Woods is a return to the more traditional old-time sound of The Tillers’ 2008 debut, Ludlow Street Rag, even more so given Wild Hog’s complete lack of originals. It was a direction the band had considered for some time.
“We wanted to put out the stuff we play at shows that aren’t originals and release it at the (memorial) show,” Sean says. “Then we met Uncle Mike and started jamming with him, and we thought, ‘That would be cool, too, and it’ll be different enough from the other albums we’ve put out.’ We recorded everything live, shortly after we learned the songs, because we learned them from Uncle Mike.”
Carr and The Tillers met at Mark Utley’s “Music For the Mountains” benefit earlier this year; both had tracks on the corresponding compilation and were involved in the subsequent show. Like all good collaborations, Wild Hog was borne of great mutual admiration.
“Uncle Mike’s song, ‘Sugar Hill,’ is the oldest sounding song on the (Music For the Mountains) CD, and we thought, ‘Man, that’s awesome. We want to meet him.’ ” Sean says. “We thought about jamming with him.”
“We actually met Mike at the show,” Oberst says “He’d been looking for a band to work with, and he seemed very into what we were doing. Originally, we thought our new album could be all old-time songs, but after meeting Uncle Mike, we thought, ‘Why don’t we see if that guy wants to play on it?’ We figured if we were going to work with him, let’s showcase him, but it turned out documenting him in a big way. There are only a few that are traditional songs that we did before he came. The whole thing has been unforgettable.”
As The Tillers’ lessened their concentration on original compositions and explored the existing old-time string band songs that formed their heritage, the Wild Hog idea came into clearer focus and Carr’s involvement solidified it.
“It’s almost like we were trying to put the brickwork underneath what we’d already started,” Oberst says.
“To learn our instruments and the styles of music better,” Sean adds, “instead of just beating the hell out of things.”
“Which we still do,” Oberst clarifies. “Just in a better way.” ©
TO SING WITH YOU ONCE MORE, a benefit for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation and Mike Seeger Scholarship Fund featuring The Tillers and dozens of local and national acts, is this Saturday at Newport’s Southgate House. Visit www.tosingwithyouoncemore.com for more details.