Back in the far away time of 2006 a couple of friends decided they would join forces and create a band. A band of brothers and a band that, in my opinion, is the epitome of do-it-yourself and one that personifies the punk rock that shaped them as humans and musician’s, they are The Tillers. I am not sure of how many shows of theirs I have been to at this point, but the one thing I do know is that once I heard them I was enamored. I had the pleasure of having them “stay” at my house in Berwyn, IL when they played our local bar. Back when Jason Soudrette was still with them, and Jason and I talked a while about the upright bass. They supplanted themselves into my life and I accepted with enough gratitude to fill the world we live on. The Tillers began as Mike Oberst, Sean Geil, and Jason Soudrette. Jason and his wife had their first child and Jason wanted to be home more and focus on his other passion, racing. Jason was diagnosed with leukemia soon after and fought hard but lost the battle. The loss was hard, and still is, losing a brother most certainly is. Moving forward was tough, but they did. However, I think they made the obvious decision of never forgetting Jason. Jason lives on through each show, and every album. This is most certainly a band of brothers.
With the loss of Jason and wanting to be home more they recruited Sean’s older brother Aaron, who played bass already in their family band The Mount Pleasant String Band. A couple years later they added multi-instrumentalist and fiddle player extraordinaire Joe Macheret of Joe’s Truck Stop. With the addition of Aaron, it seemed from the listener’s perspective to be a flawless change. I’m sure there were challenges but like they always do they fought through them. With the addition of Joe, it has opened the band to explore on this new record, and even live shows. The early days we would see Mike and Sean trading off between banjo and guitar, or guitar to fiddle, or banjo to fiddle, and any other combination you can think of. While there is still some of that the addition of Joe freed Mike and Sean up, and the songs have benefited, as well as the shows, and always with a nod to Jason.
The self-titled album they released in March has a dedication on the inside to their brother Jason. The songs on the record are a tip of the cap to him. They also got angry in a musician’s way. Without getting to political or soap boxish, something has been lost and we need to get that back. Look no further than the songs “Migrant’s Lament,” “Like a Hole in My Head,” “Dear Mother,” “Revolution Row,” and their nod to Woody Guthrie with “All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose.” All examples, and sung with, a fervor and gravel of drawing a line in the sand. In times such as these where the politics of a country has become so volatile and apathetic The Tillers are doing the opposite and with a fist in the air. From their previous albums there were traveling songs, hobo tunes, moonshiner songs, and obscure songs this album is very much a reflection of the times we live in, and to date one of their most political records. When times like these arise musicians that have never been afraid to say what they mean and say it loudly. Merely reflections of society and the culture we are in now, and The Tillers are that reflection or echo. Along with the political there are a few songs that are sentimental, heartfelt, and good.
Look no further than “Riverboat Dishwashing Song” a true story of Mike’s dishwashing on a riverboat. There is their ballad to Rabbit Hash, Kentucky’s General Store. Which a fire was caught inside of the general store and with it went many memories, but fortunately with a lot of help the General Store was rebuilt. Then to close the record out is “Another Postcard,” about life out on the road while your children at home are growing into the people that they are. The longing for seeing them grow, but with the reconciliation that in Mike’s words “I’m on my way.”
The Tillers for many years now have put out some great records. Each one has shown growth from the personal to the musician. For every song is a little autobiographical in some way, I believe. With that belief these records show a band that started as a trio, shot a video on pickup truck, had Tom Brokaw visit while he did a documentary on Route 50, and with the passing of their friend still carry on and are now a foursome. Through all of this we get to hear it in the records. Lives on the road and people’s couches, coast to coast, and overseas and back again for the joy of song and sharing that with everyone they meet. The Tillers are doing exactly that, tilling the road for freshness while at the same time exploring the songs that they have come to love from Woody to Doc, and The Holy Modal Rounders and even Bone Thugs. The Tillers are playing all over the Midwest and beyond, as they always do in the summer. They’ll be hitting a festival near you ready to share a song. Most importantly, you should listen to this record.