“The Tillers” have been a successful string band based in Cincinnati, Ohio, for almost two decades. About 10 years ago, Helen Barnes-Reilly moved to nearby Todd from Cincinnati in order to run the Todd Mercantile Store, where she featured CDs for sale by “The Tillers.” The connection was made between the two when Helen took banjo lessons from Mike Oberst, a member of “The Tillers,” back in Ohio.
Soon, “The Tillers” were booked to play the annual Todd Summer Concert Series in Cook Memorial Park, and a tradition was formed. The first year that “The Tillers” came to the event, they were lucky enough to open for local music legend Doc Watson, which happened to take place not long before Watson’s death. It is an experience they said that they still treasure.
A few years have gone by since then, and that has meant some changes in the life of the band members of “The Tillers.” As they have gotten older, children have come along to add to the overall family, and unfortunately, others close to the band have been battling some serious illnesses along the way. Because of those things, “The Tillers” could not come to Todd last year. However, this Saturday the funky folk and bluegrass band will return to a place here in the mountains that they have come to love.
“The Tillers” will perform at Cook Memorial Park Saturday, July 27.
Members of “The Tillers” include Michael Oberst on banjo, vocals, guitar, harmonica, kazoo and fiddle, Sean Geil on guitar, vocals, dobro, banjo and mandolin, Aaron Geil on upright bass, guitar and vocals and fiddler Joe Macheret.
“We are still here, still supporting our latest self-titled album and doing some tours, including one we just did in Winnipeg, Canada,” said Mike Oberst. “We were invited to perform at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and it turned into one of those really special experiences. We are always touring, and you always hope to run into wonderful people on the road and experience new situations and things like that, but in Winnipeg, we got to be a part of a couple of jams with some bands from all over the world.”
As a part of the official program, the Winnipeg Folk Festival encourages folks from different parts of the planet to meet and find common ground in music, even if they don’t share the same verbal languages.
“At different festival workshops, we played with bands from Africa and Mexico and one from French-speaking Quebec,” said Oberst. “There were a lot of different languages going on there and when all of you are all jamming together, none of that seems to make a difference. It was amazing, man. The festival pairs you with these other bands and you never know what is going to happen in these jams. But, you just kind of get in there altogether and you let music be the language. You play in a round robin style, but you are always encouraged to invite other musicians onstage to jam with you or join in with you if they are feeling it. It is the style of the Canadian festival workshop and it is pretty cool.”
Also cool is a new dimension for the musician and band.
Oberst is also a cast member of the new movie to be released in October called “The Mountain Minor.” Written and directed by Dale Farmer, the movie follows the life and times of a family that leaves their old homestead in Appalachia and moves to the big city of Cincinnati during the Great Migration of the 1900s. The story not only follows the many generations of the family as they make their way into these modern times, it also follows the music that they brought with them when they left the countryside behind, including a certain fiddle that has been passed down over the years.
The movie is based on Farmer’s own family history of rural life in Kentucky and their move to town to find a better life.
What is unique about the project is that it was filmed in Kentucky, Cincinnati and in Todd.
The cast of “The Mountain Minor” also reflects those locations as the movie features Cincinnati musician and now actor Ma Crow as well as Trevor McKenzie, a local Boone musician. Also cast in the film are American roots artists Elizabeth LaPrelle and Dan Gellert as well as two young and phenomenally talented actors and musicians in Asa Nelson and Hazel Pasley, who nearly steal the show. Both Nelson and Pasley grew up here in the mountains near Boone and are products of the Junior Appalachian Musicians program.
“The Tillers” appear in the movie as well, and Oberst is cast as a family member who feels the weight of past generations. “The Mountain Minor” will be making its debut in Cincinnati and in Boone in October of this year.
“I play a character named Willie Abner in the movie,” said Oberst. “My character represents the youngest of the generations in the film. I can’t give away too much, but I did some scenes with Trevor McKenzie and he is a super nice guy. Plus, those kids in the movie blew me away. They are fantastic and being on set with them was equally as amazing as working with Trevor, Ma, Elizabeth and Dan.”
To be in a movie filmed in Todd after already making the musical bond with the town situated on the banks of the New River has proved to be a wonderful experience for Oberst.
“I’ve always felt a big connection with Todd since we first played there with Doc Watson,” said Oberst. “Watson was a musical hero of mine and this is one of the most beautiful places in all of Appalachia, and I think that every time I have visited Todd it has felt like a home away from home for me. The movie being filmed here helped me as well as that made playing my role a little bit easier. I’ve never acted before, so I needed all of the good feelings I could get. Now, this weekend, we will be returning to play in Todd on Saturday, so I am sure we will be coming in early to soak up the cool air.”