The passport is the human voice – plus a fiddle, a mandolin, a guitar and a bass.
In the ever-evolving world of the music industry, and the ongoing struggle to survive the lingering effects of recession – not to mention getting lost in what bassist Laurence Knight of Tiller’s Folly calls “the I-Pod Shuffle” – North America’s most seasoned musicians are breaking down borders both literally and figuratively.
Forget long-established labels, or the gimmick-du-jour of Top 40 production. Many are finding the best calling card is a song of enduring value and a time-honoured instrumentation that, while borrowing from many acoustic traditions and genre identifications (including folk, country, bluegrass, new grass, and Celtic) is capable of transcending all of them.
Latest group in this ongoing, intuitive evolution is Tiller’s Folly itself, which heads across the border next week to launch a media and showcase tour of Nashville, Tenn. and beyond.
The Surrey and White Rock-based group, which has paid 13 years of dues in thousands of performances both across Canada and abroad – and seven well-regarded albums – has just been signed to Georgia-based management company Leadership Artists.
That puts them in the same stable as acoustic super group Mountain Heart and legendary vocalist/bassist John Cowan, under the watchful eye of Leadership’s president, powerhouse promoter Brian Smith.
And the effect can be seen in the band’s upcoming blitz of the musical capital, which will include appearances on two live showcases, the legendary Billy Block Show and Music City Roots, as well as additional television and radio appearances, a private function for music industry leaders, and a full concert at The Rooster’s Wife in Aberdeen, N.C.
“It’s very exciting,” Knight said.
“This trip is the big one. We’re like the girl being introduced at the ball to all of the suitors – it’s a whole new culture.”
The timing of the trip coincides with the latter stages of recording the group’s latest album Go The Road, in which Knight, Bruce Coughlan (principal writer, artistic leader, lead vocalist and guitarist) and Nolan Murray (vocalist, fiddler, mandolinist) will be joined by such top guest talents as Cowan, Josh Shilling (Mountain Heart), vocalist Cia Cherryholme, Scottish Music Hall of Fame accordionist Phil Cunningham, guitarist Jeff Autry and banjo great Scott Vestal.
The new album, recorded with the band’s favourite producer, Joby Baker of Baker Studios in Victoria, also finds Tiller’s Folly at the top of its game, Knight said.
“This record is a culmination. Bruce has written 12 new songs and he’s at the peak of his career as a songwriter, emotionally, melodically and lyrically – these are just timeless, classic songs.
“This is really going to open the door for Bruce as a songwriter – already there’s a lineup of major songwriters who want to work with him
“And Nolan is just such an adept musician on so many instruments.”
Knight, too, acknowledges that the album has stretched his abilities, shifting from electric to acoustic bass.
“I play the whole thing on upright bass, which is the first time I’ve done that,” he said.
The group is taking additional heart from the backing of Smith and Leadership Artists, Knight confirmed.
“It’s so nice to have somebody on board helping to promote our cause who has all these connections.” he said.
“Brian’s been involved in music at the very highest level for many years. He came out of retail as a vice president of a chain of music stores which gave him a very strong understanding of the industry.
“He could see the end of the road for the music stores, but he knew the one thing that would never end was the music itself, even if the ways of selling it would change.”
The way that the Leadership connection came about was logical and organic, according to Knight – driven as it was by Cowan.
Much of Cowan’s fame rests on his years as a core member of seminal band New Grass Revival, which pioneered a fusion of bluegrass with rock and R&B harmonies in the 1970s and ’80s.
“We’ve always been huge fans of his playing and he came up and helped us on River So Wide and Nolan’s solo album,” Knight said.
While Cowan had his own band and had just signed with Leadership, he was unable to turn down an offer to tour with The Doobie Brothers, with whom he’d played before – which left an opening in Leadership’s talent roster, Knight said.
“John is a big fan of the band and Bruce’s singing and songwriting and he kept on pushing Brian, saying ‘you should take a look at these guys’.
Discussion went on for about a year, but the deal was finally clinched when the band flew Smith to one of their concerts in Oregon, Knight said.
While Knight admits the historic thread of Celtic Canadiana that Tiller’s Folly has been known for has been, to some extent, subsumed by the emotional direction of River So Wide and Go The Road, Knight said it is always going to be part of the group’s identity and repertoire.
“I think what Brian’s figured is our music would be a refreshing breath of fresh air,” he added.