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The WDVX Blue Plate Special – 10/19 – John Salaway / The Tillers
October 19 @ 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
Frontman. Acclaimed Grammy considered songwriter. Sideman. Nationally-endorsed multi-instrumentalist. Producer. Since moving to Nashville in the early 2000s, John Salaway has become one of the city’s most accomplished musicians, holding down a weekly residency at the world-class BB King’s Blues Club while also playing shows with acts like Peter Frampton, Ben Folds, Anderson East, Zach Williams, and Denny Laine from the Moody Blues and Paul McCartney’s Wings. He’s a drummer. A guitarist. A pianist. And with albums like 2019’s Americana Dreams, he shows the full range of his abilities, mixing a lifelong appreciation for the Beatles’ classic pop melodies with the southern-fried sounds of his adopted hometown.
“With every album I make, you’ll always hear a touch of the Beatles,” says Salaway, who got to work with the Fab Four’s iconic sound engineer, Geoff Emerick, during the last year of the studio legend’s life. “With Americana Dreams, though, I wanted to show off my Americana influences, which come mostly from Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Bob Dylan, The Band, and Tom Petty.”
Those influences are all on full display throughout Americana Dreams, whose 10 self-produced songs bounce between heartland rock & roll epics, pensive ballads, and rootsy rave-ups. While Salaway’s earlier records found the songwriter playing nearly every instrument himself, Americana Dreams is a work of collaboration, featuring tracks co-written with India Ramey, Kyle Daniel, Scott Gerow, and other Nashville staples, as well as blistering slide guitar solos by Joey Fletcher and sweeping fiddle from Bri Murphy. On an album filled with some of Music City’s brightest lights, though, it’s Salaway who shines the brightest, whether he’s channeling Simon & Garfunkel’s softly harmonized folk-rock with “It’s All In Your Mind,” cranking up some bluesy soul with “You Better Believe,” or taking a moment to appreciate the smaller things in life with acoustic highlights like “The Beauty That Surrounds Us.”
Salaway has every reason to sound appreciative. A Florida native who grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and other records from his parents’ vinyl collection, he has sharpened his diverse sound and expanded his international reputation throughout a two-decade career, earning accolades from outlets like American Songwriter along the way. His debut solo album, 2013’s The Song in the Air, was named the year’s best independent pop/rock record by Yahoo and The Examiner, while his 2015 follow-up, Down the Road of Life, explored a heavier, grungier sound. Americana Dreams finds him chasing down new milestones, with “A Little Bit Broken” — the album’s kickoff single, full of rock & roll stomp and gritty guitar — climbing to Number One on the worldwide indie radio charts several months before the album’s release.
Appropriately, Americana Dreams is a sunny record, stocked with reminders to seize the moment, savor the good times, and let go of life’s unnecessary burdens. These songs preach the importance of focusing on the things that really matter: love, good people, even better music, and the times we share together.
“I want to inspire people and make them feel uplifted,” says Salaway, who echoes similar sentiments during tracks like “Inspire You,” a quietly anthemic song laced with violin and acoustic guitar. “That’s my goal in life: to be a positive force for somebody else.”
In Nashville, much has changed since Salaway moved to town more than 15 years ago. The skyline looks different. The music scene has exploded. But Salaway, with his recurring Friday afternoon gigs at BB King’s — sometimes performed as a one-man show with loops and effects, and sometimes performed with Salaway on the drums, leading his full band like a younger Don Henley — has become a citywide staple. His music is rooted in the best parts of the past and filled with contemporary finishes — a reminder that Nashville, despite its modern makeover, has always been a place anchored by classic songwriting. With Americana Dreams, he begins a new chapter in a story that’s still unfolding, excitedly showcasing new angles of his sound while still taking a moment to enjoy the ride.
“If you hold on to too much regret or negativity, you usually wind up seeing more problems in your life,” he explains. “It’s like a chain reaction because negativity attracts more negativity. These songs are about letting that bad stuff go and saying, ‘Look, life is beautiful. Let’s be thankful for what we have and enjoy our time together.'”
The Tillers got their start in August 2007 when they started thumping around with some banjos and guitars and a big wooden bass. Their earliest gigs were for coins and burritos on the city’s famous Ludlow Street in the district of Clifton. The songs they picked were mostly older than their grandparents. Some came from Woody Guthrie, some were southern blues laments, and many were anonymous relics of Appalachian woods, churches, riverboats, railroads, prairies, and coal mines.
Their look didn’t fit the stereotype. They were clearly recovering punk rockers with roots in city’s west side punk rock and hardcore scene. The punk influence gave their sound a distinctive bite, setting them apart from most other folk acts- a hard-driving percussive strum and stomp that brought new pulse and vinegar to some very old songs. But their musical range soon proved itself as they floated from hard-tackle thumping to tender graceful melody, all the while topped by Oberst and Geil’s clear tenor harmonies.
They began picking up weekly gigs around the city’s bar scene. It didn’t take long before their signature treatment of classic folk songs became the preferred versions of Cincinnati locals. Their audiences swelled, growing into an assortment of grey-haired mechanics, neo-hippies, farmers, punkers, professors, and random strays all stomping, clapping, singing, and belting outbursts of “John Henry!” “Darlin’ Corey!” Ever since, the band has come to each show with the same energy. They are magnetic showmen, mature musicians, and colorful storytellers.
The Tillers have since won over Cincinnati’s bar and festival scene, and launching tours with tireless momentum. They were awarded CityBeat Magazine’s Cincinnati Entertainment Award for best Folk and Americana act in 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015 & 2017. Their relentless gigging has taken them throughout the East coast, the Midwest and West, the Appalachian south and to the UK and Ireland opening for the St.Louis crooner, Pokey LaFarge. In the summer of 2009, veteran NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw featured the Tillers on a documentary about US Route 50. Brokaw showcased the group’s song “There is Road (Route 50)” as a testimony to the highway’s role as a connective tissue of the nation.
Musically, the band wears many hats. Their sound has proven to be an appropriate fit with a wide range of musical styles- traditional folk, bluegrass, jazz, punk rock and anything else they might run into. They have shared the stage with a broad swath of national touring acts, ranging from renowned folk legends such as Doc Watson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Guy Clark, Country Joe McDonald, Jerry Douglas, Iris Dement, Pokey LaFarge, The Hackensaw Boys and The Carolina Chocolate Drops to rambunctious rock daredevils like the Legendary Shack Shakers.
Always moving, the Tillers continue to enter new territory. Their musical growth can be heard through the scape of their many releases, 2008′s debut record Ludlow Street Rag, 2010′s By The Signs, 2011′s Wild Hog in the Woods, 2012′s Live from the Historic Southgate House, 2013′s Hand On The Plow, 2018′s The Tillers and many more bootleg releases. The band’s lineup has also taken new shape. In February 2010, long-time bassist Jason Soudrette fondly parted ways with the group, being replaced by Aaron Geil, brother of guitarist Sean. In 2015 the band added fiddler Joe Macheret to the ranks. Recalibrating has not slowed their pace.
They continue to plot their travels around the map, electrifying new places and making new friends wherever they go. From place to place, they carry with them more instruments, new songs, and funnier stories. They are Cincinnati’s traveling minstrels. Expect to hear from them soon.