Quills Quotes & Notes: Articles and Stories by Rosemary Phillips


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Tiller's Folly



Cooking up tales of the Pacific Northwest

An interview article by Rosemary Phillips, December 2003

Battles and bootleggers. Disasters at sea. Ghosts. Fur traders. The Gold Rush. Unrequited love. These are all ingredients for great stories, which in turn make great songs – the toe-tapping, hand-clapping type. Now add a dash of Celtic, folk and bluegrass and you have Tiller’s Folly.



A multi-media sample of Tiller's Folly, 2009

Nolan Murray - Tiller's Folly
Nolan Murray

Folklore of the Pacific Maritimes
This is folklore of the Maritimes – the other Maritimes – the Pacific West Coast. Bet that came as a 180-degree-turnaround surprise! “It must be puzzling to think of maritime music coming from the West Coast,” says fiddler Nolan Murray. “Usually when you think maritime you think East Coast. Yet there’s so much history in the Pacific Northwest.”

And Tiller’s Folly is telling it. Combine the talents of songwriter Bruce Coughlan with bassist Laurence Knight, award winning multi-instrumentalist Nolan Murray and mandolin player Eric Reed, and you have what Nolan calls - “Original high-energy acoustic roots with a very hip historic nature to it. In just plain English, the original ‘heavy wood’ of North American music.”

This is music of the great Northwest, from Mexico up through California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Canada, right to Alaska. It’s international music. “History was mostly the same on both sides of the border,” explains Laurence. “In fact,” adds Bruce, “there was no border. The line was drawn in 1846.” “There’s a true heart beat that runs north and south,” says Nolan from his home in Washington. “Fascinating stories and great music should be shared with every audience, not confined to colloquial borders.”

Bruce Coughlan - Tiller's Folly
Bruce Coughlan
The Celtic tradition
It began with Bruce and his love for Celtic and folk music. “Part of the Celtic tradition is writing and singing songs about where you are from.” When noticing that most current music is written about the East he started writing songs about characters and tales of the West. “It was to fill a void that wasn’t being addressed. In the ballad tradition we are preserving the glories of past deeds and extolling them to upcoming generations.”

“The songs aren’t just about railways and wooden sailing ships,” adds Laurence. “There’s ‘Twenty-Three Camels’, ‘The Ghost of Kitty O’Reilly’ and ‘Water at the Bar’…” The songs tell tales of heroes, heroines and villains, of shantytowns, engineers and traders, and of course, twenty-three camels in the Cariboo. Seems settlers did the darndest things. Then there’s ‘Ned McGowan’s War’, a tale of prospectors from California heading to the Fraser to pan for gold.

Laurence Knight - Tiller's Folly
Laurence Knight

Evolving into so much more
Says Laurence, “We started as a Celtic group but we are evolving into much more - it’s a whole new kind of West Coast folk.”

This comes from having seasoned musicians from different genres. Laurence has over 30 years of performing with top entertainers including Bo Didley, Jim Byrnes, and Long John Baldry. Then there’s Bruce with his songwriting and musicianship for popular bands Bare Facts and The Hightops. Nolan has toured, performed or recorded with many top performers including Ian Tyson, Irish Rovers, Valdy and Gary Fjellgaard, the Good Brothers, Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn and John Fogarty. Eric, a multi-instrumentalist, has also fine-tuned his skills as an engineer/producer. Says Eric, “Mix us all together and what you get is The Tiller’s Folly.”

Toss in another flavor - “There are solos, as in the jazz tradition, some improvisation – a lot of interplay that way,” explains Bruce. “And by adding multi-media we are creating a new frontier of artistic expression.”

Family oriented concerts
Concerts are family oriented. There’s lively music, some history and lots of fun. “We are entertaining, we don’t just play,” says Laurence. “We make the audience laugh. Kids just love it and the parents just love bringing their kids. Seniors love it. It’s just old-fashioned fun. It’s value added music – a feel-good energy with an incredible level of musicianship.”

Says Nolan, “When we performed recently in the Mid-West, the people left our show overwhelmed with the music. They were also fascinated by the stories, the yarns that set up the songs.”

Teaching history through song
Adds Eric, “I like it when the audience gets to learn something.” This will explain why Tiller’s Folly has been so successful with tours of schools, teaching history through song and story. In the last few years they have visited over 500 schools with their tales.

So how do they perform when they are not in the West? Says Bruce, “We sing songs that relate to the region we are in – with an eye to the West. What we are doing is establishing the West’s place in the identity of the North American mosaic.”

The wind blows from west to east
While The Tiller’s Folly cooks up and serves historic songs relating to north and south, Nolan says, “I look at it this way – the wind blows from west to east, and that’s kindof what’s happening to this music. It still has the maritime feel but with our own original high point - flavours of the West Coast. It’s a little bit different from what they are hearing back east.”

So watch out East – there’s cream in the West – and it’s rising!

For more information, biographies, recordings, reviews, updates and bookings visit Tillers Folly..

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Copyright Rosemary Phillips, Quills Quotes & Notes Enterprises, 2013
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