John Till grew up in Naperville but was always drawn to the outdoors and wide open spaces. Till gets right to it on the opening track to his new album of originals titled “Work Away The Day.”
“I’m heading down to CECO again/gonna see what we can find/hamerin’ the water/gunning Johnny’s 85/gonna roll on/roll back in time” - "CECO" from "Work Away The Day."
How does a kid from an affluent Chicago suburb evolve into writing and performing acoustic country blues songs about 4x4s, camping and fishing in remote locations?
“CECO is a sportsman club I grew up going to. It’s outside Coal City,” said Till. “Old family friends are members of the club and I still go there all the time.”
How ‘bout a favorite fishing nook or cranny?
“Peco Bay,” said Till. “It’s part of the lake. It’s an old strip mine they flooded. Commonwealth Edison was the club that found it and now they have camping and all that good stuff.”
“Tidal Wave” follows “CECO.” It’s a love affair with a truck.
“Well he’s torn her apart and put her on back together/so many times he can’t tell/whether his hands are stained with oil/or his blood.”
Great line, and vivid imagery.
“Fortunately it’s not my truck, it’s my buddy’s. It’s on old F-150, an old farming truck. It’s more of a lawn ornament now than anything else,” laughed Till.
Till was exposed to country blues through an older brother's record collection that included now folk-blues legend Mississippi John Hurt and Mississippi hill country bluesman Fred McDowell. You can hear his admiration for singer/songwriter Chris Smither as well.
Those sounds now seems a perfect soundtrack to Till’s youth.
“I was so surrounded by the country, like we always found a way to get out,” said Till. “We took family trips to places like CECO, which was only 40 miles away. We’d also go south on long road trips to Bull Shoals in the Ozarks. My dad grew up putzing around on farms in Naperville when he got out of Chicago as a kid. He kind of glorified that, and it’s where I fell into it.”
Bloomington’s Edward David Anderson produced "Work Away The Day" with a depth to the room. Till’s voice is clearly heard, but you can hear his words echo off the walls of the studio as if it was a live performance in an old general store. Anderson said the idea came when the two played a show together and he asked Till if he had a recording.
“Nothing I’m proud of,” said Till.
Anderson set out to change that.
“From the first time hearing John, I heard his voice being recorded in that room at Oxide Lounge in Bloomington,” said Anderson. “It’s not a huge room, but it has big tall ceilings. And I had recorded a lot in that room with (Anderson’s old band) Backyard Tire Fire and others. His gut told him Till's voice and sound would work well in the room.
“And good things did happen,” said Anderson. “You can hear the depth, you can hear the sound of the room. I wanted it to be kind of an old-school country blues sound. I really feel like we achieved that.”
Anderson often performs solo and uses his feet as percussion. As does Till, which led Anderson to lobby to first record guitar and vocal, then dub in percussion later.
“Because sometimes I’ll play a gig where I won’t use my feet and I find out my vocal is even stronger. When you don’t have the other things to worry about, you can be freer. So I wanted to have him just sing and play at the same time, just guitar and voice to get the best possible vocal take. And I feel like that worked.”
“That’s the first time I used that angle, and yeah, we got a lot done in a very short amount of time,” said Till.
“Steal Me Away” is a song Till jokes is about a late night at an old watering hole he’d like to forget. So he keeps singing a song about it.
“Went out on the town last night/met myself a few unfriendlies/somebody said some shit/somebody got struck in the jaw.”
It’s a song he recorded on a previous album, though you can hear the crisper production value on this version.
“It’s hard for me to let songs rest,” explained Till. “Over the years I’ve been recording on and off and then I’ll go out and gig the songs for a year. And I feel they’ll start to take hold of during that time into something is more meaningful. There are a few songs on 'Work Away The Day' I’ve done in the past I wanted to re-do.”
John Till and Edward David Anderson's Black Dirt Revival play The Castle Theatre on Friday, Nov. 17.
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