Like all places we love, we never thought we’d have to say goodbye to the Southgate House. Some
of us assumed it would be there as long as we were. Lots of hearts sank with the news that it would close
its doors. But if there had to be a sendoff, we knew our friends the Tillers would do it right.
This particular night, December 28, 2011, the trio attracted a community of well-wishers- a packed
house of warm, jubilant, boisterous bodies- to say goodbye to the Southgate in the best way they knew
how. People waited in line out in the cold to be part of it. The sold-out crowd was testimony to the house,
to the band’s place in it, to years of memories, and to the odd history that oozed from the place. Nothing
seemed more fitting than to have our favorite three scruffy, bearded west-side Cincinnati minstrels conduct
a wake with a ruckus of songs they had resurrected from forgotten times and places. The house and the
band are both history books, and waggish ones.
Whether you came there for music, flirtation, or bourbon and pickle juice, the more you hung
around Southgate, the more stories you accumulated. The house itself is a great story- usually a mash of
history and folk legend- depending on who tells it. It looks like a museum, which it sort of is. Standing on
a sleepy hill in Newport Kentucky on the banks of the Ohio River, it is a solitary and elegant Victorian
mansion, with a spacious yard and stylish façade that make it seem like a time-warp compared to the noisy
shopping mall across the street. Supposedly it was built by captured British prisoners from the War of
1812. It was home to Kentucky politician Richard Southgate, whose parlor entertained the genteel of the
day, including US presidents Polk, Taylor, and Lincoln. But most famously, it was the birth home of John
T. Thompson, inventor of the Tommy Gun. Some of us wonder if the house’s haunted feeling owed
anything to the grizzly karma of Mr. Thompson’s invention.
Lots of people did think it was haunted. When you drank or watched a show in the front lounge,
you did so in the company of Civil War generals and 19th century presidents, who watched you from dark,
lonely oil paintings. Robert E. Lee would look at you with regretful warning in his face. Ulysses S. Grant
sat with glazed eyes, much drunker than you. The musty old rugs, creaky wood floors and high ceilings
echoed the music and voices in each room, and possibly ones that used to be in the room. And of course,
there were legends of murders and suicides, including a young woman who supposedly hung herself from
the top floor, mistakenly thinking her lover had died in a barge accident on Ohio. You never knew which
stories were true, but it was always a good idea to raise a glass to the dead, just to stay on good terms.
The sheer size of the place made it mysterious. A parlor, a lounge, and a ballroom gave you three
floors of competing music, where you could hear delta blues, death metal, country, jazz, reggae, and
whatever else might stumble into town. The owners had turned this giant, slightly creepy mansion into an
epic fun-house of music, libation and loose talk. There was “Hillbilly Thursday” with Sean and Aaron’s
troupe, Mt. Pleasant String Band. And there were the infamous open-mic nights, hosted by Mike, that
would showcase everything from marquee musicians in disguise and undiscovered prodigies to unbearably
awkward comedians, amateur “magic shows” of bleach guzzlers, and drunken improvisation on every
instrument devised by man.
Somewhere along the line, the Tillers found their place in this swirling variety show that was the
Southgate House. The house helped them grow from tadpoles to Godzillas in the Cincinnati folk scene. In
the ballroom, they played with Iris Dement, Jerry Douglas, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. They released two
albums there, and raised money and hearts to fight multiple myeloma with their benefit show, To Sing with
You Once More. Southgate helped build their momentum to a thunder. So when then the bad news came,
the boys knew what to do.
They gathered up their friends to stomp, clap, holler, croon, and say goodbye. They had asked our
old band, the Blue Rock Boys, to warm up everyone’s throats and heels with sea shanties and Irish ditties.
And when it was time for our three friends, Mike, Sean, and Aaron to huddle in around their small tree of
microphones with their banjos and guitars and big wooden bass, everyone roared, and then hushed. What
followed was a tribute show fitting for a house that entertained punk rockers and presidents, anarchists and
aristocrats, scoundrels and sages. That night, the boys did what they do- conjuring memories and mischief
with songs that are joyful, sorrowful, ecclesiastical, roguish, rapturous and raw. I think the Tillers know
what it means to say goodbye with jubilance and respect. And this record proves it.
There was only one Southgate House and there is only one Tillers. Enjoy.