The HillBenders Present ‘Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry’

andrew kruse-ross | hillbenders | april 2017

Missouri's HillBenders take the fusing of musical genres to new heights, dazzling audiences along the way. That's just what they'll look to do when they take the stage at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts on May 4. The bluegrass virtuosos' latest work tackles one of the greatest rock operas of all time, The Who's “Tommy."

Taking time out of a busy touring schedule, guitarist/vocalist/ and musical director Jim Rea was kind enough to field some questions from somewhere in the eastern United States.

History has given us so many great albums, 'Tommy' is certainly one of them, but can you share with our readers what led to the selection of The Who's 'Tommy,' and was there perhaps other albums that you considered previously?

We never thought of covering any entire album, we were thinking of making a third original record when Louis Meyers approached us about doing 'Tommy' in a bluegrass style. We met Louis several years earlier from his time as at Folk Alliance International where he helped us on many occasions. He was always popping into our showcases at other events too, like IBMA back when it was still in Nashville. Little did we know he was scouting us out to do this project. When he pitched it, I was on board immediately because I always loved the album and The Who. We all agreed his vision was worth being a part of and his track record spoke for itself, including his role starting SXSW in Austin. We demoed a few tracks for him and he was excited to move forward. He managed the project before his untimely death last year of a heart attack.

Obviously, there's quite a merger happening when you're mixing The Who with bluegrass stylings, from your perspective, are your crowds reaching both the rock crowd and a more traditional bluegrass crowd as well?

Both crowds are coming out to the shows. I think the older Who fans get more out of it than the bluegrass crowd does, but we also do a set of our bluegrass originals and traditional bluegrass music, so it's a great show for everyone.

You've received some resoundingly favorable reviews for this show, many of those coming from people that have a closeness to The Who's original album, I wonder, because 'Tommy' is such an iconic recording, if you could speak to the handling or care you've taken in with the material?

Louis and myself did not want a jingle-jangly version of this record. I was careful to arrange our version with respect to the original. We use percussion heavily to help bridge Keith Moon's demanding drum parts (no small feat). Our mandolin player was trained in opera, so his power and control help lift the story out of a hokey 'overalls and hay bales' bluegrass show.

From the musical side of things, how difficult or easy was it to divvy out the pieces of music originally performed by a four-piece rock outfit to a five-piece bluegrass band, and was there any squabbling as to which member might take the next Townsend solo?

There's always a little squabbling, but I charted everything out for the band and sent practice tracks for them to practice to, so it wasn't too bad. It took about six months to arrange and learn all together.

The late-SXSW co-founder Louis Jay Meyers had a lot to do with this project; I wonder if you could tell us a bit about his role in the 'Tommy' concept?

Louis played some banjo for a group called Killbilly and he would sound-check with 'Tommy' songs and it became an ongoing thing that spawned this idea over 20 years ago. He said he was waiting to find the right band to pull it off.

One reviewer, after seeing you at SXSW, said that you guys were proof positive that anything goes at SXSW, how important are festivals of this kind?

I'm glad we did it because we received some great reviews, but Louis had that kind of magic. We have done all sorts of industry events and festivals and some help a lot, others, not so much. Places like Grey Fox and Planet Bluegrass events helped us along the way by just giving us a chance to play and get new fans. That being said, I think a large part of the industry still just turns artists into their customers.

Unrelated to anything, how does one acquire the nickname 'Gravyboat,' as is the case with your dobro player, Chad? Is it just a play on his last name or is there a story?

His last name mainly, but I have seen him drink gravy from a to-go container from KFC.

You guys have been together for a few years now, is there any secret to the group's longevity?

Separate hotel rooms.

To anyone out there that's unfamiliar or on the fence about coming to a show, what would you tell them?

You will be rocked, we hope you sing along, clap your hands and re-live a powerful time in history and possibly your own life. Bring your spouse or kids or an old buddy that you used to jam [to] the original record with. Don't forget that before 'Tommy' we wield a short set of original and traditional bluegrass music too!

The HillBenders take the Weidner stage on May 4 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $33 and up.

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