As the name implies, The Hillbenders are a group of bluegrass musicians who have a tendency to bend the genre in a few different directions.
“In the beginning, we wanted to do a lot of original stuff,” said guitarist Jim Rea. “We always knew twisting other styles of music with bluegrass was always going to to be a hit, so we’ve always done that.”
But what has arguably brought the Springfield, Missouri quintet the most notoriety is how they’ve taken one of popular music’s most ambitious rock operas and shaped it into something almost entirely their own.
Ever since it was released in 2015 to critical acclaim, “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” has been a hit with both bluegrass appreciators and die-hard fans of classic rock icons The Who and its legendary 1969 double-album “Tommy.” The Hillbenders will once again play the album live in its entirety when the group comes to perform at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College in Danville on Friday.
Our big thing is we didn’t want to be hillbilly about it. We didn’t want it to be a hokey, kind of novelty thing.
Jim Rea, The Hillbenders
The Hillbenders sprouted from a former band The Arkamo Rangers that Jim Rea and his cousin Gary Rea (bass) formed 15 years ago along with Chad Graves (dobro) and a few other enthusiasts of both traditional and progressive bluegrass. With its cemented lineup that now features Nolan Lawrence (mandolin) and Mark Cassidy (banjo) established in 2008, the band was a breakout act after winning the 2009 Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
“I’m still blown away we won the Telluride thing,” Jim said. “We just pushed and gave it 110 percent and sacrificed where we needed to sacrifice.”
After releasing two studio albums (2010’s “Down To My Last Dollar” and 2013’s “Can You Hear Me?”) and touring consistently, The Hillbenders crossed paths with the late Louis Jay Meyers, producer, musician and co-founder of the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. He had long had an idea of recreating The Who’s “Tommy” with a bluegrass aesthetic and thought The Hillbenders would be up for the task. The band, itself, was at a crossroads and figured tackling Meyers idea was a risk worth taking.
“We just didn’t know what we were going to do next,” Jim said. “This is something you can really put out there as a project, as an actual milestone in our career.”
While Jim Rea was a fan of the original album and was anxious to craft the arrangements for the “Tommy’s” more than two dozen songs and interludes, the other members of The Hillbenders were less familiar with the music. Jim said when it was all said and done, “Tommy” was a “pretty easy flip” from rock to bluegrass. While there have been plenty of bluegrass covers that have become fairly popular due to their more drastic flips from one genre to another (The Gourds cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” comes to mind), Jim wanted to make sure “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” was more of a true homage than anything else.
“Our big thing is we didn’t want to be hillbilly about it. We didn’t want it to be a hokey, kind of novelty thing,” he said. “We didn’t want to be kicking hay bales around up there and all that s---.”
We get the world’s biggest Who fans coming up to us at every show.
Jim Rea, The Hillbenders
While absent certain sonic elements like Keith Moon’s drumming and other orchestration, The Hillbenders do a more than serviceable job of recreating Pete Townshend’s melodies and solos and even hitting some of those signature Roger Daltry notes in “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry.” While Hillbenders received the surreal honor of meeting Townshend backstage at a show in Nashville and getting his seal of approval, they get an almost equal affirmation from the crowd.
“We get the world’s biggest Who fans coming up to us at every show. Literally. Sometimes two or three,” Jim said. “Where we really see the positive feedback is from the Who fans, and that’s what matters.”
The band plans on performing “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” live as long as there is a demand for it. On this tour, they have also been throwing in some bluegrass standards and originals at the end, when time permits. Jim said whether they are recreating “Tommy” or rolling through one of their originals, they are relishing every moment they get to play together and give fans a chance to sing, clap and stomp along to a beloved musical genre.
“People just have a tendency to gravitate toward acoustic instruments. It’s something almost everybody can relate to,” he said. “I think, in the end, it’s just feel-good music.”
Blake Hannon: firstname.lastname@example.org