So, this is neat. Remember “Tommy?” You know – the whole rock opera thing? Yeah, so, there’s a bluegrass band who does a rendition of it and that bluegrass band’s name is The HillBenders. They are going to be taking the Black Rock Center stage on Saturday to perform, “The Who’s Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry.” Like we said. Neat, right? We recently caught up with Jim Rea, the group’s guitarist, to talk about why they chose “Tommy” in the first place, their affinity for classic rock and what we can expect from their performance Saturday night.
We’ll start with the obvious: How did you get the idea to do “Tommy” in this style and then how did it all come together?
Our late friend and manager Louis Meyers approached us a few years ago with an idea he had for about 20 years. He said he was looking for the right band to pull it off. He wanted aggressive instrumentation, high energy performance, and strong vocal. I knew the record and offered to demo some songs. Louis listened to our demos and was ready to move forward. He started SXSW and FOLK Alliance and had deep roots in the industry so we felt confident in his vision. I arranged and charted the album, we rehearsed, and then cut it to tape in Springfield, MO.
Were there any other pieces of rock music that you were considering reimagining in this way? Is there still something out there you’d like to tackle someday that might be similar?
This was the first time we thought in this vain thanks to Louis. Of course ,we have considered what album or concept we could do next, but nothing has stuck. Fans obviously suggest “Quadrophenia.” We have also considered a “Whograss” idea – a chronological story of The Who through bluegrass music. We also want to do another original album.
Are you guys big Who fans and if so, what, outside of “Tommy” do you think is their best work? Along those same lines, what is your favorite Who song and why?
We all enjoy classic rock – besides bluegrass it’s a common ground for us. I would have to sight “Who’s Next” as THE Who record. I would probably rank “Baba O’riley” at the top for its sheer rock quality.
Rolling Stone praised your performance at South By Southwest and Daltrey and Townshend have given the project their blessing. What goals are left for you guys to accomplish with this project? It seems like you’ve already achieved so much.
We would love to work with Pete Townshend on a record or single.
Outside of The Who, who are some of your major influences and why?
Phish is my biggest influence. The Dead, Marley, Beatles – all classic rock. That time in history was so unique, with groundbreaking musical changes and record making. I love Duke, Django, Tony Rice.
We all come form different musical backgrounds. Mark Cassidy, our Banjo player, was a rapper in high school before the banjo sunk its teeth into him. He also loves EDM and bluegrass. Our mandolin player, Nolan Lawrence, studied opera in college and being from Texas, he has deep singer/songwriter roots. Bass player Gary Rea toured with the Dead and came from electric bass in funk/jazz/rock fusion. Dobro man Chad Graves came from bluegrass and classic country. So we are very diverse in our tastes, mainly because of where we all come from and how we were raised and the friends we had growing up.
Can you give us names of some bands we need to check out that we maybe haven’t seen yet? Who are you listening to the most these days?
What does 2017 look like for you guys? Touring? Studio work? Both?
Touring and hopefully studio in the Fall and Winter.
What do you think is the current state of bluegrass in the mainstream? It seemed to gain notoriety in recent years with the rise of Mumford & Sons and other likeminded artists. Do you think that crossover is good for the music?
Not sure. I think all roots music is coming around. We have all access with the Internet so people can take control and not be slaves to the radio or underground musical moments.
What do you think is the most perfect song ever written and why?
Too hard to answer, but I’m sure Paul McCartney or Paul Simon wrote it.
And, of course, what can we expect from your show at Black Rock?
A high energy show with a chance to sing along, clap your hands and relive this legendary piece of music. We also open each show with a short set of your own catalog featuring originals, bluegrass standards and favorite covers.