At first thought the idea of a bluegrass interpretation of the beloved rock opera Tommy might seem untenable. But the Springfield, Miss. based band the HillBenders have pulled it off spectacularly, even to the extent that they’ve gotten the nod of approval from the Who’s guitarist Pete Townshend, the composer of Tommy. Having released their bluegrass version of the work as Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry a few years back, now the HillBenders are performing the classic live as they tour the nation.
The HillBenders are guitarist and arranger Jim Rea, Nolan Lawrence on mandolin, Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves on Dobro, Mark Cassidy on banjo and Gary Rea on bass; all members sing. We spoke with Jim Rea by email and he told us about the live show and how the project came about in the first place, as well as the band’s meet-up with Townshend. Rea’s commentary is given exclusively to AXS.com.
AXS: It must have been quite a daunting task to reimagine Tommy as Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry. Did any of the songs give you fits trying to get right?
Jim Rea: It was a large piece of music to learn, arrange and prepare for on stage performance, but surprisingly many of the tunes lend themselves to a bluegrass feel. There were a couple songs that were peskier than others, notably “Cousin Kevin” which has a very strange chord progression and lots of vocals. So it was tricky to work out multiple harmonies on such an atypical and non-key centered chord progression, but it just took a little extra practice. Other than that, the “I’m Free” rhythm on all the instruments was a little bit challenging to nail down and took some extra time and attention.
AXS: The late producer Louis Jay Meyers was the brainchild behind the bluegrass interpretation of Tommy, and he had the idea several decades before it came to fruition. What were your initial thoughts when he first broached the idea with you, and what was it about the HillBenders that convinced him that he had finally found the right group for the project?
JR: We had known Louis for a few years prior to him approaching us about Tommy. He was always stopping us at industry conventions and chatting us up or peeking his head around the door at the showcases we were performing at, and we became friends very quickly. One day he finally laid it on us, and I was thrilled; being a lifelong Tommy fan I was a 'yes' right away. The other members didn’t know the album as well as me, but I agreed to step up and arrange it for the band and to act as musical director. Louis cited our rock ‘n’ roll stage presence and Nolan’s powerful operatic vocal as a driving force behind selecting us.
AXS: You got to meet Tommy composer and rock legend Pete Townshend at a concert by the Who. What did he say to you about Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry?
JR: He was a warm and encouraging force of nature. He made a crack about Nolan, the vocalist on “Acid Queen,” having a large beard and the irony behind it. I know for Louis especially this meeting brought his vision full circle and the approval of Tommy’s creator meant the world to Louis. Louis was the kind of man who could get things done and his ability to arrange that meeting really speaks to his impact, passion, and follow-through. We lost Louis a couple years ago suddenly and it’s been a great loss to the band, his many friends and musical partners, and the industry.
AXS: Probably not a real good idea, but can you pull off Townshend’s ‘windmill’ move on your acoustic guitar?
JR: I kind of do a modified windmill. The acoustic guitar doesn’t have the same ergonomics as an electric, and I learned quickly and painfully that it wasn’t quite feasible. So I made a few adjustments, and I give it my own twist.
AXS: Speaking of the live show, you include audience participation in your 75-minute performance of Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry. What does that amount to?
JR: Nothing crazy, we’re not gonna drag people up on stage and be goofy and embarrassing about it; a big focus when creating this show was not to be hillbilly and goofy with this precious work of musical art. This piece of music is such a large part of many people‘s history, and so at times we encourage audiences to stomp their feet, clap their hands and sing-along because these are their musical memories we’re presenting, even if it’s through acoustic/bluegrass instrumentation, and we want them to relive those nostalgic moments. That being said, if bluegrass fans are interested in coming and don’t know the music or story of Tommy, we help guide them through the tale with dialogue presented every few songs, and we have plenty of bluegrass banjo and Dobro in the show.
AXS: What’s on tap for the band after your current tour wraps up? Is there another album of “classic HillBenders” in the works?
JR: Yes, our 4th album will be focused on original music from the past few years that we have cultivated since the Tommy release. We’re heading into the studio directly after this tour, then we head back on the road for more dates through April to Utah, California, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., New Jersey, Illinois and Missouri. We also have a special surprise collaboration this year that we will announce soon!
Follow the HillBenders and find tour dates here.