First published: June 2015 in High Notes Magazine
Remastered by NoteWorthy Music July 2020

Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry

By Nancy Cardwell

Photos by Jeff Farabee

The HillBenders

Formed in April of 2008, and still touring (pre-apocalypse) with the original lineup, The HillBenders performing Tommy in Springfiled, Missouri. L-R: Mark Cassidy, Nolan Lawrence, Gary Rea, Jim Rea and Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves

To date, the most surprising album of the year in the roots-music world comes from an edgy, genre-bending bluegrass band based in Springfield, Missouri—the “Queen City of the Ozarks.” The HillBenders (HB) features Nolan Lawrence, lead singer with a background in opera on mandolin, a Dobro player with noteworthy sideburns nicknamed “Gravy Boat” (Chad Graves) who plays steel-guitar riffs better than most Nashville studio musicians and is becoming known as the Keith Moon of the Dobro, Mark Cassidy on banjo, Gary Rea on bass and Jim Rea on guitar.

A Mean Pinball

Tommy, the classic rock opera album released in 1969 by The Who, was a concept album about a deaf, mute and blind boy who was an amazing pinball player. Originally composed by Who guitarist Pete Townshend with John Entwistle, Keith Moon and Sonny Boy Williamson, the original Tommy album sold 20 million-plus copies and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for its historical, artistic and significant value. In 2003, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Tommy number 96 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. A British fantasy film based on Tommy was released in 1975, featuring The Who’s lead singer, Roger Daltry in the title role, along with Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Eric Clapton,Tina Turner, Elton John, Arthur Brown and Jack Nicholson — plus the rest of the band members. It has also been presented on Broadway and a number of theatrical presentations around the world.

“…the full 76-minute show covering the original album from start to finish …”

The HB presentation of Tommy is the full 76-minute show covering the original album from start to finish with special video accompaniment and audience participation. “I can’t give away all the secrets yet,” Lawrence said in a recent interview for High Notes. “We’re planning to build the show in stages. We’re starting out as raw and real as it’s going to get—just us on stage with our instruments and microphones for the first two months while we get through the initial release.

A Crazy Idea

“Bluegrass Tommy was the brainchild of former Folk Alliance executive director and South by Southwest co-founder Louis Meyers,” Lawrence said. “Louis was at my house a year ago having dinner, and he said, ‘You know, I have this crazy idea I’ve been tossing around for a long time. Have you ever imagined Tommy as a bluegrass album? I’ve been thinking about this forever.’

Nolan Lawrence

Nolan Lawrence

“It turns out Tommy was one of the most important and influential records for our guitar player, Jim Rea’s, youth; he knew it inside and out. He was immediately all over it and very excited about it. So we all jumped in head first and Jimmy arranged it. 

“With Louis’ guidance we worked out the kinks, and we were in the studio for a week. It was our first experience recording analog, rather than digitally. We captured the music on a two-inch analog tape, and it was mastered to a half-inch tape, and then shipped to Sweden to be mastered. There were no computers involved.” 

The recording was originally planned as a co-production with legendary Ozarks musician/producer Lou Whitney. After Lou’s tragic passing in October 2014, plans were revised to record in Lou’s studio in Springfield, Missouri, surrounded by those who helped create the Lou Whitney sound and style of making records. The HillBenders have dedicated the album to the memory of “The late, great Lou Whitney and the power of The Who.”

“It was a lot of work,” Lawrence admitted, “but the idea of having a concept album was very appealing to us. Louis was so excited about the idea, as he talked about his future career plans and where he would like to take the project. It made sense to us. We were looking for something big to do, and this came around at the right time.”

Jim Rea

Rea knew the original recording well enough to be confident about arranging it for bluegrass instruments. “The process came in pieces,” Lawrence said. “We learned three or four songs to see how they would fit us—if it was something that we could be comfortable with and it was going to sound like it should. We did that, and it sounded really promising. Then we had a business meeting with Louis to talk about the business plan and long term vision for the project. We spent the next three and a half months working on it. Jim took a month to arrange it, and the band took two months to learn the music. We were still working on it right up until the time when we went into the studio.”

Takin’ It to the Streets

The debut at the Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City last February was the first “fully off-the-charts” show The HillBenders did, Nolan said. The midnight set was one of the high points of the event, drawing rave reviews in the Kansas City Star the next day. “We broke the news to the bluegrass world first,” Lawrence said, “with a story in Bluegrass Today, and most people embraced the idea. Then we started marketing to other venues and avenues—everything from Americana to heavy metal scenes.”

In addition to the creative challenge, The HillBenders see the new project as outreach. “One of the reasons we’re doing this is to spread the bluegrass word and the bluegrass message to wider audiences,” Lawrence said. It was also pretty cool to “put legendary, classic rock music into a bluegrass format. The ultimate hope is to bring people into the fold who don’t know much about bluegrass, and at the same time to expose bluegrassers to something they may not have heard of before,” he elaborated. 

“It’s a unique combination of influences. It doesn’t really live in either world. It’s not really a bluegrass record. It’s a rock record, but at the same time it’s not a straight ahead rock record” because of the acoustic instrumental palette.

Times are A-Changin’

Bluegrass Hall of Fame member Jesse McReynolds, 87, had one of his most commercially successful projects in recent years with an album of Grateful Dead covers and live shows. “Music fans seem more open to musical styles now,” Lawrence said. “People have eclectic tastes, which is good for bands like The HillBenders who bend the ancient tones from the hills into something unique, but still ultimately roots-based.”

“… who bend the ancient tones into something unique, but still ultimately roots-based.”

Most of us wouldn’t have any idea of how to convert a rock opera into an arrangement for a five-piece acoustic bluegrass band. “We didn’t assign particular band members to portray members of The Who and replicate their individual instruments,” Lawrence explained. “It was more about making the sounds fit stylistically into what we do and to play the songs in a way that we normally play—and then figuring out which instruments could imitate the original sound and fit with the kind of ‘grass we play.

“Jimmy spent a lot of time getting those nuances in place, and then the band discussed things and worked out the kinks. It was an arduous process. It really helped that Jimmy knew the music to the core. It was so familiar to him. We used mostly charts; a few spots we worked out notation on signature licks.”

Standing Os

The HillBenders hosted two album release parties in May—in Springfield, Missouri, and Nashville, Tennesseecrowds were enthusiastic, reviews were rave. They also did sets at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in upstate New York and the Late Night Pavilion at RockyGrass in Lyons, Colorado.

The HillBenders in Springfield, MO

The band hopes to present the Tommy show at theaters and other performing arts venues. “We’re not closed to anything except for very small venues” because of staging requirements, Lawrence said. “Look for the set at folk, bluegrass and multi-genre festivals in the coming year. When I first heard about this project, I was unsure that it was something that we could truly embrace,” Lawrence said candidly. “But now that we’ve recorded the music and we’re fixing to tour, it’s becoming one of my favorite HillBenders projects. The music is very energetic and lively, and it means so much to so many people. I encourage folks to go out of their way to give it a listen and form their own opinions.”

The Father of WhoGrass

Producer Louis Meyers said he came up with the idea of bluegrassing Tommy twenty years ago when he was playing banjo with the band, Killbilly. “We would occasionally do songs from The Who during sound check and I realized that most of their songs would work in a bluegrass style. It took a couple of decades for me to find a band I thought could make this happen, and once I was no longer the Folk Alliance executive director, I had time to make it happen.”

Why The HillBenders? “The combination of strong and unique musicians with rockstar vocals,” Meyers replied. “They have always had a grip on bringing the rock and bluegrass world together, and this was a natural for them.” 

With smash debuts at SXSW and Folk Alliance and a rave article in Billboard with a preview video, things are kicking off pretty great. “The initial goal is 200 shows over the next two years in theaters, festivals and performing arts centers in addition to regular HillBenders shows,” Meyers said. “We hope to shoot a concert with some special guests later this year or early next year for DVD release, and we are working on a possible PBS special for this fall. KCA Artists is handling the booking and we expect a nice slow, steady climb to get where we need to be. If the initial media response is any indication, this will be a very successful project and will take The HillBenders to a much wider international audience.”

[Note: Meyers, the father of WhoGrass, died suddenly in March 2016 of a suspected heart attack following complications with blood clots—less than a year after the bringing together of this story. He was 60.]

“Pinball Wizard” from Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry by The HillBenders

For more information about the HillBenders and to buy stuff, go to: HillBenders.com.

Nancy Cardwell Webster

Nancy Cardwell Webster

is a writer and musician in Nashville who grew up in a family bluegrass band in Springfield, Missouri. She has worked as an educator, a freelance musician and journalist and served on the staff of the International Bluegrass Music Association for 20-plus years.

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