A bluegrass ‘Tommy’: HillBenders bringing bluegrass version to classic rock opera

The HillBenders will perform at the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival on Aug. 11. Courtesy photo by Maranie Staab

When the HillBenders come to the Shenandoah Music Festival next week in Orkney Springs, they’ll be playing a familiar classic but without the drums or guitar smashing.

The band came out with a bluegrass version of The Who’s “Tommy” in June 2015, called “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry.” They plan on performing the album in its entirety at the festival on Aug 11.

“Tommy” is a classic rock opera, telling the story about a “deaf, dumb and blind” boy named Tommy. Jim Rea, who plays guitar for the group and arranged all of the songs, said the group will tell the audience the plot of the show along the way.

“We kind of lead them along, little by little, giving them each part of the story as they go through,” Rea said.

Rea said that the HillBenders first took up the idea of creating a bluegrass “Tommy” through the suggestion of producer Louis Whitney.

“It was his idea for many years, and he was looking for the right band and the right time of his life,” Rea said.

The idea was attractive to the HillBenders in large part because of their familiarity with Whitney’s production skills, Rea said.

“We all trusted [Whitney] so much and he had so much success in the past,” Rea said.

Rea described the HillBenders’ version of “Tommy” as an acoustic cover album of the rock opera, sounding similar to the original but with different instrumentation. There are no drums in traditional bluegrass music, leading Rae to adapt the rhythm of the drums into the string instruments of his bluegrass band.

“My biggest thing was trying to make the percussion come through as much as possible,” Rea said.

But while the HillBenders have different instrumentation from the original “Tommy,” the singing doesn’t have the nasal quality of many bluegrass songs, something Rea said was intentional.

“[Whitney] did not want this to be a jingly, jangly, hokey bluegrass interpretation of the album,” Rea said. “He wanted the flavor to be the same, but just change the instrumentation.”

Rea said the HillBenders will play around and move throughout the performance.

“I think that was a big part of the reason [Whitney] chose us, is because of our rock ‘n’ roll attitude toward performing,” Rea said.

Rea said that the HillBenders frequently mix bluegrass music with other genres.

“Whenever we did a cover, it was always coming from a different genre” than bluegrass, Rea said.

That, Rea said, is due to the wide-ranging musical backgrounds of the band members. Everyone grew up listening to different kinds of music, he said.

“We all came from different musical backgrounds, so four or five of us aren’t going and saying, ‘Oh, I want to do this little bluegrass tune,'” Rea said.

If You Go

When: 8 p.m. Aug. 11. Gates for the show open at 6 p.m.

Where:  221 Shrine Mont Circle,  Orkney Springs.

Tickets: Range from $10-$37.

Web: http://musicfest.org.