Nothing says bluegrass quite like The Who's Tommy, right?
The Folk Alliance's Louis Jay Meyers, the conceptualizer and producer of Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry by Springfield, Mo.'s rock-loving roots troupe The HillBenders -- which comes out June 2 -- admits that the idea is "weird." But it's been it's been stuck in his creative craw for a long time. "I just always heard this record in that context," Meyers, a co-founder of Austin's SXSW conference, tells Billboard. "As a banjo player I would just sit around, playing a lot of those songs. The way (Pete) Townshend writes, it has a lot of that kind of groove in it, and it just dawned on me one day the whole thing could actually work." Watch a video of the group performing two of the albums' songs, which Billboard is premiering exclusively below.
The HillBenders' curiosity was first piqued when Meyers presented the idea during the summer of 2014. "I was taken aback," says singer-mandolinist Nolan Lawrence. "I like that record, but I never would have thought of it like that. I didn't know what to think of it at first." It turned out that HillBenders guitarist Jim Rea "is a fanatical Tommy fan" and was "kinda freaked out at the thought of the idea of us doing that. Everyone else instantly caught on; his excitement was infectious."
The quintet and Meyers spent months woodshedding the piece, sending arrangement ideas back and forth and figuring out how to deploy the group's instrumentation -- and also how to compensate for the lack of key ingredients, such as John Entwistle's French horn and particularly Keith Moon's drumming.
"We've taken to calling Gravyboat (Chad Graves) the Keith Moon of the dobro," Lawrence says. "He's got so much percussion on there, in and around the record. That was the biggest challenge, making sure we had some of the rhythmic sensibility and the intensity of the drums and what they bring to the record.
"The other biggest challenge," Lawrence adds, "was making sure there was enough bluegrass in there to really call it bluegrass. The instrumentation is what really lends itself to that, but we had to be conscious of making sure it's still a bluegrass record, even though it's very much an acoustic rock record."
The group recorded Tommy (sans the "Underture") during December in Springfield, Mo., the first time The HillBenders have recorded in an analog studio. "We started having trouble with the very first song, the 'Overture,' but we got our heads back together and every song after that was one to two takes," Lawrence remembers. The HillBenders debuted Tommy at the Folk Alliance convention during February in Kansas City and previewed it in Dallas and at SXSW -- all to rave reviews. A SirusXM Outlaw Country live show is planned for June, while the HillBenders will celebrate Tommy's release May 8 in Kansas City and the next night in Springfield before a May 10 show at the Station Inn in Nashville -- conveniently (and deliberately) planned around The Who's stop in the city the next night on its "The Who Hits 50!" tour.
"We've kept them in the loop, and as far as we know (Townshend and Roger Daltrey) are aware of this," says Meyers, who also hopes to meet with the Who camp when it plays May 5 in Kansas City. "Hopefully we're going to establish a relationship over the next 30 days. The goal was to be respectful of the original, so they wouldn't go 'Ugh!' So I hope they both get it. What's exciting is this is not a traditional record, so we can tour this off and on, forever, just like The Who did. It's going to be viable pretty much anywhere and everywhere; it's just a matter of people knowing about it. It's already surpassed my widest expectations, from day one. Now it's about getting it out there and turning on the rest of the world, whether they're bluegrass fans or not."