“Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” by the HillBenders

The HillBenders
Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Styles within the relatively young art form of bluegrass music are always evolving and emerging with such a frequency that any description of a band or an album needs at least a couple of taxonomic adjectives. Such distinctions are often more important to the critic intent on preserving the orthodoxy of the Monroe approach than to a listener wanting to learn of good music, but this custom does not seem to have inhibited innovation.

One thing that hasn’t changed much at all, however, is the approach to choosing material. Bluegrass songwriters keep plowing the familiar rows, and songs adapted from other genres—even from other strains of country music—tend to be included sparingly. Setlists and album projects tend to stick to a template that 1) varies fast and slow tunes, 2) features two or three vocal harmony approaches, and 3) includes a sprinkling of cover tunes, gospel songs, and instrumentals.

Bluegrass music was created—and codified—in an era that emphasized short live sets in the context of multi-act live gigs and radio shows, and in which two-sided vinyl singles were the primary consumer product and promotional tool. Long playing albums were often simply collections of singles, and sometimes collections of a particular type of song, such as Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs’ Songs of the Famous Carter Family, and the Stanley Brothers’ Old Time Camp Meeting.

Even considering the period from the mid-1960s through the 1970s—when musicians were venturing far outside the constraints of the three-minute radio rule—you’d be hard-pressed to name any bluegrass albums dedicated to a single theme that drives both the music and lyrics.

The HillBenders’ re-telling of The Who’s Tommy, the first great rock opera, shows that bluegrass music is not only capable of doing this sort of thing, but that it is uniquely suited for it. Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is, in spite of the cheeky title, neither a crude joke (Hayseed Dixie) nor an uninspired cash grab (all those Pickin’ On CDs), but a remarkably well-executed performance of a complicated piece by what amounts to a versatile and skilled chamber group. After all, Alan Lomax did describe bluegrass music as “the first clear-cut orchestral style to appear in the British-American folk tradition in five hundred years.”

The HillBenders use the sublime limitations imposed by the bluegrass instrumental lineup—they employ a Dobro, but not a fiddle—to get a big sound that has no trouble handling material written by one of rock’s best composers and first interpreted by one of its most powerful bands.

Gary Rea (upright bass) and Jimmy Rea (guitar) do some pretty heavy lifting, laying down a strong and full foundation on parts originated by John Entwistle and Pete Townshend, perhaps the most thunderous bass and guitar combo in rock history. And while drummer Keith Moon was the heart of The Who’s sound, Nolan Lawrence (mandolin), Chad Graves (Dobro), and, especially, Mark Cassidy (banjo) fill out the quintet, adding all the rhythmic power and dynamic range one might imagine would be lacking on a Tommy with no drums. Other bluegrass bands who resort to percussion to fill out their sound should listen and take notes.

The HillBenders manage somehow to stick pretty closely to Townshend’s arrangements while executing instrumental interchanges and solo breaks that will satisfy all but the stodgiest of bluegrass purists—”Sparks” holds up as a stand-alone bluegrass instrumental showpiece. And though we encounter acid trips and and a New Age pseudo-cult, Tommy starts in thematic territory quite familiar to bluegrass listeners—a good old-fashioned murder of passion. Seeing his father return from the war to kill his mother’s lover shocks our hero so badly that he retreats into himself, becoming the “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” that we’ve all heard about on classic rock radio.

Jimmy Rea and Nolan Lawrence trade off lead vocal duties, and handle them with the skill and range needed to portray a such a strange—and mostly unsavory—cast of characters, including the likes of Cousin Kevin, Uncle Ernie and the Acid Queen. Lawrence, in particular, brings remarkable confidence and power to his takes on iconic Roger Daltrey performances like “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and “See Me, Feel Me.”

Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is a grand listening experience crafted by great musicians who expertly weave together Townshend’s myriad musical tropes into a seamless one-hour performance.

I’m looking forward to seeing the HillBenders perform this live, as well as daydreaming of a follow-up with guests artists—along the lines of the 1975 star-studded movie version of Tommy. (How about Del McCoury as the Preacher on “Eyesight to the Blind,” John Cowan as the Pinball Wizard, and Alison Krauss as the Acid Queen?)

Whether something like that could be pulled off or not, let’s hope that the HillBenders also tackle Quadrophenia—The Who’s other, better rock opera—and that they and other bluegrass bands take more chances when selecting and composing material, because this one is a triumph.

“Get Low” Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Get Low
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The presence of Robert Duvall and Bill Murray is enough to get me to buy a ticket to Get Low when it comes to my corner of the American hinterlands. Likewise, the presence of Alison Krauss’ first new track since 2007’s A Hundred Miles or More should be enough to get you to grab this soundtrack CD. Written by Aoife O’Donovan and featuring Dan Tyminski (mandolin), Barry Bales (bass), Bryan Sutton (guitar) and Jerry Douglas (Dobro), “Lay My Burden Down” seems the perfect tone-setter for a tale of a man who hosts his own funeral before he dies. Krauss’ voice is as dreamily eloquent as ever, and leaves you wanting more, much more.

Krauss’ fellow Rounder recording artists The SteelDrivers contribute four selections to this 16-track, 46-minute soundtrack: traditional bluegrass instrumentals “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” “East Virginia Fast” and “Angelina Baker” along with “Jesus Come for Me,” which features the spine-tingling lead vocals of Chris Stapleton, who has since left the band.

Jerry Douglas contributes some incidental music for the movie, some self-penned (“Sitting Mule/Drive to Town”), some in collaboration with Stuart Duncan (fiddle) (the rustic “No Haircut” and “North”), or Russ Barenberg (guitar) and Edgar Meyer (bass) (the exhilarating “Monkey Bay”) and some composed by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek (“Drive to Town for Clothes”).

With some period nostalgia added in the form of selections from The Ink Spots, Gene Austin, Paul Whiteman and Bix Beiderbecke, this soundtrack aptly sets the stage for what looks like a nice film.

“Crazy Heart: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”

Crazy Heart: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
New West Records
4 stars (out of 5)

In spite—or perhaps because—of its similarities to the 1983 classic Tender Mercies, Crazy Heart is a really good film. Jeff Bridges as washed up country singer Bad Blake deserved the Best Actor Oscar that he won, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell all turn in fine supporting efforts in a tale of redemption through love and music.

The music is essential to the film, and director Scott Cooper, with the help of T Bone Burnett and fine performances from his actors, nails it. The approach is much different than the one Burnett used in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was essentially a musical comedy. Crazy Heart is a film about music as a profession and craft, and its essential to show the characters doing it in a credible way.

It’s also more important than in other films to pick background songs that fit the mood of the piece. Buck Owens’ “Hello Trouble” evokes the world of country music that the fictional Blake must have risen from, as does “My Baby’s Gone” by the Louvin Brothers, whose beatific voices stand in for the beauty that has been lost in Blake’s life.

Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” is a perfect song, symbolic of the ideal that Blake has reached for in the past and might manage again, and Lightning Hopkins’”Once a Gambler” represents both Blake’s fortunes and the blues edge that influences his sound. Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way?” is used to great effect in the film when Blake re-encounters his protege amid the extravagant trappings of a modern country tour.

The only song that doesn’t belong here is Sam Phillips’ “Reflecting Light;” it just doesn’t fit the mood of the overall piece, but Phillips is Burnett’s wife, so there you go.

Bridges sings on six of the 16 tracks on this 49-minute CD, and every one is a gem, the actor’s voice proving to be as engaging as his personality. “Hold On You” opens the album with a brooding, laconic energy that you’d expect to hear from Van Zandt, “Somebody Else” and “I Don’t Know”  have the feel of rockin’ Waylon tunes, and “Brand New Angel” sounds like barroom Dylan.

“Fallin’ and Flyin’”—Blake’s fictional megahit— gets two versions, one studio take with Bridges and a live duet with Colin Farrell that sounds exactly like a country song at a big outdoor music shed should sound, wide echo and all. Farrell also contributes “Gone, Gone, Gone,” a credible nod to an updated version of Cash’s Sun sound.

Ryan Bingham contributes his own version of “I Don’t Know” in a rough-worn voice that is used to even greater effect on “The Weary Kind,” which won the Oscar for best original song. Written by Bingham and Burnett, in the film it is the creative act with which Blake redeems himself in his own eyes and, for once, a song of this type is as great as the plot calls for. It will haunt you long after hearing this fine soundtrack or watching the equally fine film.

by Aaron Keith Harris