"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.