August 10, 2018
Arts & Entertainment
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  • When The HillBenders come to Rams Head On Stage on July 27, the audience will be treated to a foot-stomping bluegrass and rock version of The Who’s “Tommy.”
    Photo Provided
    When The HillBenders come to Rams Head On Stage on July 27, the audience will be treated to a foot-stomping bluegrass and rock version of The Who’s “Tommy.”
  • When The HillBenders come to Rams Head On Stage on July 27, the audience will be treated to a foot-stomping bluegrass and rock version of The Who’s “Tommy.”
    Photo Provided
    When The HillBenders come to Rams Head On Stage on July 27, the audience will be treated to a foot-stomping bluegrass and rock version of The Who’s “Tommy.”
  • When The HillBenders come to Rams Head On Stage on July 27, the audience will be treated to a foot-stomping bluegrass and rock version of The Who’s “Tommy.”
    Photo Provided
    When The HillBenders come to Rams Head On Stage on July 27, the audience will be treated to a foot-stomping bluegrass and rock version of The Who’s “Tommy.”

The HillBenders Bring “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” To Rams Head

Zach Sparks
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July 10, 2018

Released nearly 50 years ago, the ambitious album “Tommy” by The Who tells the story of a deaf and blind boy who withstands inconceivable family struggles. But when audiences come to Rams Head On Stage to see The HillBenders perform their bluegrass opry rendition of the material on July 27, those music lovers can expect a jaunty, foot-stomping time.

Hailing from Springfield, Missouri, The HillBenders recorded “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” in 2015 after being approached by South by Southwest co-founder and longtime musician Louis Jay Meyers. Having already recorded two albums, The HillBenders were eager to adapt “Tommy” while defying any hillbilly stigmas.

“We had more of a rock-and-roll and acoustic approach to bluegrass music than most bluegrass bands — the rock ‘n’ roll attitude and also the vocal abilities,” said guitarist Jim Rea. “Roger Daltrey’s voice is so powerful and our mandolin player really has the iron lungs to lend themselves to that. Also, we have a rock and roll presence onstage. We don’t just stand there like a painting on the wall, like a lot of bluegrass bands.”

The HillBenders are Jim Rea, Nolan Lawrence on mandolin, Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves on dobro, Mark Cassidy on banjo and Gary Rea on bass. Their combined energy will span a 75-minute set as The HillBenders showcase popular songs like “Pinball Wizard” and “The Acid Queen.”

“It’s a rock opera, but it really is meant for a seated audience,” Jim said. “It’s more of a show-show as opposed to everybody crowding up to the front of the stage and pumping their fists in the air. We talk to the audience along the way, tell them the story. Every three or four songs, we give folks a little bit of information on where we are at in the story. A lot of people love the record and have loved it for decades, but they might not know some of the details of the story.”

When Jim was arranging the material, he looked at the essentials: the melodies and the French horn parts on the overture, and some things “just have to be there,” he said. But many songs were easily adapted to a quicker tempo.

“We never wanted this to be a straw hats, overalls, kicking cow poop over in the field type of thing,” Jim said. “We wanted to pay respect to the original. We didn’t want it to be hokey at all.”

While touring, The HillBenders were able to meet The Who guitarist and “Tommy” brainchild Pete Townshend. The band is also performing Pettygrass shows with Keller Williams, and the Missouri musicians hope to eventually play at the Red Rocks Music Festival and Austin City Limits.

“He has always been a huge influence – taught me about songwriting, taught me about harmony, taught me about telling the story in rock ‘n’ roll arrangements,” Jim said of Petty.

Jim said The HillBenders are excited to bring their show to Rams Head On Stage, a venue chosen by Meyers before he passed away in 2016. The band also made the record as a tribute to Lou Whitney, a producer who had planned to collaborate on the project before he died in 2014.

“We do a lot of theaters, but to be honest, I like these seated listening-room-type areas,” Jim said, “so I’m excited about it, and it was definitely on Louis’ map of where we want to be playing.”

For more information about the show or for tickets, visit www.ramsheadonstage.com or call 410-268-4545.


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