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WhoGrass: Bluegrass meets classic rock in Bristol

By Debra McCown Thomas • Jan 27, 2020 at 10:30 AM

A Feb. 29 concert at Paramount Bristol will tie together two near and dear musical traditions: bluegrass and classic rock.

The HillBenders, a Missouri-based band with roots in both styles, will take the audience on a journey through the music of The Who — one of the giants of classic rock — by performing a bluegrass version of the group’s best-loved music.

“It’s kind of the best of both worlds. We try to keep the spirit of the original songs in the music,” says HillBenders’ guitarist and arranger Jim Rea.

“A lot of people hear ‘bluegrass’ and then they hear ‘Who’ and they say ‘No way — that’s just blasphemy,’ but we have many self-proclaimed ‘world’s biggest Who fans’ come to see us and leave as fans of our band and our acoustic interpretations of The Who.”

Even The Who themselves appreciated the concept, he says. And when Who guitarist and principal songwriter Pete Townshend heard the HillBenders’ newest original record, he invited the HillBenders to open for a Who concert, which they did in St. Louis last year.

That was on the 50th anniversary of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy,” which the HillBenders have performed around the world as a “bluegrass opry.” The idea for WhoGrass came from these performances, which they ended by trying out bluegrass versions of other Who songs.

The WhoGrass concert, which includes a mini version of “Tommy,” spans The Who’s musical career.

“It’s basically just a chronological story of The Who, starting in the early mod days in London and going through the psychedelic rock days and Summer of Love, Woodstock and ‘Tommy,’ [1971 album] ‘Who’s Next’ — which really kind of solidified their spot as rock ‘n’ roll royalty, and then ‘Quadrophenia,’” Rea says.

This is the first performance in Bristol for the HillBenders, and the audience will get a taste of their original music in addition to the bluegrass interpretation of The Who.

Rea says their sound has evolved over the years and as they’ve worked with classic rock material. Their first album was classic bluegrass, the second was more progressive, and the third was more Americana. The one they’re working on now is even more of a mashup; it will feature a dobro and banjo alongside drums and a steel guitar.

It’s not surprising considering their varied background, Rea says.

The banjo player came from California — a rap music delinquent who discovered bluegrass thanks to a cassette tape played by a substitute teacher. The mandolin player is a trained opera singer, and the bass player toured with the Grateful Dead. Only the dobro player grew up steeped in traditional bluegrass and country.

“We came from a lot of different backgrounds, but I think we can all agree on two things musically,” Rea says. “The first one is bluegrass, and the second one is rock ‘n’ roll, classic rock especially.”

The two styles come together seamlessly onstage: a bluegrass band with a rock ‘n’ roll presence, a bluegrass beat behind lyrics that come out with the same cadence as the rock version.

Rea says he loves seeing the multi-generational audience: parents who grew up on classic rock and their kids who’ve grown to appreciate it. Whatever style it’s played in, he says there’s something enduring about the music that just brings people together.

“I’m pretty proud to be able to go around and do this, and I know I’m very lucky,” Rea says. “We try to honor the music as much as possible.”

For more information about this and other upcoming shows at Paramount Bristol, you can check online at paramountbristol.org.