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The Hillbenders

An accomplished progressive bluegrass group from Missouri, the Hillbenders are a quintet of talented pickers who experienced a critical and commercial breakthrough with a rather unusual project -- a bluegrass remake of an iconic rock opera. Founded in the 2000s, the Hillbenders first made their name as a band with strong instrumental skills and original songs that merged rock and country melodic influences with tight, well-executed acoustic arrangements that revealed a respect for bluegrass traditions. The Hillbenders were already award-winners when they cut their first album, 2012's Down to My Last Dollar, but it was third full-length release, 2015's Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, that won them a newer and wider audience for their respectful and imaginative interpretation of the Who's pioneering rock opera. After Tommy expanded their audience and reputation, the Hillbenders reminded their fans of their strong original material with their self-titled fourth album in 2018. The Hillbenders were formed in Springfield, Missouri in 2008. Led by lead vocalist and mandolin player Nolan Lawrence, the Hillbenders also featured Jimmy Rea on guitar, Chad Graves on Dobro, Mark Cassidy on banjo, and Gary Rea on bass. It didn't take long for the Hillbenders to earn a reputation among bluegrass followers; in 2009, they were awarded the championship in the Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition, a nationally recognized competition for up and coming artists, and in 2010 they won the National Single Microphone Competition for groups using the performing style originated by bluegrass pioneers like Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. In 2009, the group released a six-song EP in conjunction with that year's IBMA World of Bluegrass Festival. Having impressed discriminating audiences on tour, the Hillbenders landed a contract with the roots music-oriented label Compass Records, and they brought out their debut album, Down to My Last Dollar, in 2012, which included a guest appearance from Jeremy Garrett of the Infamous Stringdusters. After more touring and appearances at America's leading bluegrass festivals, the Hillbenders delivered another album in 2013, Can You Hear Me?. Louis Meyers was a musician and record producer who helped to found the South by Southwest Music Conference, and in the 2010s he struck upon the idea of having a bluegrass combo perform an acoustic version of the Who's 1969 album Tommy, often cited as the first rock opera. When Meyers heard the Hillbenders perform, he was convinced they were the group with the talent and energy to make such a project work, and after a live performance at the 2015 SXSW conference won rave reviews, they repeated the concert in the studio, and Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry was released by Compass in 2015. The album debuted at number three on the national bluegrass charts, and received plenty of press coverage in the rock music press as well as in bluegrass circles. Pete Townshend, the founder and guitarist with the Who and the principal author of Tommy, saw a video of the Hillbenders performing the opera and was pleased enough to invite the group to a Who concert in Nashville, discussing the project with them after the show. Tommy would dominate the Hillbenders' concerts over the next two years, but the group's members continued to write fresh material, and began performing new songs regularly during their show, often during the encores after Tommy. The band had become comfortable enough with their new songs that when they entered the studio with producer Eric Uglum to record their fourth album, they were able to record all the songs live in the studio, with no overdubs other than harmony vocals. Released in 2019, The Hillbenders featured nine original songs, an acoustic cover of MGMT's "Kids," and "I've Got a Mind to Move On," which matched a melody by Jim Rea with a poem written by John Hartford and published in 1971.
© Mark Deming /TiVo
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