A long, long time ago, Louis Jay Meyers was a young man in Texas learning to play banjo, which landed him in the general vicinity of bluegrass at an early age. But he was also a fan of The Who, especially the English classic-rock band’s landmark 1969 rock opera “Tommy.”
Except Meyers had a highly idiosyncratic take on it.
“For some reason, I always heard ‘Tommy’ in my head as a bluegrass record,” he said. “It was about 1970 when I started learning banjo, and ‘Tommy’ always just seemed like part of that world to me. I think it’s because it all drives off the same rhythmic pattern as bluegrass. Look at it right and it very much fits into that format.”
For the next 40-odd years, a bluegrass “Tommy” was nothing more than an idea in the back of Meyers’ mind, as his band Killbilly would goof off by playing Who songs at pre-show soundchecks. Meyers went on to be one of the original co-founders of the South By Southwest mega-conference and later spent a decade running the International Folk Alliance Conference. But even though he thought it “never stopped being a good idea,” Meyers never told anybody else about his idea for a bluegrass “Tommy.”
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Until he saw a Missouri band called the HillBenders a few years back, at an IBMA conference in Nashville. They were the first bluegrass band Meyers had ever seen with a vocalist who could approximate Who singer Roger Daltrey’s lusty bellows – singer/mandolinist Nolan Lawrence, who is trained as an opera singer (and also studied bluegrass at South Plains College in Texas).
They subsequently met and Meyers laid out his idea for a bluegrass-opera version of “Tommy.”
“Who the hell could do that?” Lawrence asked. Meyers smiled.
“I kinda thought you guys would.”
It took several years, but the HillBenders’ “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” (Compass Records) is out in the world. The live version has been a hit on the festival/conference circuit, and the HillBenders will play it Friday night on City Plaza Stage as part of the Wide Open Bluegrass free street festival.
An improbably fantastic interpretation, the bluegrass “Tommy” turned out to be everything Meyers hoped for. It eschews any sort of “Pickin’ On …”-style cheesiness to hit a perfect balance between reinvention and faithfulness to the spirit of the original, rendered with enough down-home flair for both rock and bluegrass audiences.
In the studio, it became obvious early on that it was going to work. All it took was the HillBenders’ first run-through of the album’s opening “Overture” for Meyers to feel something like vindication.
“The first time I heard Chad (Graves) play the ‘Overture’ French horn riff on Dobro, I smiled so hard,” Meyers said. “Because that’s exactly how I always heard it in my head.”
A vocal challenge
Similarly inventive arrangement flourishes abound throughout the bluegrass “Tommy,” like clipped strums filling in for Keith Moon’s overpowering drums and Mark Cassidy’s rolling banjo replicating Pete Townshend’s percussive rhythmic guitar. Guitarist Jimmy Rea, the biggest Who fan in the band, did most of the heavy-lifting in terms of arrangements.
But the biggest burden fell on frontman Lawrence, who admittedly didn’t know “Tommy” all that well before the project. It was a serious vocal challenge, with the complex harmonies to “Cousin Kevin” and the closing “We’re Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me” suite proving particularly daunting.
“There are a couple of spots where the tenor part is so high for so long, it’s difficult to finish,” Lawrence said. “Getting through the end of the last song is very demanding. I came out of this with a ridiculous amount of respect for Daltrey’s vocals on ‘Tommy.’ That was not an easy feat.”
Townshend was impressed, too. Meyers sent a copy of the album to The Who organization, and Townshend responded within the hour that he loved it and wanted to meet the band. That happened in Nashville.
“The first thing he asked was who sang ‘Acid Queen,’” Lawrence said. “I raised my hand and he does a double-take. ‘With a beard like that, how’d you pull it off?!’”
In the process of rearranging “Tommy” for drum-free acoustic instrumentation, the HillBenders gave it a few nips and tucks, shortening some songs and also dropping the instrumental “Underture.” Once in a blue moon, however, they’ll break out “Underture” onstage.
“We save it for when someone has broken a string, which happens because we’re just beating the crap out of our instruments,” said Lawrence. “The first time was not planned. Somebody broke a string and everybody else went into ‘Underture.’ It was in Buffalo, New York, and there happened to be a drum kit onstage. So Jimmy jumped in there and started doing Keith Moon drum parts to it. That was killer. So now ‘Underture’ is kind of in the back-pocket for special occasions.”
Like, say, Wide Open Bluegrass?
“Come see it and find out.”
If you go
What: The HillBenders performing “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” at Wide Open Bluegrass
When: 9:30 p.m. Friday
Where: City Plaza Stage on Fayetteville Street, downtown Raleigh