The HillBenders’ Bluegrass tribute to The Who stops in New Brunswick this week.
Springfield, Missouri’s five-piece bluegrass ensemble The HillBenders will perform two shows in New Brunswick this week. The band are currently touring in support of their latest album, Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, a tribute to The Who’s popular concept album originally released in 1969.
Jim Rae is the group’s guitarist and arranger. We asked him if he thought bluegrass cover albums were considered a right of passage these days, with bluegrass covers of everyone from Snoop Dog to Metallica helping the genre reach a wider audience.
“No, I don’t think so, not a whole album,” he said. “Lots of bands look for a good cover song to help turn heads and get clicks and gigs but Bluegrass is built off playing and learning other people’s music. Whether it’s that legendary Bill Monroe mando lick or an entire solo from your favorite picker. Bluegrass, much like Jazz, is rooted in ‘standards’.”
The story behind the band’s current tribute to The Who predates today’s popularity of Bluegrass covers, having first been conceived by the band’s late manager (and SXSW co-founder) Louis Meyers back in the 90s.
“We never played that much ‘traditional’ bluegrass,” said Rae. “We have always had a rock n roll mentality in our performances and leaned heavily on original music. Our friend and late manager Louis Meyers first had the idea of doing Tommy as a bluegrass opry over 20 years ago. He said he was just waiting for the right time and band to pull it off. He scouted us out for a few years before asking us if we were interested.”
The project was originally planned as a co-production with legendary engineer Lou Whitney (Wilco, The Bottle Rockets, The Morells). Following Whitney’s passing in 2014, the band forged ahead and recorded in Whitney’s Missouri studio with the help of many of his longtime studio partners.
This trip marks the band’s first foray to Canada’s East Coast and according to Rae, they’re looking forward to this week’s performances in Fredericton and Saint John.
“Well, this is as far north and east on this continent that we have been and we always enjoy seeing new landscapes, venues, meeting new people, and trying the local food and spirits.”