The HillBenders Take on “Tommy”

By: Rachael E. Worthington

“Anyone convinced that bluegrass is backwoods music has had their head in the sand of commercial radio these past few years,” says Nolan Lawrence, The HillBenders mandolinist.

His band is taking an unconventional approach to The Who’s classic rock opera and performing “Tommy” in its entirety with their own bluegrass swing at the Lincoln Center on January 22.

The bluegrass-based, Springfield, MO. band consists of Lawrence, Mark Cassidy on banjo, Gary Rea on bass, Chad Graves on Dobro, and Jim Rea on guitar. While the band has a bluegrass base, it’s not strictly a single genre. “We all bring a number of influences and stylistic tendencies to our music, layer it on top of a bluegrass sensibility,” says Lawrence.

Aside from their genre blending, this band stands out by way of stage presence. Shows are high energy with an in-your-face attitude, and audiences find themselves clapping, stomping, dancing and singing along with The HillBenders. Purists don’t always agree with their approach; typical bluegrass is fast-paced, but due to the complexity of the pieces, performers often remain stagnant.

How did a bluegrass band decide to perform a classic rock opera? They were approached by an old friend, the late founder of South by Southwest, Louis Meyers, who was looking for his next big project. He was having dinner with Lawrence when Meyers confided a crazy idea he’d been sitting on for the past 20 years — “Tommy,” bluegrass-style. Lawrence laughed aloud and asked who would do such a thing and Meyers looked him square in the eye — the answer was the HillBenders.

In 7½ years of touring, Lawrence says that Colorado is one of his favorite places to play and visit. He says it’s always evident when an audience is really engaging with the music and when a concert is just a distraction. “Colorado fans always tend to have that little spark, that little piece of magic, and it’s a joy and a pleasure to perform in Colorado because of how the people react.”

Tickets start at $15.  For more information visit

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply