Hillbenders perform The Who’s masterpiece in Crested Butte

Bluegrass, one of the oldest forms of U.S. folk music with roots in the British Isles, has re-emerged as one of the most vibrant genres in North America. Once the domain of purists, bluegrass music now attracts musicians with wide-ranging backgrounds who inject new energy and unexpected influences into a genre that seemed all but played out just a decade or two ago.

Missouri band The HillBenders exemplify this “newgrass” trend with their upcoming performance at Center for the Arts Crested Butte – The Who’s Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry. The HillBenders have always had one foot in bluegrass while exploring rock and roll, jazz, funk and various Americana influences. Rolling Stone calls the band’s Who tribute “as awesome as it is audacious, a fully satisfying interpretation that walks a just-right line between homage and reinvention.”

Hillbender guitarist Jim Rea described the band’s development, beginning with an earlier version of The HillBenders called The Arkamo Rangers and noting that only one of his current band mates, dobro player Chad Graves, really has a bluegrass background. “The rest of us mostly came from jam bands and got into bluegrass in our 20s. … Our banjo player (Mark Cassidy) is from Southern California. He was a rapper before he got into bluegrass, and our mandolin player (Nolan Lawrence) studied opera.”

Rea’s cousin, Gary Rea, rounds out the quintet on bass, and the five musicians are not shy about pushing the boundaries of bluegrass, intentionally selecting material that “defies hillbilly stigmas.” Jim acknowledged the diversity in the band members’ musical influences has played a big role in how the band pushes the limits of bluegrass and takes on projects like Tommy.

Jim said his early influences came from musicians his parents listened to on vinyl – Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Guess Who, Bob Marley – before discovering Phish and then musicians like Bela Fleck and Sam Bush at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. But one of his main influences was Old and in the Way, an early ’70s bluegrass band comprised of legendary musicians Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clements, David Grisman, Peter Rowan and John Kahn.

And Jim said Cassidy, the SoCal rapper turned banjo player, was “turned onto bluegrass by a mix tape a teacher gave him.” Hearing musicians like Doc Watson and bands like New Grass Revival for the first time, “This young kid rapper suddenly straps a banjo on.” Jim believes the band members’ diverse backgrounds and influences “allow us to appeal to non-bluegrass fans. So many people think bluegrass is just hay bales.”

The Hillbenders’ high-energy shows definitely transcend hay bales. Their fresh approach and musical intensity win fans and make waves, just as Pete Townshend and The Who did when they unveiled Tommy with a full orchestra playing alongside the rock band.

Jim said he and his band mates always enjoy touring in Colorado and called it “one of the gems of America. We played Bongo Billy’s when it was still in Salida. We’ve played Aspen. We’ve played in Denver and at Planet Bluegrass; we played the Telluride Bluegrass Festival last year and won the band competition there a few years ago. We’ve played Rockygrass as well.”

Seeing how bluegrass has evolved since the days of Old and in the Way, Jim expressed a sense of gratification with the genre’s evolution and the band’s role in the growth of bluegrass beyond traditional boundaries. “That’s what makes it an art. Art changes and grows.”

The Hillbenders will perform Tommy at 8 p.m. Sunday, July 9, at Center for the Arts Crested Butte. For event information and tickets ($25), visit www.crestedbuttearts.org, call 970-349-7487, or stop by the Center for the Arts at 606 Sixth St. in Crested Butte from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.