Jim Rea: It’s been 13 years now and we have the same five guys – My cousin, Gary Rea (upright, acoustic bass); Mark Cassidy (banjo); Chad Graves (dobro / steel guitar); Nolan Lawrence (mandolin) and myself (guitar.) All band members sing along. We’ve also taken a big leap of faith heading into 2022, and we’ve added a full-time drummer. We’ve been playing with him for the last few months, testing him, to see how he feels and how people react to him, and we love him so much. It’s breathed new life into it, new kinds of songs are coming out, and we’re looking for rock, funk and stuff like that. So we added a sixth member and his name is John Anderson.
Q: Tell us about your style of music.
A: We rely heavily on bluegrass with a double bass, banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and dobro, which is the slide guitar that you play on your lap. So we play bluegrass, and we focus on bluegrass festivals and writing bluegrass music. We wanted our bluegrass sound to have a progressive new side, but we are still firmly established in bluegrass. As we started playing more, a little bit of country crept in, but we’ve been mostly a bluegrass band, and kind of a wild card, if you will, as far as that style goes. Then we got into tribute acts and things like that, which we continue to do to this day, but we’re firmly rooted in bluegrass when it comes to our style. And now that we have a drummer, we’re going into country, into rock, into funk, and we’re exploring different genres.
Q: Is WhoGrass based on the music of The Who?
A: Absoutely. In 2015, we were approached by a gentleman named Louis Meyers, one of the co-founders of SXSW, and he was the director of Folk Alliance, which is another music organization. We met him, and he always poked his head around the corner in our windows, and he told us in 2015 that he was looking for a band to arrange and record The Who’s famous rock opera, “Tommy” in as bluegrass opera… So we did it, and we toured all over the world, coast to coast, here in America, Australia, UK and all the way to Canada. It worked well for us for four or five years. Then we turned that show into WhoGrass. Instead of just making the “Tommy” album, we took all The Who hits from all of their records. We put them in chronological order, and we tell the story throughout The Who’s career, and now we’re playing a much more successful, accessible, choir-type show where all the songs were. among the top ten singles, if not number one hits of The Who. So, yeah, it has to do with The Who, and it’s based on The Who, done on bluegrass instruments. WhoGrass is just a smart name we give it. Bluegrass meets rock and roll is the motto of the show, and it’s a spin off of “Tommy” that we did in 2015. It’s The Who music that meets bluegrass sound or instrumentation.
Q: You’ve met Pete Townshend a few times and opened for The Who. What did he think of The HillBenders version of “Tommy?”
A: They got wind of our “Tommy” project and Pete Townshend, band frontman and lead songwriter contacted us and said, “We love him.”
Q: What are some of the ways you make The Who music your own?
A: … Our dobro player, we call him Keith Moon of the dobro, because he’s so punchy on his instrument. He hammers the thing and spins it around. He has that intensity. We all try to make the music as percussive and as big as possible because The Who is a giant rock icon. We naturally have a part of that, and I think that’s why Louis chose us, but we know that in these beautiful, big rooms, we have to make sure and really accentuate that. So we open ourselves up to be as big as possible. We use two, three or four part harmonies on the songs. We involve the crowd, so they sing and clap to some parts, making sure that we can fill the space as much as possible. We travel a lot and love to interact with the public. So that’s the kind of thing we do to make these WhoGrass shows as special, big, and enjoyable as possible, and entertaining is the main thing.
Q: Regarding the original music of the band, what did you work on?
A: Last week we just released a new single, “Every Time I Go Away” with drums on it. We definitely got out of bluegrass, more acoustic rock with this song. We are proud of it. It’s everywhere on our social networks, on Spotify and Apple Music. There is also a great video with it. We were founded on the original music and that is what we will continue to do. The blanket was just a stepping stone for us. With every show we do, we try to give the audience four, five, or six original songs at the end of the show. In this way, we integrate the original music into the show and we continue to share our creativity with the audience.