Few bands would cover The Who’s rock opera “Tommy.”
One band dared to record it with a heaping helping of twang.
A bluegrass cover of the monumental rock album by The HillBenders will use mandolin, banjo and dobro in place of the electrified rock sound. The result is a fitting tribute, not a parody.
The Missouri and California-based band will play their cover of “Tommy” Thursday at the Manship Theatre, promising to bring all the energy — if not the rock ’n’ roll — of the original 75-minute double album.
“There aren’t props or costumes, but it is very theatrical,” said mandolin player and lead singer Nolan Lawrence. “It’s an opera. You can’t bring it to life without embodying those characters on the stage.”
The dramatic life story of a British boy named “Tommy,” who is blind, deaf and dumb for most of his childhood, the album is known for its most popular songs, “Pinball Wizard” and “The Acid Queen,” which are two of Lawrence’s favorite songs to play live.
Lawrence’s background in musical theater can be heard in his expansive vocals throughout the album.
Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, he performed in high school and studied vocal performance. When he moved to College Station, Texas, with plans to attend Texas A&M University, he discovered Texas singer-songwriters Robert Earl Keen and Pat Green and began to play guitar and write.
After a friend introduced him to bluegrass, he picked up the mandolin and moved to South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, one of the few colleges with a country music and bluegrass program. There, he met Mark Cassidy, who would become the HillBenders’ banjo player.
“There’s literally nothing to do there but play music,” Lawrence said. “That’s all we did there — play 14 to 15 hours a day.”
Cassidy left school to join a bluegrass band in Missouri. When Cassidy’s band lost its vocalist, he called Lawrence. The HillBenders were born as a traditional bluegrass band.
They recorded “TOMMY: A Bluegrass Opry” in 2015 after releasing two albums of original material that garnered praise in the bluegrass world. Originally, the idea to record a bluegrass version of the classic came from friend and South by Southwest music festival co-creator Louis Meyers.
While most of the band was familiar with the album, Lawrence said, guitarist Jim Rea knew it inside and out. Lawrence gave The Who’s “Tommy” a few listens with fresh ears and now says, “It’s a work of art.”
Meyers helped the band record during live sessions in 2015. They cut the album on analog equipment in less than a week.
They play “like it’s a rock record on acoustic instruments,” Lawrence said. “But we’ve got some bluegrass flair thrown in there.”
For live shows, The HillBenders often open with original material, then perform “Tommy.” After playing the rock opera for 50 shows, the band knows the material incredibly well, Lawrence said.
“We just continued to get more and more confident with it on stage,” he said. “We’re so comfortable, it’s a part of us. It’s a whole lot more fun, too.”