Breaking the Rules with the Hillbenders

You have to give IBMA credit for listening to those who complained that new and tradition-breaking bands were locked out of prized official showcase slots in the past. But just in case anyone missed the association’s more open approach during the first four sets Monday night, the Hillbenders slammed it home with a raucous finale to Day One of the World of Bluegrass.

Traditionalists are no doubt fuming this morning. Something along the lines of “that ain’t bluegrass.” And, truth be told, it didn’t meet any standard definition, if there is such a thing any more. But the Hillbenders – think of them as the Genrebenders – are rooted in the bluegrass past and seem destined to be a big part of the bluegrass future. They are all great pickers in the acoustic string tradition and they are big time entertainers. No matter what you think of their standing as a bluegrass band, if you’re not moving while the ‘Benders are playing, there’s something wrong.

This a band that clearly loves to have fun, from Jim Rea on one wing, strutting and bouncing with his acoustic guitar, to Chad Graves on the other end, wearing his Dobro like a low-slung holster and coaxing such a variety of sounds from it that some licks sound like they’re coming from a synthesizer.

Midnight Oil and Radio – echoing every band’s longing for more airplay – provided solid introductions to the ‘Benders music. But the short course, call it Hillbenders 101, came near the end, when the band tore into an amped-up version of Past the Point of Rescue. Unlike the laid-back, poignant version that won Hal Ketchum a lot of airplay a few decades ago, the Hillbenders played it faster – and louder – as though the music itself was caffeinated.

But the best moment, which probably slipped by most folks, came when Rea seemed to directly address those wary of how jam bands might change their beloved bluegrass.

“If a magic moment comes, Nashville, don’t let it pass you by,” he sang.

Not everybody followed that advice. One Hall of Famer, after sampling some of the earlier showcase bands, opted to catch part of the Monday Night Football game and missed Rea’s invitation. But those who stuck around found something that might not have been magic, but it was great music. And isn’t that a big part of what World of Bluegrass is all about?

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.