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 is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, songwriter and upright bass player. He has spent much of his career as a wire service political reporter, including nearly 14 years with The Associated Press and a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and has recently retired as senior editor for Kiplinger Washington Editors.

  • jetfromtn

    David, I don’t know how deep your Bluegrass roots go and I didn’t hear the performance, but I don’t think that is a big part of what the world of Bluegrass is all about. Remember what real country music used to sound like. How do you like what you are hearing from country radio now? It ain’t pretty. If you think Bluegrass music needs to be diluted to sound like something it is not I think you should take these bands and form your own sound, but don’t call it Bluegrass. How many bands that are jamming at IBMA, SPBGMA and all the festivals around the country are playing what these folks are playing? We have been celebrating the year of Bill Monroe and like it or not, his music is going to be played the way he did it long after you and I are long gone. I heard a comment once from a guy that was hearing a banjo player do his thing and he was so far out, the guy said, you know, sometimes you get so good nobody wants to listen to you.

    • Darren Sullivan-Koch

      How deep do YOUR bluegrass roots go, Jim? Do they go deep enough for you to realize that Bill Monroe copied no man, but built his music from an ingenious and downright experimental mix of other styles? Do they go deep enough for you to realize that the great artists of bluegrass’s first generation – the Osbornes, Jimmy Martin, Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Stanley and Jim & Jesse, among them – were constantly experimenting with new instrumentation, material, and techniques? Do they go deep enough for you to realize that innovation is built into the fabric of bluegrass, and that today’s “progressive” bluegrass musicians are carrying on the legacy of bluegrass just as truly as “traditional” bluegrass musicians?

      To thrive, bluegrass has always had to reinvent itself, and make room for innovation alongside tradition. Otherwise, it will further recede into a commercial and (more importantly) creative niche.

      • Dennis Jones

        If you’ve re-invented something, it’s no longer that thing. To thrive, Bluegrass needs to be promoted as had or even harded than trying to change it.

        • Dennis Jones

          That should be “hard” and “harder”.

          • Darren Sullivan-Koch

            …that’s the great bluegrass paradox. Bill Monroe reinvented stringband music: innovation is in his very design. He never stopped trying new things. To lock bluegrass down to a fixed formula will just strangle and kill it. Traditional bluegrass is awesome, but progressive bluegrass is just as necessary. They can compliment each other and help one another to thrive and succeed. I’m not against either, but I can’t stand to see folks close the door on innovation. If someone had done that to Bill Monroe, where would we be today?

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