Louis Meyers has heard a lot of music.
He's a banjo player. He’s also one of the co-founders of Austin’s South By Southwest music, film and tech festival, and he spent ten years as director of Folk Alliance International – he was the one responsible for moving the organization and its annual conference to Kansas City. But there’s one record he’s heard only in his imagination: a bluegrass version of The Who's classic rock opera "Tommy."
"I heard it in my head 20 years ago," Meyers says. "I played banjo in a band called Killbilly out of Dallas, and there was a short period of time where we would play Who songs during sound check. From that point forward, every time I heard the 'Tommy' record, I kept hearing it as a bluegrass record."
Meyers never told anyone about his idea — he figured people would think he was nuts. He thought about trying to record such an album with studio players, but that didn’t solve the problem of who would sing the parts by Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. He didn’t want it to be a parody, didn’t want it to sound like "Hee Haw," didn't want it to be yet another installment in the Pickin' On series.
Finally, Meyers heard a show by The Hillbenders, a band from Springfield, Missouri, whose lead singers are Nolan Lawrence and Jim Rea.
"The first time I heard Nolan and Jimmy sing together it was obviously the first bluegrass band I’d ever heard in my entire life that could possibly pull off a Pete Townshend-Roger Daltrey vocal, and they were good enough musicians to pull it off," Meyers says.
These guys weren’t even born when the original album came out – but it turns out they’d been influenced by the music anyway.
Nolan Lawrence’s dad was an antique dealer who had thousands of records.
"'Tommy' was one of the things that I listened to in those days," Lawrence says. "The vocals on that record I remember standing out to me. It was a major impactful kind of record for me."
Lawrence says Jim Rea saw the Broadway version when he was a teenager.
"It made a huge impression on him. He bought the record at the show and has been in love with it ever since, spent countless nights listening on his headphones, memorizing the music, falling in love with it."
So the Hillbenders signed on to help turn the music in Louis Meyers’ imagination into reality.
"Initially it was very intimidating," Lawrence says. "There’s so many weird changes in tempo and voicings of the chords, and it doesn’t all translate to the kinds of instruments that we’re playing on. So we had to forge our own road."
In their first practices, they just plowed through the songs. Lawrence says they played with “reckless abandon,” not worrying about mistakes, just trying to get through without stopping. Once they could do that, they started figuring out the details.
"Man, I can’t tell you how many times we sat around our individual music rooms at home, playing it over and over and over again just to get it where it needs to be. But I think we finally did."
They performed the whole thing here at the Folk Alliance in February, and again at South By Southwest in March. Rolling Stone called it "a genius move." Billboard said it was "ambitious and audacious."
"To be getting this much attention just in the first couple of public performances is the coolest thing I’ve experienced as a performer," Lawrence says.
For Louis Meyers, the record sounds almost exactly like what he heard in his head twenty years ago.
Now everyone else can hear it, when "Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry" gets released in early May with a show in Kansas City at Knuckleheads, and others in Springfield and Nashville.