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The HillBenders Experience: Not Your Mama’s Bluegrass, and Infectious To Boot

The Hillbenders
www.hillbenders.com/

The headline of an article in the prestigious Bluegrass Unlimited magazine sums up the band HillBenders’ musical mission in a nutshell: “Making Bluegrass hip again, one day at a time.” As a result, it’s not surprising that the quintet recently appeared at an event in Missouri titled “This Ain’t Your Mama’s Bluegrass.”

“We sometimes push the boundaries,” says lead vocalist/mandolinist Nolan Lawrence, “of what some people would even considerBluegrass. But we always feel like we keep one foot inBluegrass, no matter what anybody else says.” The band plays on Saturday, August 3, at this year’s Beartrap Summer Festival.

The HillBenders sprang from the demise of a group named the Arkamo (a combination of “Arkansas” and “Missouri”) Rangers that disbanded in 2008. Two of the Rangers’ former members, cousins Jim and Gary Rea, approached Mark Cassidy and Nolan Lawrence about starting a new group; the following year, they added resonator guitarist Chad Graves (nicknamed Gravy Boat, for an infamous incident that occurred when he was on a liquid diet after wisdom tooth surgery).

To say that the new band had high aspirations is an understatement: “From the very beginning,”Lawrencesays, “we had plans of taking it as big as we could get. Our first goal was to go out and play Telluride, and that would put our name on the map.”

Bingo. The Telluride booking happened in 2009, and was soon followed by a victory at the (speaking of traditionalists) National Single Microphone Championship inBranson,Missouri. The HillBenders made it a point to attend the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual “World of Bluegrass” trade shows, where they shook hands and distributed scads of promo material.

They soon began receiving festival invites–including the legendary Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, NY, featured in the 2003 documentary film “Bluegrass Journey”–and the momentum has continued to build ever since. “I was blown away to think of all the great artists who had played on that stage,”Lawrencesays, “and to have that opportunity was the most amazing thing I could imagine. But it was also the most terrifying thing I could imagine.”

Reviews were good, and the invites kept on coming. Apparently bookers recognized the group’s crossover appeal, because they made back-to-back appearances at the uber-traditional Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival and at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, whose categories include World/Fusion, Folk Rock, and Klezmer.

Music genres aside, the band’s stage presence has obviously played a role in their growing popularity. One critic lauded their “infectiously explosive” style. And they’re especially explosive when the five of them jam within the physical confines of an old-time single microphone setup.

“Jim (Rea) is probably the most expressive picker we’ve got,” according toLawrence. “Even if he tried, I don’t think he could sit still. You put an instrument in his hands and he starts swaying and his head starts bobbing. He just lives the music. He really does.”

The HillBenders’ debut CD was “Down to My Last Dollar” in 2010, with fiddler Jeremy Garrett of the Infamous Stringdusters sitting in. Reviewers gave generally high marks to “Last Dollar” for its four-part harmonies and hard-driving arrangements. But the band members themselves were more critical.

“We felt like it lacked the atmosphere of our live-show experience,”Lawrence recalls. “Even though we’re still really proud of the music, it’s just not as lively and energetic as our stage shows are.” So they set about planning their sophomore album with a different focus: “We wanted to show the industry that we were in it for real, so we really tried to step up our game.”

A large part of that was the mental aspect. The members “had to concentrate, in the studio, about playing as if we were onstage,” says Lawrence. “Many times, right before we’d do a take, we’d tell everybody, ‘Jump up and down for a second, and pretend you’re on the main stage at Grey Fox.”

The approach obviously worked, because the CD “Can You Hear Me?” gained interest from three labels before the band signed with Compass Records in 2012. The opening track is “Train Whistle,” which debuted last December at number 30 on the Bluegrass Unlimited national chart. “Going to blow that train whistle,” one verse says, “until I find out who I am…”

“I think that song really speaks to all of us, and to our journey as a band,”Lawrence says. “I feel like we’ve been out there blowing that train whistle, now, for a few years, and we found out who we are. It’s a wonderful thing.”

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