The former Byrd and Burrito Brother delivers an instant classic, with help from his famous friends
“Well, we got it right,” Tom Petty told the L.A. Times’ Randy Lewis in the final interview with the legendary rocker, just days before his death on October 2, when Lewis congratulated him on the success of the album he’d recently produced for The Byrds’ Chris Hillman. “I would just guide them from the control room, you know, just like I do with the Heartbreakers, but I had the luxury of getting to stay in the control room, which was good. So I could just say, ‘Let’s get, come in here and listen to this.’ You know? And then you point a few things out. And then they’d go out and make it better. And I’d just keep calling them back in and, to say, ‘I think this part here could be, maybe we don’t need it, or maybe we need more.’ But they were such ridiculously good players, you know. And studio players. Like guys who knew how to play in the studio. And that really made it fun because you didn’t have to struggle with anything.”
Petty said that his job was made extra easy by the fact that Hillman, who along with being a founding member of The Byrds, was a member of the legendary Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas, McGuinn Clark and Hillman and the Desert Rose Band, enlisted an enviable cast to appear on the album. Besides Petty and executive producer and Desert Rose and Mudcrutch bandmember Herb Pedersen, a few Heartbreakers appear, as well as John Jorgenson and, most notably, fellow former Byrds Roger McGuinn and David Crosby. As a result, the sessions were “really fun” thanks to the relaxed attitude and humor they all brought to the proceedings which made the work a joy.
“Chris has a really good sense of humor,” Petty told Lewis. “He has a real black humor that I enjoy. Every day was fun.”
The results exude that sense of fun. From the stripped-down reworking of The Byrds’ classic “Bells of Rhymney,” to the glorious countrified reworking of Petty’s own “Wildflowers,” and the mini-Byrds reunion on a track Hillman and McGuinn wrote in the late-70s, “Here She Comes Again,” Bidin’ My Time both bears Petty’s Midas touch and puts Hillman’s always underappreciated talents front and center.
It all fell into place easily, according to Hillman.
“When Tom went out last spring with Mudcrutch, and Herb just sort of fell into being part of that, because Herb went out and sang background vocals and played some guitar with Mudcrutch, they conjured up the idea while they were out there of doing an album with me. I’d been toying with the idea, but I’d decided I wasn’t really interested and was perfectly fine if I didn’t do any more records. I had songs, but I just wasn’t chasing it. And then Herb told me that he and Tom had been talking about producing me, and thought they could get a deal for me, and then they did!”
Still, Hillman almost couldn’t believe his luck.
“Tom’s name obviously added a big name to it,” he says. “I knew Tom through his relationship with the Byrds, but I didn’t know him as well as I got to know him in the last six months, so I called him and said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Do you want to make this commitment?’ And he said, ‘Well, do you want me?’ It was almost funny how humble he was. Of course I said, ‘I’d love to have you. I’d love to work with you, Tom.’ It’s such a commitment, but he really wanted to be involved.”
“Roger I know the best,” Petty told Lewis. “I’d known Chris a long time, but we’d never spent that kind of quality time together, you know, that we did on the album. But it was so much fun. It was really fun and fast! I had to get to rehearsal for the (Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary) tour. So we did it pretty fast, but I think that actually helped the record.”
For his part, Hillman echoes Petty’s sentiment that the sessions were fun, from start to finish.
“It was just a complete joy,” Hillman recalls. “Like I said, I had no intention of ever making another record. I had the songs, and I had some ideas if I ever was to record again, but what Herb and Tom – and the Heartbreakers, Steve (Ferrone), Benmont (Tench), who are all over it, and Mike (Campbell), who’s on one track – they really helped me realize that vision in ways I couldn’t have imagined.”
Still, Hillman had his doubts.
“When I was preparing for the sessions, and even as we went along, I kept thinking to myself, ‘God, is this good enough?’” Hillman confesses. “I’m so hard on myself. But then I realized, if Tom didn’t hear something worthwhile in it he would have graciously excused himself and I would have gotten a call from my manager. You know, I never walk around going, ‘Gee, I just wrote the greatest song in the world, I want everybody to hear it.’ I don’t even like playing my music for family members, because they’re trapped. What’re they going to say? I’d rather give them a copy to take with them so they can let me know later what they think. Anyway, I had to get all of that psychosis out of the way.”
It didn’t hurt to have McGuinn on board to help realize the rich, live band sound the tracks have.
“There’s one song that Roger and I had written in 1979 and never recorded,” Hillman says of “Here She Comes Again,” a track written with his former bandmate in their McGuinn Clark and Hillman days, but that bears the unmistakable Byrds trademark sound. “We had a live concert type from off the board of that song and I always wanted to record it. It wasn’t dated sounding, but it was also just pure early Byrds to me. So we sent him the file. Tom and I wanted Roger to be in the studio with us, but it didn’t work out that way.”
On an album full of highlights, “Here She Comes Again” is a standout, and it sounds as if the players were crammed into a tiny studio, looking each other in the eye.
“Chris asked if I would play on his album and of course I would for my friend,” McGuinn tells me when I ask him about his contribution to Bidin’ My Time. “I have a Pro Tools studio – the same as Chris and the rest of the recording industry use. I simply started a new multitrack session with the (mix) Chris’ engineer sent me and added my Rickenbacker. The ‘live band feel’ was created in mixing.”
“We did a lot of it here,” Petty told Lewis, referring to the home studio at which their interview took place. “And at the Clubhouse.”
“We did tracks at the Clubhouse and then most of the overdubs at Tom’s,” Hillman clarifies. “We worked with Tom’s team – Ryan Ulyate, his engineer is just amazing – so that made it really easy. And it went really fast.”
The Clubhouse, of course, is the Heartbreakers’ infamous rehearsal-cum-studio space, and that space, and the work of Ulyate, Petty’s longtime go-to engineer, accounts for the great sound of the album.
McGuinn also gives his old bandmate credit for tying the track together the old fashioned way: on the bottom end.
“Chris was an amazing bass player in the Byrds because of his background as a mandolin picker,” McGuinn says. While Hillman says he rarely plays the bass these days, his touch on the instrument is undeniable and ties the track together masterfully.
But, along with McGuinn, Pedersen and Petty’s fellow Heartbreakers, Hillman had two other secret ingredients.
Petty told Lewis that John Jorgenson, the multi-instrumentalist and longtime Byrds family collaborator, was hugely important to the process.
“He’s off the map. And guitar’s not even his first instrument. It isn’t fair,” Petty marveled, especially since Jorgenson’s main instrument is clarinet. “His touch is so beautiful. It’s like people who are always looking at guitars, but it’s not the tool it’s the touch. You know? You can buy Pete Townshend’s rig but you’re not gonna sound like Pete Townshend. You know? You know, it’s the way you touch it and attack it.”
It was Jorgenson who brought one of Petty’s favorite songs to life, as well, he recalled.
“I got them to do that Everly Brothers song, ‘Walk Right Back,’” Petty recalled to Lewis. “We were changing something while there was a break and him and Herb started to play that song and I went, ‘Wait a minute. Why aren’t we doing that song?’ And they were like, ‘Really?’ Why not, you know? And they said, ‘Well, okay.’ So when we finished up what we were doing, they rehearsed it a few times, and then bang, we cut it. And it came out great.”
Jorgenson’s solo was the final, perfect touch.
“It was amazing,” Petty said of Jorgenson’s playing on the classic track. “I couldn’t believe I was hearing it. And, uh, I encouraged him to go for his solos on the rhythm track, like, ‘Don’t be shy, just go for it. We can always do it again, or fix it or whatever.’ But he’s so instinctive, so good. God, he’s good.”
“Herb Pedersen is the best rhythm player I know, and John’s just a phenomenal player,” Hillman says of the pair of musicians he’s currently on the road with. “If that’s where you’re starting from, you almost can’t go wrong.”
The final ingredient to Bidin’ My Time’s classic-sounding mix came from one of Hillman’s oldest friends. So how did David Crosby, who’s in the midst of a bit of a late-career renaissance himself, get involved?
“Well, Chris asked me to sing on it. How else?” Crosby asks rhetorically, with his typically lovable bluster. “We did it in one afternoon. Me and Chris and Herb and Tom. It’s like riding a bike for us, you know? Plus, they’re great songs.”
Crosby also has nothing but praise for his fellow former Byrds.
“It’s a great record,” he says. “Tom did a great job. Herb did a really great job. And Chris, well, I just love him and I was happy to help out, but it was easy because it’s great stuff.”
But Crosby offers his biggest compliments for McGuinn.
“When I heard that track – and I know they flew in Roger’s guitar – but man that song just takes off,” Crosby offers. “I mean, with Roger on it, that song just takes off. It’s got to make you go, ‘Wow!’ Because it’s just so much fun and it’s a really good song.”
Hillman clearly loved having his old friend around.
“He’s just a wonderful guy,” Hillman says. “David, he’ll always be David Crosby. He’s dodged so many bullets. I used to give him trouble when he got out of Huntsville prison, I asked, ‘What was your name in prison?’ I was just being so mean. I was getting back at him. I said, ‘Didn’t they call you the Bride of Huntsville or something?’ Anyway, it goes way back and I’m saying that to you because we have a really good camaraderie, a really deep bond, because he’s a wonderful guy, and very, very generous. He worked really hard on this album and he just wouldn’t take any money for his time and work. He didn’t want anything. Herb went to pay him and he said, ‘I don’t want your money!’ He wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t take anything from him. It’s not the point, though it’s just a gesture, because I love him dearly. He’s been there for me countless times, and I can only hope he alawys will be.”
But the sessions also reminded Crosby and Hillman just how unique and special the chemistry was in The Byrds, and how much they miss it.
“I would do it in a second,” Crosby says when I ask him of the long hoped for Byrds reunion. “But Roger really doesn’t want to do it. He’s happy doing what he’s doing. And you’ve got to give him that. He’s happy. That’s not a small thing. But if he wanted to do it, Chris and I could do it easily. And yes, I would do it in a minute. I love that music.”
As we wrap up, I pose the question to Hillman, who after years playing acoustic and bluegrass clearly enjoyed strapping on a bass and playing with a band again, but is circumspect about any future Byrds reunion.
“I loved doing that,” Hillman says, clearly pleased with the memory. “Everyone was saying, ‘You should play the bass, you should play the bass.’ I was reluctant, but I really had a good time doing that. I wish Roger had been in the studio to play with us. You know what I would say, every other day in my senior citizen whining, ‘Well, this is it this is a great last record.’ And Tom would say, ‘You’re not done yet.’”
“And I’d kid him and say, ‘Well, your next challenge is to get the three of us in the studio before one of us expires!’ You know, maybe Roger’s loosening up. But I’m not pushing for it. He was awfully generous with his participation on this record. But he has valid reasons for not wanting to go out as The Byrds. Ten or fifteen years ago I would have argued the point, but he has a valid reason, and that is it wouldn’t be the same because two of the guys are gone.
“The last time we did it was at least fifteen years ago, and it was like no time had gone by, It was just – bang! – right there on the downbeat. But I’m not pushing it. I understand what he’s saying. I really do.”
Unless you really, really want to do it you cannot approach it with the idea that ‘I’m going to make so much money doing it,’ because that’s not going to work, and doing it that way is going to be a miserable experience.
“We weren’t always consistent on stage, but we made some wonderful records.”
“I heard “Rock and Roll Star” recently and, damn, that’s a smoking track. I mean, we went from covering Bob Dylan to “Eight Miles High” in almost no time, and it was amazing. It was an amazing group. So I feel like I was lucky to be involved and it was a great run.
“But maybe it’s best left to a wonderful memory.”