Talk about starting slow out of the gates and stretching it out for the long run…Dyed in the wool country and bluegrass acolyte, Chris Hillman first made his mark in the ‘60s with The Byrds.
A shy lad with a bad-ass Brian Jones styled haircut, he was content to take a back seat in the group, carving out inventive melodic bass runs and composing the occasional song; along with Roger McGuinn, he co-wrote the signature Byrds jangle rock classic, So You Want To Be a Rock & Roll Star, which has been famously covered by the likes of Tom Petty, Patti Smith and Pearl Jam.
By the time he split from the group and formed country-rock pioneers the Flying Burrito Brothers, Hillman had truly come into his own as a writer and singer with his own distinctive artistic swath. In that band, paired alongside Gram Parsons, the Burritos cooked up a transcendent stew of country rock that fired the imaginations of acts like the Eagles and Poco.
From there, he served time in Manassas with Stephen Stills and later in the ‘70s, he reconvened with former Byrds bandmates McGuinn and Gene Clark in McGuinn, Clark and Hillman, reuniting 3/5ths of the classic Byrds lineup. And musical good fortune continued to rain down on the talented Hillman. Into the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, he was part of The Desert Rose Band who piled up 16 top ten hits on the country charts. Whether working solo or playing with Desert Rose Band alum Herb Pedersen, Hillman, nearing age 70, is enjoying music on his own terms.
Slow and steady, Hillman’s musical saga just goes to show that the tortoise always wins the race.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Your sister Susan played an important role in shaping your love of music.
Chris Hillman: Other than my particular age group, I was swept into the wonderful rock and roll that came along in 1955 and on. I always felt that folk music and jazz started to develop form the late ‘40s and ‘50s in the bohemian sort of music, the beatniks as they would say. My sister actually came home from the University of Colorado in 1960 or something and I was sort of listening to the Kingston Trio but not really; something wasn’t connecting with me on that.
Ironically, I actually bought a Kingston Trio album about three months ago and I listened to it and went, God, they were really good!” I thought Scotch and Soda was a really great song and sophisticated for that time.
She came home with albums by Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Weavers and that’s what initially got me going. There was always music in our house and my parents loved all the music for their generation, which I now have fallen in love with, all the big bands. I was constantly hearing them put records on, even ‘78s; they had great taste and would play everything from Duke Ellington to Count Basie to (Frank) Sinatra and Peggy Lee.
Along comes my sister Susan with these great albums and I started listening to them and that really did start to resonate with me. I loved Leadbelly and loved his 12-string playing and Pete Seeger and the Weavers of course. Then it developed and went on.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Chris, you come from a background in country and bluegrass, playing guitar and mandolin. Upon joining the Byrds, how did you get saddled playing bass in the group?
Chris Hillman: The Byrds were all folk musicians. None of us were rock and roll players. We were never a garage rock band. But we were all enamored with the Beatles. On the West Coast it was us and on the East Coast it was John Sebastian who had been a jug band player and a folk guy too. Since I had worked with Jim Dickson who’d produced a bluegrass band I’d been in called the Hillmen, he had me come down to listen to David (Crosby), Roger (McGuinn) and Gene (Clark) sing one night at the studio.
I was like, “Oh my God, they’re really good.” They were doing Beatles songs and Gene had been writing some songs but in that Liverpool-esque style. The reason I thought they were good is I’d come out of a band working with Vern and Rex Gosdin who sang like the Louvin Brothers; they were that good. So when I listened to McGuinn, Crosby and Gene Clark I went, “Yeah, there’s something there.”
I didn’t think much of it until I got the phone call. I don’t know if I was the tenth guy that they called and I don’t have any idea to this day. But I don’t think so because Jim Dickson knew me and knew I would fit into this odd group of guys. What made the Byrds really really unique was we were really working around Roger.
He was probably the most seasoned musician of all of us; Roger and David and Gene to some degree had a little bit more experience than me. I’d only worked locally playing hillbilly bars. I don’t know where Mike Clarke came from musically; I don’t know if he did anything really professionally until he joined the Byrds. (laughs)
Rock Cellar Magazine: Early on in the Byrds career, Jim Dickson gave the band access to World Pacific Studio. How did that help the band forge your sound?
Chris Hillman: It was an amazing thing. Jim worked for the man who owned World Pacific, Dick Bock. World Pacific was a jazz label who had people like Jimmy Smith, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan on the roster. Dick Bock allowed Jim to use the studio after midnight. So we’d go in there then and just run a two-track machine and practice with literally no gear at all. It was a musical laboratory and we got to try things out and progressed.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Tell me about co-writing one of The Byrds’ most popular songs, So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.
Chris Hillman: So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star was a parody about The Monkees’ experience. Here we were in our early ’20s speaking out like we were crusty old men who’d been a part of the business for a long time.
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