Chris Hillman Continues the Journey

Jim Newsom
Issue Date: Tuesday, April 1, 2008, Posted On: 4/1/2008
 

Chris Hillman’s boundary-crossing career in music has stretched over 45 years and a number of high-profile bands. Yet, he’ll always be remembered first and foremost as one of the five original members of The Byrds.

"I’ll never get out of the nest," he laughed when I called him recently at his home in California.

Nonetheless, his post-Byrds flight belies that lighthearted comment: co-founder of the late ’60s country-rock pioneers, The Flying Burrito Brothers, with Gram Parsons; second billed to Stephen Stills in the adventurous early ’70s ensemble, Manassas; one-third of the short-lived super group Souther-Hillman-Furay Band; leader of the 1980s country chart-topping Desert Rose Band; ongoing musical explorer and songwriter.

"I’ve had a great time," he said. "It’s been a wonderful 45 years. I think sometimes it’s more rewarding to keep continuing the journey than to go up to the top of the mountain and be a star. I never wanted that world.

"I love doing these shows in more intimate rooms. But then again, we were talking—the guys in the Desert Rose Band—thinking maybe we ought to do one last hurrah at the Buck Owens Crystal Palace out here in Bakersfield; get the original members and do a live album for old time’s sake."

Hillman, who comes to the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts Saturday night, is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with The Byrds. But his roots run deep in country and bluegrass.

"I had worked in two bands [playing mandolin]," he recalled, "one when I was eighteen out of San Diego, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers. Then I got hired to play with a band called the Golden State Boys out of LA—Vern Gosdin, his brother Rex and Don Parmley, the banjo player. This is where I really learned about country music.

"We were working with a man named Jim Dickson who recorded us. We got called the Hillmen, but it was really the Golden State Boys. Jim started working with McGuinn, Crosby and Gene Clark. He asked me to come listen and I loved it. David Crosby was gonna be the bass player but he didn’t like it, he couldn’t quite cut it. So Jim called me and said, ‘Can you play the bass?’ And I said, ‘you betcha!’

"I couldn’t play the darn bass; I’d never played it in my life! I just went in there on a prayer to the first rehearsal, and I realized nobody knew how to play electric guitars. We were all coming out of folk music. So I put the mandolin down and started playing bass for a few years."

The Byrds took off to the top of the pop charts, and Hillman didn’t pick up a mandolin again until the band dove into classic country music on Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968:

"During the Sweetheart time I bought a Gibson F-5 down in Virginia. It wasn’t that good, but I played it for a few years. Then Stephen Stills gave me a beautiful mandolin; he said ‘that one sounded so bad that had to get you another one.’ I still have it."

With such a rich variety of playing experiences, I wondered if he could choose the most musically satisfying.

"Desert Rose was the most fulfilling for me personally," he said. "It was a consistent performing band. I had really felt like an apprentice in a lot of bands; I wasn’t after the lead spot. But Desert Rose was the lead spot for me.

"We had an eight-year run, and then we got to the point where we weren’t getting as much airplay. At the time, I realized that I had been on the road almost 35 years. I had children that were pre-teens, and I wanted a break. So we just parted company. I said, ‘It’s been great but let’s put it to bed while we are still semi-on top.’

"At that particular time the whole business changed. Garth Brooks came in and the whole Nashville arena just got bigger. The music changed, in the sense of that wonderful period of the middle ’80s to the early ’90s of singer-songwriter special stuff coming out. But personally, I needed to get off the road; I had been going full bore. As Buck Owens used to say, ‘It’s wonderful playing; It’s the getting there that’s the tough part.’

"The business of entertainment is not conducive to raising a family and you just have to make some choices. I chose to be with my family at that particular juncture, and I don’t regret it one bit."

But he has continued to record and perform, usually in the company of longtime friend and Desert Rose Bandmate, Herb Pederson. In my Port Folio Weekly review of his last album, The Other Side, I called it "the way contemporary acoustic music oughtta sound" and said "there’s a lot of Jesus in the lyrics and a lot of joy in the music."

"That was my gospel album," he acknowledged. "It wasn’t necessarily in your face, but it was a positive thing. I wanted to make an album for people in our age group that they could sit down at the end of the day, put on and relax. Take ’ em out of the world for a while!"

I asked what lay in store for the Saturday night crowd in Suffolk.

"You’re gonna get everything from the last 45 years," he replied, "and a couple of new things that I want to try out and see if people respond. Herb and I have so much fun—I just bring a list of about 40 songs up on stage, it’s not even a setlist. I feel like Payton Manning up there changing the play!"