The original bassist for the Byrds, Chris Hillman would be a major figure in 1960s folk-rock for that position alone. By the time of the Byrds' fourth and fifth albums, Younger Than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrd Brothers, he had developed into a notable singer-songwriter, contributing some of the earliest country-rock songs. He also played a strong role in the Byrds' first full country-rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. He continued to pioneer country-rock in the late 1960s and the early 1970s in the Flying Burrito Brothers, whose early recordings also featured fellow ex-Byrd Gram Parsons.
You were one of a bunch of guys in Southern California that moved from bluegrass to folk-rock; David Lindley and Chris Darrow were others. Do you see a strong connection between the styles?
The bottom line is, you're dealing with guys that did not come out of a rock and roll garage band. It was a very small, a minority of people from that era. And yeah, Lindley and Darrow of course. But the three major bands that happened from '65 on were the Spoonful, the Buffalo Springfield, and the Byrds. I say major bands in that they did not have a background of rock and roll. I'm assuming that because of Sebastian and the jug band and all the stuff he used to do. We all picked up electric guitars. We were all folk guys, right? We were coming out of that area. As opposed to a lot of our contemporaries -- I guess you could even trace the Beatles back, John Lennon, to a skiffle thing. But a lot of our contemporaries who had sort of been playing rock and roll in high school and whatever, we came from a completely different background.
Bluegrass -- it was completely alien to what Roger McGuinn was doing, or Gene [Clark] and David Crosby were doing. [They] were doing mainstream commercial folk stuff. And I was doing this real traditional -- I'll put it in these terms. There were two clubs in Los Angeles back then. The Troubadour and the Ash Grove. The Troubadour catered to a more commercial folk sound -- Hoyt Axton, Crosby would sing there. We all would do the hootenanny night there. And then there was the Ash Grove, which was about a quarter of a mile away. Well, the Ash Grove would have Bill Monroe and Lightnin' Hopkins and people like that. Very roots-oriented. I was drawn to the Ash Grove. The guys in the Byrds, the other guys that I'm talking about, were more into the Troubadour set. As Lindley was drawn to the Ash Grove, and Ry Cooder was drawn to the Ash Grove. We were just coming from a different place. And David and Roger and Gene from the Byrds were more into singing, and personality and singing, than the playing end of it at that point. Although Roger had been an accompanist to Chad Mitchell -- see, he had really gone through that whole process far more than any of us. As a real musician, being an accompanist.
Roger has impeccable time as a musician. He's a joy to work with, because his time is so good. Well, I think he acquired that from years of working with Chad Mitchell and the Limeliters and being an accompanist, and then Bobby Darin and doing all that. So it was really, far more of a schooling he had, more of a formal schooling. than the rest of us, who were sort of getting up there and hacking it out. The main situation here is you've got this small segment of the rock and roll revolution in the '60s. It really came from a completely different background. It had nowhere to draw on, other than hearing the Beatles, and then hearing the Beatles do Chuck Berry. So it was ongoing third-generation situation there.
The Beatles really had an appeal to all of us who were coming out of this folk-acoustic background, because of the way they sang and just their whole general approach to everything was so fresh at that point. We were just coming out of the Italian crooner period in music. Music was great up until 1958, and it got just awful for a while. And folk music became very popular on campus then in America, and then it got to a very commercial point too. And then all of a sudden here comes the Beatles, originally recycling American rock, and also developing this incredible sound, with so much energy and freshness that it drew everybody into it.
The Dillards told me that Dean Webb helped worked out the Byrds' harmonies for "Mr. Tambourine Man." Do you remember that?
I think Dean [Webb] helped David work out his part, the tenor part. Basically, "Tambourine Man" -- I didn't sing on that, obviously, but Gene and Roger doubled the lead and got this really nice sound, because the two voices sort of meshed real good. I think Dean probably worked with Crosby on that, giving him some ideas. Because Jim Dickson, the fellow that we worked with in the studio, had done lots of projects with the Dillards and Dean, I'm sure that it happened. I don't recall it, I don't remember if I was even there at the time.
You played with the Gosdin Brothers in the Hillmen before joining the Byrds. Did the Byrds pick up anything from those guys?
They played with Gene Clark. Vern played one of my songs, "Time Between," he sang harmony on. But then Crosby came in, got wind of it that, and replaced the part. But that's about as far as they went. And then on Gene's first album, they were prominent, Vern and Rex Gosdin.
Going the other way around, do you think the Gosdins took any ideas from the Byrds' way of doing things?
Absolutely. Vern was really coming into his own as a songwriter then. I think he was really gathering a lot of info at that point. And you gotta remember, Vern and Rex came out of Alabama, and came out to the West Coast to work and get into music. And they were doing -- they actually did a Louvin Brothers acts onstage, the Gosdin Brothers. They did a complete Louvin Brother deal prior to them getting into the Golden State Boys out here, into a bluegrass band. So Vern came out here, and of course after the group I was in with them dissolved, and I went into the Byrds, yeah, he was still around the circle of people. And he did, in working with Gene, he got a lot of ideas. And I noticed Vern's songwriting started to change, and go in [a] different direction then.
How about the Dillards, were they influenced by the Byrds?
The Dillards, at the time we did a little tour with them, and had made that mistake then in hindsight of plugging in. They felt they had to start playing electrically to compete, and sort of lost the whole magic of what they were doing at that time. But hey, who knew?
I wanted to ask about a few other people doing things that were anticipating folk-rock, and if they influenced the Byrds. I know that Jackie DeShannon knew the group as they were getting started.
She [Jackie DeShannon] was around. It was such a small community back then, she was around and I believe she was around the Byrds for a little while. I can't remember if it was Ry Cooder who was playing with her, or Jimmy Page or somebody, when Jimmy Page, before Led Zeppelin, when he was sort of in between the Yardbirds and...but it was Cooder, I think Cooder when he was like sixteen. And she always had her feet firmly planted in that arena too. And she had a bit of an influence on us, somewhat, let's say just being more of a veteran at that time than they were. We were brand-new, stumbling around with what we were trying to do. I think she had a little more time in the business, and at that point, and was a bit of an influence.
Did you hear the Beau Brummels before the Byrds started recording for Columbia?
Actually, it was just after I was in the Byrds. And we walk into this club on Sunset Strip, not near the Whiskey, a club way down the other end of Sunset Boulevard. And they were playing. And I am a bluegrass guy. In bluegrass, you don't even crack a smile. And here's the Beau Brummels, and they're really good. Really good. I mean, they're up there and Sal's got his tambourine going and I'm going, "Wow! I'll never be able to do that!" I was the shyest guy in the band. But they were exceptionally good when I saw them. I remember them doing the hit they had, "Laugh, Laugh." They really sort of answered the Beatles before we did, in that sense. Unfortunately, they didn't ever carry it on beyond that song or one other one. But I must say, they were quite a shock, 'cause I'm me, personally, coming from a very highly intense, high-energy bluegrass, where you have so much to think about, you can't really be a big showman up there (laughs). Anyway, it was fun to watch those guys, it was quite an eye-opener. They were wonderful. I can see 'em right now in my mind.
What do you think Jim Dickson's main contributions were to the Byrds?
Mostly in the studio. He gave us a great sense of putting a little depth in what we were doing, a little thought. Doing something substantial, and taking -- nobody was really keen on "Tambourine Man" as I recall when we first heard it, maybe McGuinn, but I don't know if anybody else was. But Dickson pounded it into our head, literally, to go for a little more depth in the lyric, and really craft the song, and make something you can be proud of ten to fifteen years down the road. He was absolutely right. When we didn't listen to him, we cut a couple of stupid things on the records. He was a very gifted guy in that sense, and hung in there with us from the get-go. We were all starving, and he sort of guided us, as all young acts need, is that Svengali (laughs). That was Dickson was. He was good at the time. It got a little personal, as things do, and things didn't always roll as smoothly as they should. And we didn'tlisten to him.
We had an opportunity to do one of the very first videos, in a sense of 16 millimeter stuff, around Gene's song "She Don't Care About Time." And we were going to send it to England. And of course, it didn't happen, because we got in a big argument with Jim. I don't say we, but David did. And the whole thing was scrapped. And this was '66, or late '65, '66, and we're ready to do this film. Which was really basically the genesis of a video around Gene's song. Of us on the beach, doing this filming. Barry Feinstein was shooting it. Those kind of things, Jim was really good at. We just didn't listen to him. We were wise-guy little punk kids, and he was our big brother-slash-father figure. But he had a tremendous influence on the Byrds, and he pushed for "Tambourine Man," and put himself out on the line for that one. And he was right.
And it does stand up 37 years later. It stands up. You hear it on the radio, it's a good piece of music. And regardless of if there's session players on that song, or if we'd have cut it. It's a great song. And at the time, we weren't ready to cut that song. It's almost too slick. Sometimes I wonder, would it have been interesting for us to have cut a version. It might have taken away a bit of that slick pop sound, but it's okay. And I love it to this day when somebody says, yeah, you guys didn't play on the first album. (laughs heartily) You gotta put it on, you know it's us, because it's all kinds of weird stuff going on. That's not session players on the first album. But you know it is on "Tambourine Man" and on the flipside, "I Knew I'd Want You."
It was the right thing at the time. And in those days, we got a singles deal. You know, "if you guys do good with a single, we'll see if we can let you do an album." And I think, in hindsight, those were the right moves to make. Roger was the guy. And as I said earlier, Roger had more time on the battlefield as a backup player. And he had good time. And he could be out there with session guys and do it. We weren't disciplined enough in that area. Although I had done lots of sessions on mandolin. But bass, it was another animal. It was a brand-new deal. For me to be next to Hal Blaine on that song, yeah, I probably could have pulled it off. But not as well as Larry Knechtel.
Larry played with a pick on that song, and Joe Osborne was another session guy that was around L.A. He played with a pick. And McCartney played with a pick. I played with a pick. That's the way I learned. And it's only in the last couple of years I sort of goof around with my fingers on the bass.
Anyway, back to Dickson -- Dickson gets a lot of credit for this whole deal. He set this thing on track. And we derailed it ourselves. That's all I can tell you. As things work out, it was time for maybe us to part company with Jim. But it wasn't long after, we lost a bit of our direction. And you can trace that to about nine million other bands, too.
While I've been writing this book, I still get people saying to me, the Byrds didn't even play on their own records. But there's absolutely no evidence that sessionmen took the place of the Byrds, with the exception of those two tracks on the first Columbia single. Even on the first album, everything but those two songs is the band playing.
I guarantee you, you just tell anybody that says it, listen to the record [Mr. Tambourine Man, the Byrds' first album]. If those are session players, then we must have had the C-level group of 'em. 'Cause it is us, and you can tell how we're playing. It doesn't stand up to the "Tambourine Man" track, as far as that preciseness. And it's okay. Because I tend to like the raw edge of the band, as opposed to the slickness of the session date. But hey, whatever, people say all kinds of stuff.
It's funny, though. We went from being better live in the early days to better in the studio later on, and switched. And we became too lackadaisical on stage. We were a better studio band as the years went by. We made some good records, we made some silly ones. But everybody else does, too.
The band really expanded into psychedelic music starting with "Eight Miles High" and Fifth Dimension. How did you personally feel about that shift?
I didn't contribute much, but "Fifth Dimension," the song, is one of my all-time favorite McGuinn songs. And I've said this for years. I think "Fifth Dimension"'s one of the better songs he's ever written and sung. I love that tune. I think that Roger and I got more as a team in Notorious Byrd Brothers, when we started to play around in the studio with stuff. Prior to that, [the most psychedelic Byrds records] that was more Roger's deal. I would play on it, but it wasn't something I was involved in, other than as the bass player. And he had that side of him, musically, that was not my style of music. It really wasn't something that I loved that much. But I was a player, and that's his piece of material, so I supported it. But I sort of dragged him into the country stuff, so it works both ways. And he performed quite well with that stuff.
Younger Than Yesterday and Notorious Byrd Brothers weren't such big-selling albums when they came out, but now they're regarded as great records, among the Byrds' very best. Has it surprised you that they've endured so well over time?
To some degree it has. I have to feign ignorance here. I don't remember everything on Notorious. Younger Than Yesterday I do, that was my album in that sense that I started to come out of my shyness and contribute more. And I think we did some of the very first country-rock on Younger Than Yesterday. I think with Clarence [White], "Girl with No Name," "Time Between," stuff like that, that was our country-rock statement of the time. Notorious, I've talked to more people over the years who have said that's their favorite Byrds album. And there was Roger and I in the breach, having had our fallout with David in finishing this record with Gary Usher. Gary Usher was very good at the time, a very good producer to work with, and opened all kinds of ideas. I like those albums. I can't remember every single song on there. But there were things like "Draft Morning" that were really interesting.
But the band just starting its descent into hell then. One of the Byrds compilations that Bob Irwin put together, he includes an argument we're having in the studio with Mike Clarke. And it's sad. It's a funny thing to listen to, but then it's sad because Gary's dead, Usher, who was the producer on the date, Mike's dead, and you go, my God. But that's where it started to lose...Dickson was gone. We didn't have the schoolteacher leading us into the classroom. It started to splinter. But yes, in hindsight, yeah, those are good records. They were good. And McGuinn's always been a real joy to work with. He's a real professional in the studio.
Roger had thoughts of making the album after Notorious Byrd Brothers a double album that would cover everything from traditional folk to electronic synthesizer music. Instead you did Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Did you have any regrets that you never got to work on the original ambitious double-album concept?
None at all [laughs hard]. With all due respect, I didn't want a bunch of "CTA 102"s or "Moog Raga" or whatever that stuff is. It didn't work for me, and I'm glad it didn't happen. 'Cause it would have made no sense at all. Although there weren't that many strong parameters then. You could sort of do those kind of projects, record company budget willing, on that end. But no, no regrets at all. That would have been a separate deal. To put the two of them together would have been a little crazy. It would have been an interesting separate project, but like I said earlier, either I didn't understand what he was doing, or I just didn't like it. And he had that Moog synthesizer, of course, then, it was like owning a computer in 1955. It took up the whole room. It made a lot of noise. It wasn't really musical. It was like a toy, a gadget. But it was interesting, I respect him. He was following something that intrigued him, and he likes electronics. The guy's very computer-literate, and I'm [in] sort of the caveman stage of mine, after all these years.
I'm glad we didn't do that. I'm glad we did the Sweetheart as it was. And that record was probably the worst seller we ever...it wasn't my favorite Byrd record. But as far a legacy, it opened the door for so many people who are probably pretty current right now who got into country music, or started to discover country music, through that album. So it was an interesting...and all the controversy over Gram's vocals or Roger's vocals or blah blah blah, some of Gram's vocals that we didn't use weren't as, even that good as people think they were. And Roger might have gone a little overboard on "Christian Life," I think he was an actor, he was doing a part, he just was overacting on the accent a bit. But hey, it's okay, it worked out alright. I think there's a lot of good things on there. I mean, there's some funny stuff on that album too, but as always...
With Sweetheart and then with the early Flying Burrito Brothers, you were getting into country-rock. A bunch of Californian folk-rock bands were moving in that direction at the same time. Do you see any reason for that collective shift?
Gee, I don't know. I think the whole hippie thing was just on the wane then. I mean, about '68. I remember Parsons and I watching news coverage of Woodstock and laughing at it, saying, god, what are they doing? We'd all done that in '66. I think musically people were stepping into other areas, and I don't know what propelled certain people to do that other than their earlier roots. I'm sure Linda Ronstadt, [it] was an easy transition for her, from where she came from. Bernie Leadon in Hearts & Flowers, Larry Murray, Larry was in the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers with me. So he had a huge folk background. As was Bernie. Bernie was in high school, and the Squirrel Barkers were working, and he filled in on banjo, 'cause he was such a great player then. So that was a natural thing. Of course, Lindley and Darrow and all of that, Kaleidoscope. But I don't know.
I don't know how Glenn Frey, coming from Detroit and a rock background, sort of gravitated to that kind of music. That's more of a question. I don't know why that happened. As for Souther, originally it was J.D. Souther and Glenn had that Longbranch Pennywhistle, which was an acoustic duo. But it's interesting that Glenn went from that rock sort of thing into the country thing. Of course, the Eagles changed midstream in the late 1970s, back to a rock thing.
Henley too. Henley was in a band with Al Perkins, who I worked with for years. And they were in a band in Texas, and it was a rock cover band. Like I said earlier, those guys were cutting their teeth on rock and roll, high school garage band type rock and roll, while the rest of us that had come along earlier were folk guys, bluegrass traditional folk blah blah, you know. But I don't know why that big shift happened. Sometimes I just don't analyze any of it. I look back and go, that was interesting.
In the Flying Burrito Brothers, what would you say you were trying to do that the Byrds weren't doing in the country-rock they did when you were still in them?
In the Burritos, when Gram was a coherent guy, I mean when we first started working together, before I lost him, we had this wonderful vision. And of course, all those good songs, we were sharing the house together, and had both come off a couple of unpleasant relationships, and took solace in each other as friends. But we also wrote some great songs. And "Sin City," and things that the Byrds hadn't even gotten...it was like I was starting over. I was hungry again. And I don't think I could have gotten to that place, staying in the Byrds. Although in hindsight, I regret not working with Clarence a little more, 'cause he was an old friend from the bluegrass days. And I certainly would have made a lot more money (chuckles). That doesn't really count in the scope of things. So no, the Burritos had a whole other insight into the thing, which was really quite interesting at the time. A lot of it was Gram's vision, which is good. But he got me thinking a little harder on what I was doing. And it was really good.
That first album was great, the first year was great, and like I say, I lost him. Lost him to all the indulgent fantasies that he was going after, and that's where it ends. He had talent, not any more than anybody else, and he had a lot of charm. But he just taken by all of the trappings that didn't mean anything. The limousine, hanging out with Jagger, blah blah. There's where we lost him. Otherwise the guy'd be around, probably.
I wanted to ask about the Rising Sons, and if you knew them well. Kevin Kelly, your cousin, was in them, and then you later played together in the Sweetheart lineup of the Byrds.
I don't know how each campaign was handled, I'll put it this way. The Rising Sons didn't have the goods. They had all that raw talent, and it was a good starting point for Taj [Mahal], who just blew into town, for R [Cooder]y, who had never really recorded in a band situation. And there's two incredible artists. It was a stepping stone. But they didn't really have the goods, you know what I'm saying? There wasn't anything to promote there, I don't think, in that particular time frame. If it would have been 1972, they probably would have been right on FM rock radio and doing quite well, next to Black Oak Arkansas or whatever, as an eclectic type of band. But other things on Columbia -- Paul Revere, that's right up Columbia's alley. Columbia was an old -- remember, there were only a few labels then -- and Columbia was the old-school label. And give 'em a Tony Bennett, give 'em a Paul Revere & the Raiders, and something that goes out there and performs well and gives them that kind of catchy hook-type song, they can do that. That's all I can tell you. I don't remember everybody who was on Columbia, but the Byrds fit in there, but just barely.
You know the story of Randy Sparks and the Christy Minstrels, where Randy was incensed that Columbia had even signed us, and called up Goddard Lieberson and was demanding that we be thrown off the label and all of that. That was like early '65, when we just signed, or late '64. Gene had been in the Christy Minstrels. And I had worked in a sub-band he [Sparks] had called the Green Grass Group, which was just awful. I was so poor, I needed to do that. So I did that for a while, but it was just awful. I don't know who else was on Columbia. I don't think the Rising Sons, a wonderful bunch of guys in there, really good players and interesting idea, but it was about five years ahead of its time in that sense. Maybe it they'd had been on Atlantic, and it was 1970, '72, they'd have done much better. I just didn't hear it when they were together. I watched them play a couple of times. My cousin was in the band. And I just didn't hear it. But I sure loved Taj, and I loved Cooder. And it just wasn't what they were supposed to be doing. It was their stepping stone to greater things.
Why did Randy Sparks feel so threatened by the Byrds?
I think we represented...well, here it was, chaos reigning around the country at that time, or beginning, new things happening. And Randy was a little envious and didn't quite understand how to make that transition. And it was a threat to him. God knows why, I don't know. He sold the rights [to the New Christy Minstrels] and he made it very well. Randy was just another guy, he did really well on people's publishing and stuff. And he had John Denver's for a while. That's the way it is. I have no grudge against the guy. I don't even know if he's still around. Nor do I care (laughs).
So this would have been right around the time you signed with Columbia?
I think it was '65 ["Tambourine Man"], and "Tambourine Man" was not out exactly, yet. It was '65, and a couple months away from "Tambourine Man" going out. We were doing all kinds of things in our shows. We were doing a Stones cover here and there, "Things We Said Today," we did "Money," just stuff like that. "Maggie's Farm." In fact, I think I sang "Maggie's Farm," which was a real coup, 'cause I was so shy. I mean, I always just didn't know what the heck this stuff was yet. It took me a year to figure it all out. I just sort of stayed back there and played.
Anything else you want to add about the Byrds or folk-rock?
I can give you a closing statement, only that the Byrds didn't make millions of dollars. But we did leave this wonderful legacy. And that's something I'm a little more proud of than a monetary gain on the deal. I was a lucky guy to be part of it. It was a real interesting band, and such diverse people in that band. I don't think anybody agreed on anything, as far as a musical background. Gene was a very prolific writer. I mean, this guy would write five or six songs a week, and three of 'em were great. Really, really good ones! And the poor guy, he just disintegrated. When one isn't accessible anymore, death brings on icon status sometimes. And Gene is just starting to get noticed for what he did. I mean, listen to his first couple of Byrds albums, a wonderful songwriter. And it was quite interesting, the first couple years.
You played on Gene's first solo album [from 1967]. What did you think of the stuff he was doing then, from right after he left the Byrds?
I can't remember. I couldn't remember that I played on just about every one he did. I really played on just about every record Gene did, even Dillard and Clark, and the last one with Carla Olson, which I thought was a really good record, by the way. The first one, I don't remember. I think what happened was, it was a little overproduced, but I can't remember the darned thing. But hey, he was interesting. Interesting writer. I mean, this guy was not a well-read man. But it was like he would pull these beautiful poetic phrases out of nowhere. And I'd go, where is he getting this? It's real interesting. He really wrote some great stuff, even in McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, he wrote some..."Backstage Pass." That was wonderful. [Sings extract] Just a fabulous set of lyrics.