[Interview] Chris Hillman

An underappreciated hero of American music

Chris Hillman is the unsung hero of Americana music. A founding member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band, Hillman has written “Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond,” his story in his words. I talked to him before he played the Southgate House Revival in 2017 when he toured with his album “Bidin’ My Time,” which was produced by Tom Petty. He came to town in October for his first show after Petty’s tragic death, which added an air of sadness and melancholy to the evening.

2017- Interview

Chris Hillman has nothing to prove. Maybe that’s why he proved again, more than 50 years since the Byrds changed the course of rock ’n’ roll, that he is one of the underappreciated heroes of American music.

From the Byrds to the Flying Burrito Brothers to Manassas to the Desert Rose Band to a solo career, Hillman helped build the template for folk rock, country rock, bluegrass rock. Whether it was paying tribute to his forebears or influencing superstars who came later, every fan of roots music owes him a tip of their hat.

Hillman, who plays the Southgate House Revival Wednesday with former Desert Rose mates Herb Pedersen and John Jorgenson, has released his first album in more than a decade, “Bidin’ My Time,” produced by Tom Petty.

“I have plenty of things to keep me busy,” laughs the 72-year-old grandfather of a baby girl. “I’m not chasing a career, but I’m blessed to be able to still work. (Making the record), I thought to myself, ‘Is this good enough? I don’t know what else I can do, I did my very best.’

“Then I realized that if Tom didn’t like the record, he could have gracefully exited. He could have said something like ‘I got a call from my manager and I have a commitment and I can’t finish the record.’ But he was totally into the project.”

That’s no surprise. Petty and the Heartbreakers built a Hall of Fame career on the jangly guitar sound pioneered by the Byrds. When Pedersen joined Petty’s Mudcrutch project on tour last year, they hatched the idea of a Hillman record.

“I had some stuff lyin’ around,” Hillman says. “I cut some other things I had heard and I used the Heartbreakers (keyboardist Benmont Tench and drummer Steve Ferrone) on a few tracks, the electric stuff.”

The songs that will catch the ear of close listeners and readers of liner notes are Pete Seeger’s “Bells of Rhymney,” which appeared on the Byrds’ first album, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” in 1965; “Here She Comes Again,” written by Hillman and Byrdsmate Roger McGuinn, but never recorded for a studio album; and “She Don’t Care About Time,” written by Gene Clark, another original Byrd.

“David (Crosby) sang on ‘Bells of Rhymney’ again because I wanted to sing it with David and Herb … two great tenors,” Hillman says. “And Roger was more than generous on this project. We sent a file (to Florida) and he played on (‘Here She Comes Again’). I always loved this song, it has a great feel to it.”

Hillman felt that Clark’s tune, which was the B-side to “Turn! Turn! Turn!” never received the credit it deserved. “Gene was such a great songwriter,” he says in the album notes.

These remarks are the essence of Hillman. He isn’t falsely modest, he truly believes that music is a team sport and he is thrilled for the opportunity to play.

“I loved being in all those bands, they were fantastic,” he says. “I loved playing the music, but I didn’t really have the confidence to go out front, to try to become a huge star on my own. I’ve always said that my apprenticeship wasn’t over until Desert Rose. That’s when I was promoted from lieutenant to captain.”

Hillman stresses the positive, avoids the well-documented dysfunction of the Byrds and Burrito Brothers in their latter days. He is happy to call Crosby and McGuinn his friends, to continue working with Pedersen and Jorgenson, and proud that Petty likes his work.

His time has arrived, again.

2008 - Interview

The Byrds. The Flying Burrito Bros. Stephen Stills and Manassas.

The popular roots rock revival can be traced directly to these groups and the music they recorded from the mid ’60s to the early ’70s.

Chris Hillman was present at the creation. Now, more than 40 years later, he is still making music that matters. He’ll play tunes from the catalogs of those bands, plus the Desert Rose Band and his solo albums with fellow traveler Herb Pedersen at the Southgate House.

“I’ve been very lucky,” Hillman says, much too modestly. “I’ve worked with (Roger) McGuinn, Gram (Parsons) and Stephen (Stills). I like being in a band and I was in some good ones.”

Some good ones? That’s like saying Scottie Pippen was on some good basketball teams. McGuinn, Parsons and Stills might have been Michael Jordan, but discount Hillman’s contributions at your peril. He was the consummate consigliere: as a bass player, his unmistakable opening notes remind a generation that “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Eight Miles High” were coming; as a harmony singer he stood side by side with those distinctive voices, plus Gene Clark and David Crosby in the Byrds and Rick Roberts (Firefall) in a later incarnation of the Burritos.

“Well, what the Byrds accomplished was a legacy,” Hillman admits after being pestered with one fan’s  longstanding theory that everybody wants to be the Byrds (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, jangly R.E.M., the Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown and countless others). “We weren’t a rock band as such, but we created a sound.”

Thankfully that sound lives on. But as strong as the Byrds’ influence has been, it might be the Burritos’ mystique, especially that of Parsons, that holds sway today.

“Some of the best stuff I’ve been around was in that era when we first got together,” Hillman says on his Web site. “But he was seduced by the trappings of rock ’n’ roll. That was his downfall. I was ready for Gram’s death, I guess, because for months before I watched him disintegrate.”

After working with such high-profile musicians, it was no surprise that when Stills wanted a break from the pressure of being in a supergroup, he called Hillman. The collaboration produced a wonderful self-titled double album and a strong follow-up, “Down the Road.”

“The Manassas stuff was very challenging,” Hillman says. “We were consistently good. In my opinion, it was the best work Stephen did after the first CS&N album, which is a masterpiece.”

Unfortunately, Manassas was sidetracked by a record company that wanted the sales numbers that only a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion could provide. But don’t feel sorry for Hillman. His path has been one of his own choosing.

“I never sought out the solo rock star thing,” he says. “I saw what it did to people.”

Instead of more glamorous opportunities (“We had so much money offered to us for a Byrds reunion, I could have retired three or four times over.”), Hillman finally stepped to the forefront with the Desert Rose Band, which included Pedersen.

“I put it together, I was the lead singer,” he says of the group that released its first album in 1987. “We found some very devoted fans over the years.”

But by the mid ’90s, Hillman had been on the road for more than 30 years. It had been a great ride, but he had two kids and had missed too many birthdays. It was time for a break.

“I’m so happy that I was able to spend that time with my family,” he says. “As much success as I’ve had in the music business, I think my biggest accomplishment is being a parent. My parents gave me a really solid upbringing, and I think it’s really important to help your kids learn the difference between right and wrong.”

Hillman knows that isn’t an easy lesson. “I made some bad decisions along the way, but I was lucky.” Unlike some of his friends.

To that end, Hillman and Pedersen are going to Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in Pomeroy, Ohio, this weekend to teach guitar and mandolin for two days. On the third day, Hillman will put his instruments aside.

“A woman from Ohio University is bringing 25 kids to the ranch,” he says. “She asked me to talk about why there is so much self-destructive behavior in the entertainment business. I’m looking forward to that.”

One can only imagine the tales the co-writer of “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star” can tell. Let’s hope that the kids understand that it took more than luck to survive: Talent and strong values played a much bigger role.

2008 - Concert Review

Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen invited about 100 new friends into their temporary living room at the Southgate House Thursday night.

The pair, armed with acoustic guitars, a mandolin and two superb voices, took folks on a tour of American roots music that paid tribute to the Louvin Brothers, Earl Scruggs and Buck Owens before showcasing their own accomplishments with the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas, Desert Rose Band and the Dillards among others.

As Hillman said after stumbling at the beginning of the encore, “I’ve been doing this for 45 years, you’d think I could get it right.” His pals in the audience forgave the hiccup, and why not: He and Pedersen had just played about two hours of tunes interspersed with tales about why the songs resonated with them (and the fans).

Before strumming the instantly familiar opening to Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Hillman told how the members of the Byrds had rejected the idea of recording it after a first listen. But the group’s manager made them reconsider, and the jingle jangle future of folk rock was back on track.

The eclectic set list brought individuals to their feet for their favorites, including familiar offerings such as the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” and the Burritos’ “Sin City,” but also a strong pair from Manassas – “So Begins the Task” and “It Doesn’t Matter” – plus Gene Clark’s achingly beautiful “Tried So Hard to Please Her.”

The good vibe continued after the music was finished. The accommodating Hillman invited people to stick around and chat, even though he only had one CD for sale (his solo “The Other Side”). But he knows his audience: Fans, many armed with original vinyl to be autographed, waited patiently to tell the musicians their favorite recollections and have friends snap photos.

Finally it was time for the visitors to leave so the hosts could get some rest. Everyone in the room, though, had a great time and hoped they would be invited back soon.


Each week, Bob Hust and Bill Thompson feature the best songs – old and new – from artists they have loved for many years and others they have just discovered. The best songs transport people to a time and place. That’s the foundation of BS&B.

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