A LIFE IN MUSIC
A Third-Generation Californian with deep roots in the Cowboy history of the American West, Chris Hillman was born in Los Angeles, California on December 4, 1944. Hillman spent his early years on his family’s ranch home in then rural North San Diego County “riding horses, and doing ranch chores”. His interests would soon change from spurs and saddles to guitars and mandolins.
Hillman credits his older sister in turning him on to Folk and Country music. “My older sister was in college in the 1950s and she came back home with a bunch of folk albums when I was 14 years old. I was greatly influenced by that, and I started watching “live” Country music shows on KTLA Channel 5 out of Los Angeles, Spade Cooley, Cals Corral, Town Hall Party, and Cliffie Stone - and soon got hooked on the music”.
Seeing that his interest in music was a serious one, Hillman’s mother encouraged her son and bought him a $10 dollar guitar in Tijuana, Mexico. “If you stick with this a year I’ll help you get something better”, recalled Hillman. He also started listening to Bluegrass, and after hearing acts like Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe, Hillman fell in love with the Mandolin. Learning that a young bluegrass group The Kentucky Colonels were based out of Los Angeles, a very determined 15 year-old Hillman convinced his family to let him go and see the group. Not only did Hillman meet and listen to the Colonels but also when the group’s mandolinist Scott Hambly, who had been filling in for Roland White while he was in the army offered him lessons, Hillman then convinced his family to let him take the train by himself up to Berkeley, where Hambly lived, and took mandolin lessons from him.
Hillman’s prowess on guitar and mandolin became well-known in San Diego’s tight-knit Folk Music community. The proprietors of the Blue Guitar shop, Larry Murray and Ed Douglas invited Hillman to join their band, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers.
The Barkers, which lasted a mere two years and recorded but one album, nonetheless earned a well-deserved legendary reputation thanks to the skills and talents of its members. The Squirrel Barker lineup included such notable musicians as Kenny Wertz, Bernie Leadon, Larry Murray, Ed Douglas and the late Gary Carr.
Larry Murray reminisces playing alongside the shy teenager:
“Even at his age Chris was such a solid musician and a die-hard perfectionist. He was always determined to do things right!”
The Barkers recorded one album “Bluegrass Favorites”, now a sought-after collector’s item, the 17 year-old Hillman together with the rest of the band was paid $10 dollars each and got a box of albums for their work - and that was the extent of their royalties!
When the Barkers called it quits at the end of 1963, Hillman’s reputation, coupled with connections with other Bluegrass musicians, paid off as he was invited to join the Golden State Boys then regarded as the premier Bluegrass band in Southern California. Featuring future Country music star Vern Gosdin, his brother Rex, and Don Parmley from the Bluegrass Cardinals, the Golden State Boys soon morphed into what became known as “The Hillmen”, curiously named after Chris even though he wasn’t the leader of the group and only sang one lead vocal on a cover of Bob Dylan’s “When The Ship Comes In”. Using a fictitious id in the name of “Chris Hardin” (the playing as well as the drinking age in clubs was 21), the 18 year-old Hillman played the “Country Music Bars” in the Southern California area and performed weekly on “Cal’s Corral”, a live Country music show on L.A.’s channel 13. After approximately 8 months the group folded. Hillman was about to throw in the towel and would have considered enrolling at UCLA if not for the interest of The Hillmen’s former manager and producer Jim Dickson.
Dickson invited Hillman down to World Pacific Studios to hear three guys with acoustic guitars singing Beatle songs and a few original songs. Those three guys were Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby. When Dickson offered Hillman the opportunity to join in, the young mandolin player was not only interested but eager to “plug in”.
With drummer Michael Clarke in tow, Hillman was recruited to play electric bass, an instrument he had no familiarity with. But Hillman was a keen student, and after watching Paul McCartney play and listening to Beatles’ recordings as well as picking up tips from some of the top studio musicians in town, Hillman was able to absorb much of the bass playing process and master it well - as those who have heard the first steady rumbling bass runs on the intro to “Eight Miles High” can attest to. The Beefeaters as they were then known quickly became the Byrds. They went into the studio in 1965, recorded a Bob Dylan song.
“Mr. Tambourine Man”, took a combination of Dylan songs and their own compositions and made Rock and Roll History as America’s answer to the Beatles.
The history of the Byrds, has been covered numerous times and needs no revisiting. But the growth of Hillman from a shy, serious bass player in the background to a major force, influence maker, singer and songwriter in the band is much less known. For the first three albums Hillman stayed in the shadows with drummer Michael Clarke, providing a strong backbeat to the three-part harmonies of McGuinn, Clark and Crosby and the jingle jangle of McGuinn’s Rickenbacker 12 string guitar.
With the departure of Gene Clark following the recording of “5-D”, McGuinn began to increasingly rely on his dependable bass player and Hillman began to stretch out in singing and songwriting. The result were several brilliant Hillman compositions on the next album, “Younger Than Yesterday”, Hillman’s favorite Byrds recording. The single “So You Want to Be A Rock and Roll Star” penned with Roger McGuinn, was satirical take on the Music Business. Another single, “Have You Seen Her Face”, became Hillman’s first lead vocal in the band and could easily stand on its own with songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Turn, Turn, Turn”, “Eight Miles High”.
“Time Between” saw Hillman bring in his old Bluegrass friend Clarence White to play the Telecaster guitar solo on what is regarded by many critics and fans to be the first Country-Rock song. White also helped out on another Country-flavored Hillman composition, “The Girl with No Name”. These songs paved the way for the Byrds next adventure - exploring Country music.
With the departure of Crosby and Michael Clarke by the beginning of 1968, the Byrds were down to just two original members, Hillman and McGuinn. The band recruited Hillman’s cousin, Kevin Kelley to replace Michael Clarke but were still in need of another musician to round out the Byrds line-up. Hillman ran into a new kid in town by chance one day. That kid was Gram Parsons, Together with Hillman he changed the Byrds’ musical direction and ushered in a new era of music, that of “Country Rock”.
“Sweetheart of the Rodeo” their highly-acclaimed release firmly cemented the merging of country and rock. Its influence can be heard today in the music of Country artists like Brad Paisley, Emmy-Lou Harris, Marty Stuart, Jim Lauderdale and Dwight Yoakum.
While a Dylan tune, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” propelled by Lloyd Green’s sweet steel guitar kicked off the album, it was the compositions of newcomer Parsons, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard and others, plus the array of great California country musicians - Jay Dee Maness, Clarence White, Earl P. Ball, and Nashville vets like Green and John Hartford that brought the Byrds back to full throttle with a sound that mixed pure country with folk music.
When Parsons left the band shortly thereafter, Hillman brought in his good friend Clarence White to replace him, but the old magic of the Byrds was gone for him. Hillman exited the Byrds in September 1968 to join Parsons, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and Chris Ethridge in what soon became known as the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Their first release “The Gilded Palace of Sin” created a new musical force to be reckoned with. The Burrito’s created the environment for “Outlaw Country” and for much of the success experienced by artists such as The Eagles, Poco, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt band. Even the “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” - the Rolling Stones, were briefly influenced by the Burritos, with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards composing “Wild Horses” in honor of their friends, the Flying Burrito Brothers.
One song off that seminal first album - “Sin City” - not only aptly described Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s but was later included in the Smithsonian Institute’s “History of Country Music” collection.
But the Burritos were never really accepted in either musical environments back then. Diehard Country mistrusted them. Rock “underground” radio didn’t know what to make of them, or where they might fit in a play list. While Hillman and Parsons spent most of that first year “writing songs together, by the second year and second album Parsons had not only lost interest in the band, his personal lifestyle had already begun to take its toll. With Parsons’ departure Hillman rebuilt the band with Bernie Leadon, Rick Roberts and Al Perkins and captured the “live essence” of the Burritos with the album “Last of the Red Hot Burritos” which was quite possibly the best and the last of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ recordings.
Near the end of his tenure with the Burritos, Hillman was performing with the band in Washington, D.C. and happened to hear a wonderful girl singer playing in a nearby Folk Club. That “girl” was Emmy-Lou Harris. Hillman was so impressed with her that he recommended her to Gram Parsons and musical history was made.
A phone call from old friend Stephen Stills set Hillman on a new musical journey.
With Stills he formed the eclectic band “Manassas”.
“I had been writing in the Byrds and Burritos, but with Stephen I went up another level. I learned more about songwriting during my two years as Stephen’s second-in-command than at any other time of my life. He taught me how to structure a lyric, how to turn a phase, how to craft a tune”, commented Hillman.
The first Manassas album accomplished what Roger McGuinn had considered doing before “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, combining major elements of most forms of American contemporary music and fusing them together. There were bits and pieces of Rock, Country, Bluegrass, Salsa, and Blues blended together on the two albums the group created. Stills and Hillman also co-wrote a great song that is still part of Hillman’s set list to this day - “It Doesn’t Matter”.
“That band (Manassas) could tackle the entire spectrum of music with awesome musicianship and authenticity. When we were on it was “magic”, says Chris to this day. But the pressures of a record company that demanded a Crosby-Stills-Nash and Young reunion, coupled by the hazards of a hedonistic lifestyle on the road eventually took its toll on the band, and Manassas broke up by the fall of 1973. By this time too, Hillman faced two major tragedies in his personal life, the deaths of his close friends Clarence White and Gram Parsons.
“Gram’s death upset me a lot, but I was more upset by Clarence’s because it was an accident, out of the blue. I was ready for Gram’s death, I guess; for months before I’d watch him just disintegrate…” In a more recent interview Hillman commented: “He (Parsons) was seduced by the trappings of rock and roll. That was his downfall. But some of the best stuff I’ve ever been around was in that era when we first got together. That was the good part of Gram, back then, the hungry, inspired kid.”
From Manassas, and a short-lived original Byrds reunion, Hillman was contacted by entrepreneur, David Geffen, who wanted to put together a “new” Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Geffen approached Hillman, J.D. Souther, and Richie Furay, who then became the Souther, Hillman, Furay Band. As Hillman comments today, “It looked great on paper”, and the first album was full of good songs, including “Heavenly Fire”, Hillman’s heartfelt tribute to Gram Parsons but the three never jelled together as songwriting partners or as personalities. The band finally went its separate way after a second album that failed to live up to the promise of the first.
“We’re all good friends now” and we all share a good laugh over the ill fated SHF experience” Hillman commented.
Hillman then went back into the studio and released two solo albums, “Slippin Away” and “Clear Sailing”, for Asylum Records. Hillman toured for a year and a half with his own band, and then after a 1977 British tour reunited him with Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark, they formed the trio, McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman. They released three albums on Capital Records, with two top ten singles.
By the beginning of the 1980s, Hillman returned to his roots in Bluegrass and Country music. He recorded two critically acclaimed acoustic and steel flavored recordings, and in doing so was reunited with his longtime Folk and Bluegrass pal, Herb Pedersen. Pedersen and Hillman literally grew up in music, having become close friends in their late teens.
Hillman also found a songwriting partner and good friend in Steve Hill. The stage was set for the next evolution in the career of Chris Hillman - the incomparable Desert Rose Band.
The genesis of the Desert Rose Band began when both Hillman and Pedersen were asked by fellow Country Rock aficionado and Manassas fan Dan Fogelberg to record with him in the studio and accompany him on his “High Country Snows” tour in 1985. When Hillman and Pedersen returned to Los Angeles, Hillman enlisted Bill Bryson to play bass and multi-instrumentalist John Jorgenson on guitar. Bryson was a veteran of such great bands as The Bluegrass Cardinals and Country Gazette, and Jorgenson had played the same Disneyland Bluegrass circuit as a much younger Hillman had done nearly 25 years earlier. Content as an acoustic band, Hillman and Pedersen discovered how good they sounded “plugged in” and brought on board Steel Guitarist Jay Dee Maness a veteran of “The Sweetheart Sessions”, and former Rick Nelson and the Stone Canyon Band drummer Steve Duncan.
From 1987 till the end of 1993 the Desert Rose Band recorded seven albums, and scored a string of 16 top Country hits, the majority of them riding high in the Top Ten Country charts. They also garnered a number of awards from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association. Among these were:
Academy of Country Music
Touring Band of the Year: 1988, 1989, 1990
Nominee, Best Vocal Group Award: 1989, 1990
Country Music Association
Horizon Award: 1989
Vocal Group of the Year: 1990
Amidst those strong vocals, fine harmonies, excellent instrumentation were two things that made the Desert Rose Band so special. The songs themselves, which addressed current issues in our culture. Not only were the songs written by Hillman and Hill full of honesty and sometimes wit, they were also sung by a confident singer who not only had found his own voice after so many bands, but who sang with power, grace and conviction in what he had written.
In 1991, while in The Desert Rose Band, Hillman’s landmark band, The Byrds, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A fitting tribute to one of the most influential bands of the 20th Century. By the beginning of 1994, saddened by the passing of his close friends and band members, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke, and wishing to spend more time with his family and watching his children grow, Hillman decided to call it a day for the Desert Rose Band.
“We definitely quit while we were ahead,” he commented.
Since 1995 Hillman has kept busy having recorded seven albums. In “Bakersfield Bound” (1995, Sugar Hill) Hillman and Pedersen revisited their classic California roots. They then teamed up with their old Bluegrass friends Larry and Tony Rice to record three albums on Rounder Records “Out of the Woodwork” (1997), “Rice, Rice, Hillman and Pedersen” (1999), “Running Wild” (2001) (Sadly, Larry Rice has since passed on). He also released a solo recording “Like A Hurricane” (1998, Sugar Hill). In 2002, Hillman and Pedersen again revisited California Country in the wonderful “Way Out West” (Back Porch), an album that had the flavor of old California music halls. Hillman was honored by his peers as the recipient in 2004 of the Americana Music Association’s “Lifetime Achievement Award”. In 2005, Hillman also received recognition from the Mojo Honours List as the recipient of the “Roots Award”, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award presented to his first band, The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, by the city of San Diego. Hillman’s most recent project, a solo recording entitled “The Other Side” (Sovereign Artists), which besides new Hillman-Hill compositions also features new recordings of “Eight Miles High”, “It Doesn’t Matter”, and two Desert Rose Band songs “Missing You” and “True Love”. In 2007 he was a featured soloist singing “What Does She See” on the Ian Tyson tribute album, “The Gift .
In his early sixties, Hillman continues to live life to its fullest and record quality music, performing occasionally with Pedersen, Bryson and others. Honoring his California roots, Hillman recently gave his original Burritos’ Nudie suit to the Gene Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. He is also active in his community, involved in his church, and a strong supporter of artists’ recording rights and traditional family values.
“Traditional Family Values” (have) worked for thousands of years, and I think a lot of people my age are embracing a more conservative outlook on life. Once You’ve experienced marriage and have raised children your priorities change and you appreciate all who have gone before and the wisdom they tried to impart”, Hillman stated in an interview with Charles Levin.
Close friend and Appellate Court Justice Steven Perrin said it best when he commented: “He (Hillman) has a wonderful social conscience…(whose) passion for good family and upbringing is unbounded. I have never seen a better father more dedicated to raising his children”.
A family’s love can help you move along. These days, Hillman is always looking towards the future, not the glorious past, writing new songs, singing, planning a new live album and just “playing the kind of music he loves”. He is also deeply involved in “passing on his (musical) gifts to others“, teaching and encouraging new players and singers.
“I’m as happy and fulfilled as I’ve ever been. I am truly blessed to have such a great family and friends to share my life with. This is the best of times”.
- and there are a lot of friends and fans out there that love Chris Hillman, the man and the musician.