A former Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother passes through

Thursday, March 1, 2007 11:16 AM CST

Come hell or high water, I was determined to see Chris Hillman Jan. 27 at the Bama Theatre in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Most of you are probably thinking, “huh?” But somebody out there knows what I'm talking about. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Hillman - a fine and popular bluegrass mandolin picker today - is a living archive of music lore.

The fact that the history Hillman was making in the '60s and beyond took place during my own halcyon days of tender youth makes it my history, too. I hope he doesn't hold it against me that, while I enjoyed the music, I was too preoccupied at the time to appreciate it's impact. I've grown up since then.

When the former Byrd co-founder, Flying Burrito Brother, Manassas and Desert Rose Band alum took the Tuscaloosa stage - with the highly credentialed Herb Pedersen at his side - it was a moment to relish for any music history groupie, not to mention baby boomers and the odd assortment of grizzled hippies.

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California's Hillman, Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby and Michael Clarke found each other during the changeling '60s to make a little music. The Byrds burst out of obscurity with their 1965 versions of Dylan's “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Pete Seeger's “Turn, Turn, Turn,” one of the decade's defining songs. The band credited with inventing folk-rock was called “America's answer to The Beatles.”

But turning points tend to reveal themselves only in hindsight. It was a fateful suggestion by Hillman in early 1968 that no one could know who would launch the “country rock” movement. It was a moment on the music timeline that every alt country fan today might want to pause and pay homage to.

As the Byrds mulled over replacements for the departing David Crosby, Chris brought up a guy he'd heard about, but only met once when they'd bumped into each other at a local Bank of America branch. That guy was beautiful wreck Gram Parsons. His influence would change the Byrds' direction and put a brand new sound on the table.

The group's groundbreaking “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album confused old fans and languished commercially, but its importance to birthing country-rock has grown exponentially over the years since its '68 release.

When Parsons and Hillman broke off to form The Flying Burrito Brothers with Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Chris Ethridge, their 1969 “Gilded Palace of Sin” sprang from the “Sweetheart” blueprint and fused rock with country, folk, gospel and soul. The cosmic cowboys had unknowingly created what many now consider one of the most influential works in rock history.


Local buffs will know the classic “Gilded Palace” contained two Dan Penn/Chips Moman numbers - “Do Right Woman” and “Dark End of the Street.” Penn, a Vernon, Ala., native, occupies a pretty high pedestal in this neck of the woods.

Those same buffs probably also know that Burrito bassist Chris Ethridge lives in Meridian. I first met Ethridge at Heritage Academy when the Hazard Lecture Series brought Dan Penn in to speak several years ago. Which brings me around to a tender moment in Tuscaloosa those few weeks back.

Chris Hillman and Herb Pederson - both youthful at 62 - stood alone on the huge stage, with mandolin and guitar. No gimmicks, backing band or fireworks. Two quietly monumental figures of the era - young guns alongside McGuinn, Crosby, J.D. Souther, Neil Young, Richie Furay, Stephen Stills, Dan Fogelberg, Timothy B. Schmit, Al Perkins and so many more.

Sister Bev, friend Angie Basson and I were suitably reverent, not to mention awed by the surreally beautiful theater ... an ingenious 1930's reproduction of a Moorish courtyard, complete with twinkling stars overhead.

“There's an old friend out there in the audience somewhere,” the soft-spoken Hillman said. And, pardon my paraphrasing, but the rest went something like this: “Chris Ethridge was a Flying Burrito Brother with me and drove up for the show tonight.”

With this, a gray head popped out with a grin from behind a curtain in the wing behind Hillman. Like us, I'm sure a few folks in the audience recognized Ethridge.

Hillman wasn't aware of it though and continued, “With Sneaky Pete Kleinow's death three weeks ago, Chris and I are the only Brothers left living. I send this out to the families of all those we've lost ... to Gram's family, to the Clark families, to Pete's.”

He and Pedersen then did a stripped bare and very moving “Sin City,” the seminal Hillman/Parsons track from “Gilded Palace.” I couldn't help thinking how climactic if Ethridge could have joined them. If Hillman had known he was just a few feet away, perhaps it would have happened.

After the concert - which also featured bluegrass wonders Blue Highway - Hillman graciously visited in the lobby and signed every proffered CD (he's recorded nearly 30 as best I can figure). He also took special care to sign the treasured LP's several devoted fans produced.

(Don't misunderstand. Hillman and Pedersen are active in their current careers, constantly recording new music and well-respected by new fans who have probably never heard of the Byrds and think burritos are only for eating.)

As I loitered and enjoyed watching, I couldn't help thinking ... here's a man who helped inspire everyone from the Eagles to Travis Tritt, Uncle Tupelo and the Rolling Stones' “Wild Horses” - who was a catalyst for Emmylou Harris' whole career. (He turned Gram Parsons on to the barely known singer in the early '70s. Gram subsequently invited Emmylou to sing harmonies on his first solo record; the rest becomes “Grievous Angel” history.)

I lazily thought of giddy days as an air-brained kid, dancing, falling in and out of “love,” and slumber-partying to the music of this personable gray-headed fellow over there. (This was after I'd gotten past, “Cripes, this is freakin' Chris Sweetheart-of-the-Rodeo/Gilded-Palace-of-Sin Hillman I'm talking to.”)

As I watched more folks near my age make their way over to say “thanks” in their own way, it was easy to remember that, to everything, there is indeed a season.

If you've gone all nostalgic with me - or just feel like beefing up your music IQ - you'll enjoy the comprehensive overview (and great photo) found at www.chrishillman.com/chris.htm.

And the next time you find yourself singing along to “Mr. Tambourine Man,” I humbly hope you'll recall this column.

Saturday night

You'll be bushed from your high night at Friday's Columbus Arts Council Roaring '20s Gala, so put your feet up Saturday evening and tune in to PBS at 5:30 p.m. for “Rockabilly Legends - They Called It Rockabilly Long Before They Called It Rock 'n' Roll.”

The 90-minute program chronicles the birth of rockabilly and rock 'n' roll from the cotton fields of Arkansas and Tennessee to the juke joints, honky tonks and rural churches of the South. Get reacquainted with Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash.

Tune in a bit earlier - at 5 p.m. - to catch “Elvis Lives: the 25th Anniversary Concert” recorded at The Pyramid in Memphis, Tenn., in 2002 on the 25th anniversary of Elvis' death. Please check your local listings to confirm air times.

Happy listening.

Jan Swoope can be e-mailed at MSJANS113@aol.com or reached at 327-7820.