Country Rock Royalty: A Q&A With Chris Hillman
As a founding member of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, songwriter Chris Hillman has become both a folk-rock legend, and an alt country hero.
With a resume that includes “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and the Burrito Brothers’ country rock blueprint, the Gilded Place of Sin LP, he has garnered such followers as Wilco, Elvis Costello and Dwight Yoakam.
Hillman, now 65 and living in his home state of California, continues to perform a hybrid of bluegrass, country and folk with his musical partner, Herb Pedersen. Hillman first started playing with Pedersen professionally in the mid 1980s in The Desert Rose Band, a tight country group that saw Billboard Chart success.
A new live album, Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen at Edwards Barn (Rounder Records) showcases Hillman and Pedersen’s stripped down approach to the classic covers and Hillman originals.
Hillman recently took some time to talk about his influences and accomplishments, hanging with The Beatles, and whether or not The Byrds could ever get back together again.
You and Herb recorded your new album at a place called Edwards Barn – what type of venue is it?
It is a really refurbished barn in Central California. It’s in this little town called Nipoma. It’s not a venue, per say – like a venue or a club or an on going deal. It’s a venue people lease out. For the last few years I have done a church benefit up there. Two or three years ago I said to Herb Pedersen, “If we get the opportunity, we should make a live album here.” This is the kind of place that you don’t need a sound system. Everything in our show is acoustic, so we could do a show and it’d sound great. It holds 200 or 300 people. It’s intimate, it’s nice, it adds a wonderful ambience to a show. At this point in my life, I’m not trying to get on a chart, or get a trophy. I’m lucky I can still play, that’s the way I look at it.
How would you describe the new record?
I didn’t want it to be a bluegrass record. Herb plays banjo and he’s a good player, but there is that stigma – if you have the banjo in the ensemble, it’s considered bluegrass. I didn’t want it to be bluegrass. We do a style you could call bluegrass. But I wanted it to be an acoustic record. Something where we could handle anything from The Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’ to a Louvin Brothers song.
How do you and Herb work together? Do you practice often?
Actually, we are lazy old men. I’ve known him since 1963. We would do sessions over the years. Then I worked with him in the Desert Rose Band, but we worked so close and know each other so well that when we do rehearse usually it’s to bring in a some new material. We pretty much know what we’re doing. Granted, yes, my memory goes and sometimes I’ll forget a lyric, sometimes I’ll take a cab ride on the mandolin, that is sort of a given. But Herb is such a great rhythm guitar player. He is always there on the down beat. He is such a great singer, we can anticipate each others moves vocally. In the spur of the moment, we have gotten up and just did the strangest songs that we hadn’t even rehearsed. I might turn around to him and say, ‘Let’s do “Bye, Bye Love’” – and we’ll do it. That’s how close of a singer he is to me. We’ve made a lot of records together, starting with Desert Rose in the mid-eighties.
How were the recent Desert Rose reunion shows?
They were unbelievably good. I think we are playing better now than in our heyday. Only because there is no pressure. We’re not on a career path of reforming a band at all – no way are we going to do that. With that in mind, we approach it with such reckless abandonment and we like each other. It’s the only band I’d ever consider getting back together with. It really is a lot of fun. It will probably be an annual, or every couple years deal. If there are some places to work and work for us, we’ll probably do some more shows. I don’t see doing a record, or anything like that. I’m not seeking that. I don’t want it to be, ‘Oh, they’re reforming.’ To me, that looks like a desperate move and I enjoy what I’m doing with Herb, just like John Jorgenson enjoys playing with his gypsy jazz quintet and the other guys have things they do. It is really for fun. Every show has been consistent. During our time, when we were on the radio in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the consistency level of that band, out of all the groups I was in, was in the 90 percentile. We were always on – we had the best singers and players. I still feel it is the best country band out there. I really do. I think it ranks up there with the original Buckaroos.
People often cite The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album as the first country rock record – do you agree with that statement?
Actually, if you listen to “Younger than Yesterday” there are two songs on there that I think are the very first explorations into melding the two forms. One was “Time Between” – where I brought in Clarence White to play telecaster on that – an incredible solo. That is one of Dwight’s favorite songs – he’ll give you two hours on that. The other one is “Girl With No Name.” That was an album before Sweetheart. Gram was a necessary ally. At that point Roger and I were basically spinning our wheels. We’re going, ‘OK, it’s not over, let’s do something interesting.’ For us to go to Nashville and play country stuff was not a big stretch. Before The Byrds, Roger (McGuinn) had started out playing 12-string and banjo. I came out of playing hardcore traditional bluegrass as a mandolin player. It wasn’t a big stretch. It wasn’t like the group Yes, or one of those big groups from the ‘70s who decided to put out a country album (laughs). It was an interesting record. Gram did bring two great songs to the album. “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years From Now” are two of the best songs he ever wrote.
How did you first get into the Buck Owens and the Bakersfield sound?
The first time I heard the first Buck Owens album on Capitol I was in high school, in 1960 or ’61. The man who was the head custodian at our high school sang country music on the weekends. He became my mentor. He taught me a lot of stuff. I’d go over to his house and he’d show me records and stuff. Buck Owens was very influential to me. Even when I was playing bluegrass with the Gosdin Brothers. This was before Merle Haggard was out. Buck was so innovative. He was doing something so different than what was coming out of Nashville. It was very snappy and up tempo – it was dance music. He worked in those clubs in Bakersfield and people would want to come in and dance. Dwight said it, and I agree with him – without Buck there wouldn’t have been a lot of stuff that happened in the West Coast in rock and roll.
How would you describe the sound you and Herb are going for?
I would say it’s country, bluegrass, a little folk. When we play a show I cover 45 years of music, but I only pick songs I feel lend themselves to what we’re doing. I love working in that intimate setting of just two people singing with a mandolin and a guitar – sometimes I play guitar so there’ll be two guitars. I think it really puts an emphasis on the lyric. When we do “Eight Miles High” we’re not trying to compete with The Byrds at all, we are taking this beautiful song with such a beautiful lyric to it and making it more accessible to the audience. It’s a joy to do it, but it’s a challenge. There is not a wall of sound behind me. That’s what I like to do right now. I also like to drop in anecdotes about the songs – about how I wrote, or how someone else wrote it – what was the influence and where did it come from.
How was it working with Gene Clark in The Byrds? He was a great songwriter.
He was a great guy. When I met him he came out of a really small town in Kansas. He was a sweet guy, but tragic because alcohol and other things got the better of him. He had a weak point there, but what a talented man. He was by far the best songwriter in The Byrds at one point, and also an incredibly gifted singer, but as time went on he lived longer than I thought he would. He had a prolific amount of work and writing that he did. He was a very visible and viable presence on stage.
How would you compare Gene Clark to Gram Parsons?
Gram also had the talent when he started, but he didn’t measure up to Gene at all as far as work ethic and all that. It got the better of both those guys. Gram came up with some great songs but I’ll stand by this, and don’t take this wrong, I think some of the best songs Gram ever did were the ones we wrote together. Those are the ones that have been covered by people – like ‘Sin City’ and ‘Devil in Disguise.’ That first Burrito album, that is the alternative country record. That started it all. We didn’t make any money but we left a legacy – so did The Byrds. The ultimate compliment is not a check or a fat bank account, it’s the acclamation from the generations coming behind you. Just as I learned from the ones who went before me, like Buck Owens and Bill Monroe.
What do you remember about playing The Trip in England back in 1965? That was your first tour in the UK.
We were so tired. We shouldn’t have even went over at that point, but that is all hindsight. We’d been working here (in the United States) doing our Midwestern tour. We did a lot of television – Top of Pops and all that stuff and played all over the UK. It was a tough run. We had some really hard nights. You have to remember I was 19 years old and very shy, I wasn’t assertive but I watched and absorbed things. I think meeting the Beatles and hanging out with them on a very intimate level was a lot of fun. They loved us, we were their favorite band for a year. And of course George Harrison wrote ‘If I Needed Someone’ because he was so taken by our rendition of ‘The Bells of Rhymney,’ which is an old Welsh coal mining song. They were just going, ‘Oh, who are these guys?’ They recognized David Crosby’s beautiful voice, Roger and Gene’s talent as song writers. It worked, all of it worked. It was a tough tour but we did not come home dragging our tails between our legs – we did not. We came back and we got right back on the charts with ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ and went on for awhile longer. I think the greatest accomplishment for The Byrds as a band was going from covering Bob Dylan songs to being able to create a piece of music like ‘Eight Miles High.’ The growth of the band as musicians in one year was phenomenal.
Where did you guys hang out with The Beatles?
At somebody’s house, maybe? I really can’t remember. I remember David and I coming out of a gig and McCartney had watched us and he gave us a ride in his Maserati or something (laughs). It was quite thrilling. It was so alive in 1965. There was a lot of energy in the air. The sixties were great up until about 1968, then it got a little edgy. 1969 was the bad year, it really did end it all. Altamont and drugs just destroyed it, but the early years were a great experience. I think Derek Taylor, our press agent, pushed for that trip to England. Derek had worked with the Beatles and I think he wanted to come back and show Brian Epstein what he’d accomplished on his own.
It was like we were living the movie ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’ I had the best possible time in the music business when I got into it in 1963, as did most of my peers. I never thought I’d make a living doing this. I always thought I’d go back to college – it never worked that way. I had a great time. If it stops tomorrow I’d still say I had a great ride and lived to tell about it. I worked with wonderful people, I have no animosity toward anyone I ever worked with. I will always remember the good parts, not the bad parts.
Do you foresee a Byrds reunion?
I don’t think there will ever be one. I think we’ve played our last show at this benefit in the mid nineties. It was held in Sana Monica for a fellow named Fred Walecki who has this store Westwood Music. We played two songs that night. Everyone in town turned out to raise money for him.
Why didn’t you take the lead on any vocals until The Byrds’ Younger than Yesterday album?
I wasn’t ready yet, I didn’t have the confidence. I still didn’t learn how to sing for another 10 years. They were great singers, they were more seasoned , they had been around and had experience. I was a player. I could have done it anytime I wanted to from the inception of The Byrds. I could have been in there singing lead, but I really wasn’t ready yet.
What did the other Byrds think of your country-flavored songs when you brought them to the studio for Younger Than Yesterday?
Roger said ten years later, ‘Chris was a late bloomer. But when he bloomed, he blossomed.’ That is an incredibly great compliment to me, because when I brought in those songs Roger was blown away. I remember when I brought “Have You Seen Her Face” in and Roger said to David, ‘You better hear what Chris just wrote. It’s unbelievable.’ You couldn’t ask for a better compliment. That tells you they were never holding me back, I was holding myself back by being a little unsure. I was confident in my playing, I just needed a little more time to develop my singing confidence.
David was such a good harmony singer. He made “Time Between” sound great. He made “Have You Seen Her Face” sound really good. His part was so well crafted, he came in and just found that part. It is so beautiful the way he weaves in and out of the lead vocal. He was always a really gifted singer and he still sounds great.
Your new record features an assortment of songs spanning your entire career, how did you choose which ones you wanted to use?
I just wanted to record the show we usually do, and that’s pretty much what we usually do. We also added two new songs I had written. It touches on some of those songs from the old days, but also it’s about where those songs came from. In that live album you’ll hear a Louvin Brothers duet, or a gospel song, and that’s where it all came from. My participation came from that well. I came into all those bands – be it the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, even Manassas – my contribution was still coming from the old foundation of country and bluegrass yet I fit it into what Stephen was doing. Stephen’s background was more folk than rock and roll – Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds and Lovin’ Spoonful were the three bands that were not rock and roll bands when they started – they came out of folk music. Those are the only three bands I can name right now that came into rock and roll and developed their own unique sound.