“Leave the fantasy behind and cross the line into reality”: a Byrd man’s timeless flight — as picked, parsed, purviewed and prospected by our contributing editor and resident Americana expert.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
It’s not a difficult case to make by any means. In fact, all it takes is to sample just one among the many bands that Chris Hillman has been affiliated with — the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Souther Hillman Furay Band, McGuinn Clark and Hillman, Stephen Stills’ Manassas, and the band that he’s been associated with on and off over the past 25 years of so, the Desert Rose Band — to understand Hillman’s essential role in the evolution, and some might say creation as well, of Americana.
Despite a humble start as a teenager playing mandolin in a short succession of southern California bluegrass bands — the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and the Hillmen in particular — Hillman’s stock rose rapidly when he joined the Byrds, where he became a prime mover in the band’s musical development. An increasingly prolific songwriter (he helped pen the classic “So You Want To Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”), he and later recruit Gram Parsons eventually spun off into the Flying Burrito Brothers, continuing the country crossover the Byrds had begun with Sweetheart of the Rodeo, an album that’s now considered pivotal in the crossover from rock to country.
As Hillman approaches his 70th birthday this coming December, he remains as passionate as ever about making music. At the same time, he’s also deeply committed to his ideals, especially those having to do with his Christian faith and his politics, both of which tend to distance him from those with whom he came of age in the rebellious ‘60s and ‘70s.
When Blurt caught up with him prior to a new run of shows with a stripped down version of the Desert Rose Band — an acoustic quartet consisting of Hillman, guitarists John Jorgenson and Herb Pedersen, and bassist Bill Brysin — he was gracious, friendly, forthright and all too willing to share his memories and reflections on a life well lived.
BLURT: You’ve had such an amazing career and been a part of so many amazing bands… it’s hard to know where to start here.
CHRIS HILLMAN: You’re very kind. I’ll tell you something. I’ve always loved music, but I didn’t really seek out to be a rock star. I was shy, so I didn’t really set out to do that. I don’t know if I was just lucky – I wasn’t the greatest writer or player or singer – but I had a great time. I think I survived by not seeking out that stardom. It came to me later. I had some great groups. I don’t look back in any negative way. I really don’t do that in my life. I got to do what I was supposed to do. Maybe I could have done it better (laughs), but I’m still playing and that’s a joy. It’s a blessing, I gotta tell you. As long as I can still sing and play, and somebody wants to hear me, I’m good. That’s a good thing. I worked with some wonderful people.
What is state of the Desert Rose Band these days? That band has been around in some shape or form around 25 years, correct?
It’s been dormant for awhile, but it rises now and then. Despite the fact I just gave you that whole rap about not wanting to play with drums and to plug in again, there is one show coming up in July in Norway, and the band is going over as the six piece original Desert Rose Band. So the point is that occasionally we will get together. And why? Well, we parted company when we finally put it out to pasture, but we remained friends. When we were playing together in the ‘80s, we never had any baggage, not baggage in the sense of giving into areas that were bad — drug abuse for example — or this or that. It was a consistent professional situation. Our consistency was 90 percent on stage, and after all these years, I’m in a band that I’m basically heading up, writing the songs and singing lead. But besides that, I’m in a band that’s really professional, that knows how to go out there and do a show, and we remained very good friends.
So that’s a good thing. So we go out as an acoustic quartet or trio, and then once in awhile, we do the entire band, as with the Norwegian gig. And this is the funny thing — the Norwegians love the Desert Rose Band. We’re like the Beatles over there. I don’t know why that is or what that’s all about, but they go absolutely insane, and it’s mostly guys t hat are going crazy. I don’t know what that’s all about either… They’re so into that kind of country music that they’ll even get rhinestone jackets made and wear them to the show. It’s like a Grateful Dead thing over there. I don’t know we’ll play again after this July. I don’t know. It’s just a day to day thing and we’ll have to see what happens. (Below: the Desert Rose Band)
So do you have any plans to do any recording?
Actually, tomorrow I’m going into the studio with Steve Hill, my writing partner for twenty years, and I’m going to lay down all these new songs I’ve accumulated. I was saying to him the other day, we have all these new songs. We’ve got about fourteen songs that haven’t been recorded, and a few outside things, and we’ve got to lay them down acoustically. Let’s go see what we’ve got. And maybe it will lead to another record. One last hurrah. I would like to do another record, but I don’t know. The way the business is, I probably would do it myself. I know Roger McGuinn does that and maybe he could teach me how to do it. But it hasn’t worked out where he sells them to Amazon and so on. That’s a long answer to your question, but, yes, I would love to put out another record and I’m now inching towards that.
If you were to release a new album, would it be a solo album?
It would be a solo album, but I would incorporate it so I could bring in all my old friends to work on it. The way the technology is today with Pro-tools, if I wanted Emmylou Harris to be on my album, all I’d have to do is send it down to her in Nashville. If I wanted McGuinn’s 12 string, all I’d have to do is to send it to him. In fact, Roger and I had written a song at the end of McGuinn Clark and Hillman in the late ‘70s and we did it one time on stage. One time in Long Island, and I listened to this song the other day and it sounds like a 1966 Byrds song, and so I really want to tackle that. That just might negate everything I just said to you. (laughs) I’d want drums and I’d put the bass on it and send it to Roger to put the 12 string on it. It’s not going to be the Byrds, but it just has that feel to it.
And if you wanted to do some recording with Roger – and it sounds like you have a good relationship there – if you did do something, inevitably people would say, “It looks like the Byrds are getting back together.” So maybe there would be a Crosby factor?
Well, that won’t happen. That just will not happen, at least not as a planned out thing. Roger’s not interested in having that happen. I don’t know why, but I respect it. That’s okay.
I read a recent article in which Crosby said McGuinn is the sticking point as far as any reunion is concerned.
He is. I get along with both of them. My communication with Roger is via email. Crosby I speak to because he’s about fifty miles away from me. I don’t really have any issues with anyone who’s still around. What’s the point?
You say it will never happen, but never say never, right? As long as you guys are still around, who knows what might happen?
You’re right. There’s been offers that would astound you for us to get back together, but it’s not going to happen. And I’m okay with that. I respect Roger and he really loves what he’s doing now. We’re all getting older. We’re all lucky that we’re still working. David just made a really good album. He’s singing great and it’s different, and he’s coming up with some really interesting stuff that’s out of left field. And that’s refreshing.
How about a Hillman-Crosby album? I’m just tossing this out there now.
I think I’d rather do a Hillman album and have friends guest on it. That’s the best way to approach it. (laughs)
Actually, we could suggest all kinds of combinations given all your past affiliations. Personally, we loved the Souther Hillman Furay Band.
We actually sat down together not long ago, and I don’t who it was – maybe Richie’s manager – suggested we put it back together and go out on the road together. Playing, not recording, but maybe a short tour opening for someone else perhaps. And I said, we need to listen to those songs again. I don’t know if I like them, and I was being honest. I love everybody’s individual songs, but I don’t know if I liked what we did together. So I don’t know how we would approach that. It never got off the ground. Once again, both of those guys are incredible musicians. Richie is one of the great entertainers and Souther is one of the better songwriters. I just worked on something of his last Friday. This gal I’m working with is cutting “Prisoner in Disguise,” which Linda Ronstadt recorded several years ago, and it’s a great song. But as a group we never got off the ground. But I hear that from people, that love for Souther Hillman Furay, I just don’t hear it myself. It had some moments. Let me put it that way. But I don’t think any one of us ever do any of those songs in our individual sets.
The first album was amazing, a classic. The second album, maybe not so much. It’s just a shame though that those tunes from the first record won’t ever be heard live.
Well, yeah, but to quote you, never say never. Maybe some kids in England will do them. You never know.
And of course there was Manassas, your band with Stephen Stills. Any talk about reconvening that ensemble?
Nah. They put out an album of outtakes called Pieces, and I tried to talk Stephen into re-cutting some of those songs or cutting some new songs as a marketing tool to bring more attention to it. But he didn’t want to do that. So, okay. To me, that album is okay, but it sounds more like a rehearsal. Whatever. You gotta make something look really great to make it enjoyable. You can’t put a gun to someone’s head and say, let’s get the Byrds back together. It’s like you can’t march some poor guy on drugs into rehab at gunpoint. If they’re going to clean up, it’s got to be their idea. They have to come up with some kind if epiphany where they think, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” I’m happy doing what I’m doing, to be honest with you. There’s not much more I really want. Like I said earlier in the conversation, I’m totally blessed to be able to do what I do. I would like to do another album.
You’ve left an incredible legacy you left in your wake… that must be incredibly gratifying.
Well, I’m — excuse the corny cliché — I’m really blessed. I had a great job, just to be able to do what I wanted. I got to do what I love and I survived. I made stupid mistakes like everybody else, but I never went over the line of decency. If I had, I wouldn’t be talking to you now. It was really great. If everything stopped tomorrow, I’d have had a wonderful time. I’d say, thank you very much. I got to do what I love. I don’t have animosity towards anyone. No, I’m not some perfect being that you’re talking to. I still have areas where I try to get better all the time. Bucket lists? There’s some stuff I’d like to do, but it’s narrowing. I’d like my kids to be successful. I’ll tell you one thing, and this is kind of left field, but it ties everything in. Everything that my generation in the ‘60s that we were going on about — f’ing on traditional values — well boy, were we ever wrong. Everything that we were stepping on were the things that held civilization intact for thousands of years. And we’re reaping the benefits of it now. I’m not at all like my peers. I’m very conservative. I’m not a fan of the current administration at all. I’m more Libertarian if anything. That lends itself to some interesting conversations with David Crosby.
(Laughs) I say, let’s put it this way, Crosby, I say, Ted Nugent and I are on the same page. He and I are one side of the fence and all the other guys are over there. Anyway, it’s just a joke.
There are certain people you’ve known who sadly aren’t with us anymore. People like Gene Clark, like Gram Parsons. Are they still present in your mind and consciousness? How often do they enter your thoughts? Are they still present in any way to you?
I think of them all the time. I think of them in a good light. I never think of them with anything bad. I had two great years with Parsons when we hired him in the Byrds. There was about six months with him there.
And then you went on to play with him in the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Yes I did, and the first year was really good. Then we lost him. We lost him to excess and I had to part company with him. I just remember the good times. He was funny. He was bright, He was great to write songs with. He had a great take on things. And Gene was a great guy. Even after the Byrds, I would work on some of his projects. And that was sort of interesting. He would call me, and I would come in and play on his records. I liked the guy. I always respected him, even when I didn’t like him. I also miss Mike Clarke, the drummer.
Thanks to the grace of God, I always think of the good old days. I don’t believe in holding a grudge or this or that. It’s not worth it. In the early days, when we were just getting together, Mike Clark and Gene and I lived together. Gene would write four or five songs a week and we would use maybe three out of five. That’s how prolific he was. So we’d sort of work them up and then we’d share them with David and Roger. Gram gets a little more attention now than Gene, but it doesn’t really matter. They both died tragically. And that sort of enhances the legend. It’s like Jim Morrison. I wasn’t a Doors fan, but they did some good songs. They really did. (chuckles)
Last week I had lunch with Peter Noone and he’s a great guy. I didn’t really know him but I ran into him — he lives up in Santa Barbara — and I said, hey, let’s have lunch. I had to go up there and do something so I suggested we have lunch, and he said, okay. We always say that to people — let’s have lunch together — but this time we did it. He’s been married 47 years. And he looked at me at lunch and he said, “I’m an entertainer and you’re a musician.” And I said, “Whatever. There’s a couple of your songs I love — ‘There’s a Kind of Hush” and ‘Something Tells Me I’m Into Something Good.’” Those are phenomenal songs. I don’t know why I got off on that. Oh yeah, I was talking about the Doors. The Doors weren’t my favorite band, but I liked a couple of their songs. Jim Morrison made some interesting choices. At times we would be on a show with the Doors, and he would be so out of it. We were choir boys compared to him, and nobody wanted to be around him because he was so gone. It’s too bad.
You likely saw the best and the worst of those people.
I don’t know why I’m talking about all this, but I guess the point is, we blow these people up to some mythical proportions, whether it’s a musician or an actor. Look at Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Look at how much press he got. What a great actor!
So you say, wait a minute, all these guys we just talked about — Gram, Gene and Morrison — they’re all good, They were all gifted and talented. What is that? Likewise, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He wasn’t just some hack actor. He was a really, really good actor. Very good at his craft. I could get into a basic spiritual take on it all. I do believe this, that that place that you get when you find that success. Everything you do, it’s almost like the devil opens this door and says, “Great, come on in. I got more stuff to show you,”
It’s very rare that someone that talented maintains that stability. What helped me was I figured out when to leave the fantasy behind and cross the line into reality.