Chris Hillman was a teenage bluegrass star on the Los Angeles music scene in the early ’60s. Within a few years he had moved from mandolin to bass and become one of the founding members of the Byrds together with Roger (then Jim) McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark. The Byrds brought McGuinn’s jangly 12-string guitar and brilliant Beatles harmonies to the music of Bob Dylan, turning both themselves and Dylan into superstars in 1965.
By 1967 only McGuinn and Hillman remained from the original Byrds lineup and Hillman came into his own as a songwriter on such Byrds gems as “Younger Than Yesterday” and “The Notorious Byrds Brothers.”
In 1968, Hillman brought Gram Parsons into the Byrds for their pioneering album of country rock, “Sweeheart of the Rodeo.” In my opinion, Hillman turned in by far the sweetest vocal on “Sweetheart,” an utterly heartfelt reading of Merle Travis’s “I Am a Pilgrim.” I won’t say that if everyone heard Hillman singing it the world would be changed for the better — but I will say that it should be.
In mid-1968, Parsons and Hillman left the Byrds to found the Flying Burrito Brothers and pursue Parsons’ vision of Cosmic American Music. The Burritos disbanded after four albums and Hillman joined Stephen Stills in Manassas, in which he was responsible for several of the highlights on the group’s outstanding debut album.
Through the rest of the ’70s Hillman fronted his own band while occasionally reuniting with subsets of his former Byrds mates. For the past 25 years, he has more or less returned to his bluegrass and country roots, first with the Desert Rose Band and later in projects with Herb Pedersen (also of the DRB) and Tony Rice. The photo above dates from Chris’s DRB work in 1987. The Desert Rose Band achieved substantial commercial success, but since the DRB Hillman has continued to make great music for a smaller audience. I love the discs that reflect his most recent work.
Following the vagaries of Hillman’s career, I find that the single most striking element is the consistent authenticity he has brought to the projects on which he has worked. It figures that it was Hillman who found the unknown Emmylou Harris in a DC-area club and dragged Parsons to see her, an encounter with echoes that can still be heard if not felt.
The sources do not agree on the year in which Hillman was born, variously citing 1942, ’43 and ’44, but they agree that the date was December 4 — a great day to catch up with this vital artist.
UPDATE: For a personal glimpse of Chris, see “Happy birthday, Chris Hillman” at This Isn’t Writing, It’s Typing.
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