Musician Chris Hillman was born on December 4, 1944. Yesterday he turned 65. We wish him a belated happy birthday. Hillman was a teenage bluegrass star on the Los Angeles music scene in the early ’60s. He moved to bass when he was recruited to help form the Byrds together with Roger (then Jim) McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark. The Byrds brought McGuinn’s jangly 12-string guitar and brilliant harmony singing 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. 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 country rock album “Sweeheart of the Rodeo.” Hillman turned in by far the sweetest vocal on “Sweetheart,” a heartfelt reading of Merle Travis’s “I Am a Pilgrim.”
Later that year 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 Manassas Hillman was responsible for several of the highlights on the group’s debut album.
Through the rest of the ’70s Hillman variously fronted his own band, joined up with J.D. Souther and Richie Furay in Souther-Hillman-Furay and occasionally reunited with subsets of his former Byrds colleagues. Over 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 Desert Rose Band achieved substantial commercial success, but since the DRB Hillman has continued to make great music for a smaller audience.
Following the vagaries of Hillman’s career, I find that the single most striking element is the consistent excellence he has brought to the projects on which he has worked. It figures that it was Hillman who discovered the unknown Emmylou Harris in a DC-area club and urged Parsons to join forces with her, an encounter that continues to resonate in the music. Byrds historian Johnny Rogan quotes Hillman avowing that “I had to damn near break [Parsons’] arm to get him to call her.” In the video above, Emmylou repays the favor, joining in with Hillman and DRB as well as few other guest artists on the DRB’s “The Price I Pay.”
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