Sunday morning coming down

I’ve written about Chris Hillman several times over the years. He has a new disc out with his long-time friend and musical partner Herb Pedersen (Bidin’ My Time, produced by Tom Petty and Herb). Chris and Herb came through town this past Thursday to play at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, where we saw them up close. I snapped the photo at right from our table.

Chris had a good word to say about everyone he mentioned Thursday night: Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, Reba McEntire, Tom Petty, and a few others come to mind. He spoke well of them, repeatedly. He spoke ill of no one. Chris and Herb have themselves been friends for well over 50 years. He had good words to say about Herb too. I wish he would write a memoir of his life in music. He’s had many musical lives and, for him personally, it hasn’t all been “clear sailin’,” to borrow the title of one of his solo albums. Johnny Rogan’s thick books on the Byrds have useful background on Chris’s life before the Byrds.

Chris and Herb’s two-hour set drew on their distinguished careers in music. I have loved Chris’s work and learned a lot about American popular music from following his career. This morning I want to post some videos illustrating his career and featuring a few of the songs they had in their set Thursday night. My thought is that interested readers might find something to enjoy or discover a new byway to explore.

Chris was a teenage bluegrass star on the Los Angeles music scene in the early ’60s. He made a name for himself with the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers (I just had to say it) in San Diego (his hometown). Before long Chris was fronting a group named the Hillmen in his honor. Among other things, the Hillmen set Bob Dylan to bluegrass. Unbelievably, the work of the Hillmen is now available on YouTube. In the video below, you can hear how good they were.

With the Dylan angle, the Hillmen were on to something. Chris moved from mandolin to bass to become one of the founding members of the Byrds together with Roger (then Jim) McGuinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark. The Byrds exploded overnight by adding Beatlesque harmonies to Dylan’s music backed by McGuinn’s 12-string guitar. Having returned to acoustic music, Chris has reinvented several Byrds songs in recent years. Here is an acoustic version of the Byrds’ epochal “Eight Miles High” with Chris, Herb, guitarist Larry Park, fiddler David Mansfield, and bassist Bill Bryson at Edwards Barn in 2009.

Hillman “was promoted to the front line” of the Byrds (as he puts it) and came into his own as a songwriter on such Byrds gems as Younger Than Yesterday (recorded in 1966 with the original group minus Gene Clark) and The Notorious Byrd Brothers (recorded in 1967, with only McGuinn and Hillman remaining from the original group by the time recording was completed). One of his songs from this period with the Byrds is “Have You Seen Her Face?” (video below). That’s Herb Pedersen on the harmony vocal.

Herb has played with several groups and has had an incredible career as a studio musician. At the show Thursday night they plucked “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune” from Herb’s work with the Dillards in 1968. The original of this one is below, I think, from the Dillards’ Wheatstraw Suite.

In 1968, Hillman recruited Gram Parsons to the Byrds for their pioneering album of country rock, Sweeheart of the Rodeo. Hillman turned in by far the sweetest vocal on Sweetheart, an utterly heartfelt reading of Merle Travis’s “I Am a Pilgrim.” I infer from his music that Chris is a Christian. What a beautiful song.

In mid-1968, Hillman and Parsons left the Byrds to found the Flying Burrito Brothers and pursue Parsons’ vision of the Cosmic American Music. Among the songs Chris wrote with Parsons for the Flying Burrito Brothers is “Sin City” (that would be Los Angeles, not Las Vegas). Here it is with Herb and Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals.

The Burritos disbanded after four albums and Hillman joined Stephen Stills in Manassas, a short-lived group 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. I should also mention the Souther, Hillman, Furay Band from this phase of his career.

For the past 30 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 (also of the DRB) and Tony Rice. The Desert Rose Band achieved substantial commercial success with country audiences in the ’80s. The video below catches Chris and Herb together with the DRB in an incandescent performance of “The Price I Pay” with John Jorgenson burning it up on lead guitar. Do they still make music like this?

Since the DRB broke up Hillman has continued to make great music for smaller audiences. I absolutely love each of the discs Chris has recorded with Herb including At Edwards Barn and, most recently, Bidin’ My Time. They are all full of good music and great musicians. At the show Thursday night Chris said that Tom Petty insisted they record the Everly Brothers’ “Walk Right Back” for Bidin’ My Time when he heard Chris and Herb warming up with it in the studio. I think this might bring it all back home.

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