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.
Hillman 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 Byrds Brothers” (recorded in 1967, with only McGuinn and Hillman remaining from the original group by the time recording was completed).
In 1968, Hillman brought Gram Parsons into 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 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 the Cosmic American Music. 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 its 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 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 he has recorded with Pedersen including, most recently, this year’s (fantastic) “At Edwards Barn.” He talks about the disc and a few other items of interest in this interview.
YouTube provides a wealth of videos from nearly all the stages of Hillman’s career. The video above features Hillman performing a loving version of the “The Water is Wide” with his buddy Herb Pedersen and Ed Gerhard (who is on the Weissenborn lap steel guitar) at the Breedlove Guitar Festival in Oregon last year.
Following the vagaries of Hillman’s career, I find the single most striking element is the consistent authenticity he has brought to his projects. It figures that it was Hillman who found the unknown Emmylou Harris in a DC-area club some 40 years ago and dragged Parsons to see her, an encounter whose echoes can still be heard in music that matters.
The sources do not entirely 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: I’ve seen different years given for Hillman’s birth over the years, but a reader assures me that his birth registration says it was 1944, as does Johnny Rogan’s The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited. And don’t miss this excellent Los Angeles Times profile of HIllman occasioned by his new release.
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