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 their 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 Byrd Brothers (recorded in 1967, with only McGuinn and Hillman remaining from the original group by the time recording was completed).
In 1968, Hillman recruited 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.”
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 with country audiences in the ’80s.
YouTube provides a wealth of videos documenting nearly every stage of Hillman’s career. The video below catches Hillman and the DRB in an incandescent performance of “The Price I Pay” with Emmylou Harris doing her thing on the harmony vocal. The incredible John Jorgenson burns up the frets on lead guitar. Jerry Douglas sits in on dobro and I think Mark O’Connor is sawing away on fiddle in the background as well.
Since the DRB broke up Hillman has continued to make great music for smaller audiences. I absolutely love each of the discs Hillman has recorded with his buddy Herb Pedersen including, most recently, the (fantastic) At Edwards Barn. Please check it out. He talks about the disc and a few other items of interest in this interview. And don’t miss this Los Angeles Times profile of Hillman occasioned by the release, or Hillman’s own overview of his career in a lecture at the Library of Congress.
I was ecstatic when Hillman came to town in August 2012 for two glorious shows at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant with his old DRB pals including Jorgenson and Pedersen. In truth, the first night’s show was a little ragged, almost like a rehearsal for the second night’s show, which was perfect. I shot the video below of “Eight Miles High” at the first night’s show. (Message to Lowell Pickett: Please forgive me! I won’t do it again.) That’s Jorgenson on lead guitar on the left. The video doesn’t do justice to what we heard, but it gives you an idea.
Last year Chris returned to the Dakota with Herb Pedersen. We had the good fortune of sitting next to Chris’s wife and his wife’s Aunty Mary at the show. Chris found a musical way to pay tribute to Aunt Mary, and she was tickled.
Following the vagaries of Hillman’s career, I find that the most striking element is the consistent level of excellence he has maintained in his projects. It figures that it was Hillman who discovered 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.
Hillman was born December 4, 1944; he turned 71 yesterday. This year I wouldn’t want to miss our occasional salute to one of my favorites, still going strong.