Sunday morning coming down

I’ve written about Chris Hillman several times over the years. In 2017 he released a new disc with his long-time friend and musical partner Herb Pedersen (Bidin’ My Time, produced by the late Tom Petty and Herb). In April 2018 Chris and Herb came through town 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 during the show: 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 pre-Byrds flight.

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 when they last came through town. Drawing on what I wrote two years ago for yet one more extended lockdown version of this series, I hope 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 in San Diego (his hometown). Before long Chris was fronting a group named the Hillmen in his honor. Unbelievably, the work of the Hillmen is now available on YouTube. In the video below, you can hear how good they were.

Among other things, the Hillmen set Bob Dylan to bluegrass. The Hillmen covered Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In.”

With the Dylan angle, the Hillmen were on to something. Asembling the Byrds, Roger McGuinn had asked Hillman if he played bass. He didn’t, but he said he did and quickly learned how. Chris moved from mandolin to bass to become one of the founding members of the Byrds together with McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, and Michael Clarke. The Byrds exploded overnight with “Mr. Tambourine Man” 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’ “Eight Miles High” with Chris, Herb, guitarist Larry Park, fiddler David Mansfield, and the late 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?” This is what it sounded like with the Byrds.

Here it is live in acoustic form with Herb Pedersen on the harmony vocal.

Herb has played with several groups and has had an incredible career as a studio musician. He must appear one way or another on more than a thousand recordings. At their 2018 Dakota show Chris and Herb plucked “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune” from Herb’s work with the Dillards in 1968. The original of this one is from the Dillards’ Wheatstraw Suite, I think.

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.” There is not a trace of irony in the vocal. What a beautiful song. I infer from his music that Chris is a Christian.

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 debut album. One of them was “It Doesn’t Matter,” written by Chris with Stephen Stills and Rick Roberts.

Another Manassas highlight was “Both of Us (Bound to Lose),” written by Chris with Stills. They trade off on the lead vocal. Up to the instrumental break that they close out with it sounds like a lost Byrds song to me.

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. Below is “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” from Morning Sky (1982), one of his best solo albums. The song was a huge hit for its writer, Danny O’Keefe. Before going into music himself, by the way, O’Keefe had gotten into the scene around the University of Minnesota when he found Dave Ray and Tony Glover “tearing it apart in a small coffee house off campus.”

Over the past 35 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?

Chris brought an acoustic version of the DRB to the Dakota for two nights in 2012. I had the great good fortune to attend both nights and found one highlight was their impromptu performance of the DRB’s “Twilight Is Gone” on night two. Herb played dobro and contributed to the beautiful three-part harmony on this 1991 recording.

Since the DRB broke up Hillman has continued to make great music for smaller audiences. He has released a few notable solo recordings on Sugar Hill Records. Chris wrote most of the songs on Like a Hurricane (1998). This is the old Searchers hit “When You Walk in the Room,” written by Jackie DeShannon. You can’t miss the echo of the Byrds on the guitar work. The Byrds had covered Jackie’s “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe” on their debut album.

Chris recorded two discs with guitar virtuoso Tony Rice, his brother Larry Rice, and Herb Pedersen. Below is their version of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” from Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen (1999).

I love each of the discs Chris has recorded with Herb Pedersen. They include Bakerfield Bound (1996), The Other Side (2005), At Edwards Barn (2010) and, most recently, Bidin’ My Time (2017). Each one is full of good music played by great musicians. Just to give you some idea, here is “Close Up the Honky Tonks” from Bakersfield Bound.

Here is “The Water Is Wide” from The Other Side. That’s Sally Van Meter on dobro and Jennifer Warnes on the harmony vocal. It doesn’t get much better than this.

At the Dakota in 2018 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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