Chris Hillman finds Hillbilly Heaven
November 10, 2006
It was 1968 a radical time in America. Chris Hillman, who was the bassist for the Byrds in the year of the Robert Kennedy assassination and riots from Newark to Watts, recalls 1968 as the most turbulent year in recent history. There was campus unrest, a stupid war, said Hillman, by phone from his home in Ventura, Calif. For much of young America, the response was to roadtrip to California, grow your hair and crank up the stereo on such new sounds as Hendrix, the Doors and the Grateful Dead. So the move that Hillman made, along with his fellow Byrd Roger McGuinn, could be considered radical in the extreme. Absolutely. All of a sudden, were going to Nashville, cutting our hair, and almost taking a step to the right, said Hillman. The result of those maneuvers was the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, considered the first notable example of country-rock music, and the template for the country-rock explosion that took hold in the early 70s. It was not the first time Hillman had been involved in breaking new musical ground. Some four years earlier, a music producer named Jim Dickson had invited Hillman to a jam session featuring three young musicians: Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby. Hillman fell in love with the trios harmony vocals, and accepted the invitation to be the bassist in the band, then known as the Beefeaters. (Never mind that Hillman, a mandolinist, had never played the electric bass.) In 1965, the group, renamed the Byrds, put a new spin on Mr. Tambourine Man, a few other Dylan tunes, and their own songs, and had invented the genre of folk-rock.
That first Byrds album, titled Mr. Tambourine Man, and the ones that followed including Turn! Turn! Turn! Fifth Dimension and The Notorious Byrd Brothers were less of a calculated revolution than the one that would follow in 1968. Hillman and his mates were unfamiliar with electric music, but were swept up by the sound and popularity of the Beatles. We didnt know how to play rock n roll. We were folk guys, said Hillman. We plugged in together for the first time. There was nobody like it, musically.At 61, Hillmans days of experimenting with radical new ideas have long passed. Even his taste for following the country-rock artists who have followed in the footsteps of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, the standout country-rock outfit he formed with ex-Byrd Gram Parsons is minimal. As far as country-rock bands like Wilco I dont know what they do, said Hillman. Sad to say. I go for the older stuff.”These days, Hillman listens mostly to satellite radio, where he maintains a firm hand on what finds its way to his ears: country throwbacks like Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson the only people doing what I consider country music nowadays, says Hillman old folk channels like Willie Nelsons Willies Place, some old rock n roll. Only on a strong recommendation did he even listen to Dylans new Modern Times CD. It was, he said, the first new Dylan album hes heard in years. Thats the way Hillman plays it these days as well. His latest album, The Other Side, from 2005, opens with a lovely, all- acoustic version of Eight Miles High (a song that represented yet another inventive Byrds flight, into the realm of psychedelic rock). That is about as forward-looking as Hillman gets on the album; the rest of The Other Side is old-timey music, much of it with a gospel message. Hillman returns to his early instruments, mandolin and acoustic guitar. I wanted to pattern it after the old Baptist, gospel hymns of the 30s and 40s, said Hillman. And I wanted to make something soothing for people my age, that they could listen to and be comforted by. Even if they dont buy into the lyrical angle. Along with the taste for older sounds and styles, Hillman has some critical things to say about modern trends in music. With the advent of MTV, VH1, videos as a marketing tool, it narrowed things down, he said. Thirty years ago, you listened to a song and made the imagery in your head. The song wasnt given to you whole. Now, youve stripped away the imagination. For all this, Hillman doesnt come off as a crusty reactionary. His preferences and put-downs dont come off as rants; Hillman is pleasant and matter-of-fact in making his observations. He even has the occasional praise for the music industry; of There Is a Season, a recent box set of the Byrds music, he says it is one of the most beautiful things Ive seen a record company do. The Other Side doesnt sound so much like a throwback as someone putting his own stamp on an old style. This is probably because Hillman has spent a lot of time looking backward rather than forward, and is comfortable with it. The fact that he had a hand in creating such radical inventions as country-rock and folk-rock seem the more anomalous points in his life, and it is worth noting that Hillman tended to be responsible for the country and folk aspects of the Byrds sounds, more than the rock part. Hillman grew up in Rancho Santa Fe, then a rural part of San Diego County, with a father who loved music. The elder Hillman, however, listened to Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald, and his sons listening habits baffled him. My father thought I wasnt his child. Because I loved that hillbilly music, said Hillman. The love of music may have come from his father, but the taste came from his older sister Susan, who returned from the University of Colorado in 1959 with a bunch of folk albums. Instantly Hillman developed a fondness for the rustic. Right then, it was the beginning of the folk boom, he said. I spent three minutes with the Kingston Trio; they were too polished for me. But I listened to real hard-core traditional country and bluegrass. She got me into Pete Seeger, the New Lost City Ramblers, Flatt & Scruggs. I said there was something about it I loved. Hillman got a guitar, then a mandolin, and entered San Diegos folk scene as a member of the bluegrass group, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers (a group which included future Eagle Bernie Leadon). His education continued in the Golden State Boys, a band that had formed in Kentucky before relocating to Southern California. This was my window on authenticity, said Hillman. When Hillman met up with the members of the Beefeaters, in 1964, it was the singing of McGuinn, Clark and Crosby not their taste that drew him in. They were more into the Kingston Trio, he said. Id rather hear Roscoe Holcomb, who played this screeching mandolin stuff. But the idea of blending folk and Beatles-style rock the Byrds name was inspired by the Beatles combined with those great voices made for memorable music. Hillman may not listen to much of todays country rock, but he listened to enough of it through the years to see the enormous impact made by the later-era Byrds, when country-music lover Gram Parsons was in the spotlight. The greatest part of the Byrds, they left such a blueprint for other acts, he said. Theres a lot of country bands lets call them alt-country they do draw on the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers. I do hear an element of the Byrds in a lot of stuff. Hillman praises some of that stuff (Tom Petty, he says, did the Byrds better than the Byrds); some he finds annoying (John Mellencamps This Is Our Country, being used in a ubiquitous car commercial). Total it up, and Hillman has spent far more time making traditional-leaning music than breaking new ground. Following the Flying Burrito Brothers, he joined Stephen Stills to record the highly regarded Manassas album. Though Manassas combined folk, country and rock, by then, in 1972, that was part of the mainstream. Hillman made more country-rock in the mid-70s project Souther-Hillman-Furay, then turned toward hard- core country in the Desert Rose Band, which had a string of hits in the 80s. The Desert Rose Band reunited Hillman with Herb Pedersen, with whom he had played in the Pine Valley Boys, in the early 60s. The two have remained close associates, recording a series of albums together, and forming Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen, with brothers Tony and Larry Rice. Pedersen was a key player on The Other Side, and will accompany Hillman tomorrow night at the Wheeler Opera House. The concert with guitarist Larry Park rounding out the trio will feature material ranging from old bluegrass to Byrds chestnuts to country- oriented songs. But as with most everything Hillman has done the last decade, it will be all acoustic, with Hillman on guitar and mandolin. Hearing the former Byrd play music linked to early 20th- century Appalachia, not 60s California, will take some by surprise. To Hillman, it is the natural thing. I only look at it now as 20 percent of my career, he said. But if I cured cancer tomorrow, Id still be an ex-Byrd.Tickets to Chris Hillman are $25, available at the Wheeler Box Office. Showtime is 8 p.m. Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org