Chris Hillman: "I Figured Out When to Leave the Fantasy Behind and Cross the Line Into Reality"
Chris Hillman with the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Photo by A&M Records via Wikipedia Commons
His name is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the other giants of popular music over the past 50 years: Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, much less his former colleagues Crosby and McGuinn. But if one were to sample the bands that Chris Hillman has been apart of -- the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Souther Hillman Furay Band, Stephen Stills' Manassas, and the group he's been associated with on and off over the past 25 years of so, the Desert Rose Band -- it would become increasingly obvious that he belongs in that same strata of superstardom.
Despite a humble start as a teenager playing mandolin in a short succession of bluegrass bands in Southern California, Hillman's stock rose rapidly when he joined the Byrds, moving to bass and a role that was initially essentially support for the front line trio of Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and singer Gene Clark before becoming a prime mover in the band's musical development. An increasingly prolific songwriter -- he helped compose the classic "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" -- he and later recruit Gram Parsons eventually spun off into the Flying Burrito Brothers, continuing the country crossover the Byrds had begun with Sweetheart of the Rodeo, an album considered pivotal in the origins of Americana.
As Hillman approaches his 70th birthday this coming December, he remains as passionate about making music as he ever has. He's also deeply committed to his ideals, especially those having to do with his Christian faith and his politics, both of which tend to distance him from those with whom he came of age in the rebellious '60s and '70s.
When we caught up with him for our interview, he was gracious, friendly, forthright, and all too willing to share his memories and reflections about a life well-lived.
We began by discussing his tentative reunion with McGuinn and Clark in the late '70s, a project that brought the trio to South Florida to record at the legendary Criteria Studios in North Miami. It was there that we first met him, when yours truly -- then a promotion rep for their label, Capitol Records -- was beckoned both to the studio and to the house they were renting for a series of courtesy calls. It seemed an appropriate place to begin.
New Times: I specifically remember that when the others offered to play us a few demos, you objected because you wanted us to wait until you could share the final mixes.
Hillman: [laughs] That record was quite different. But I really liked it. I was the one that dragged them down to Florida to work with [engineers] Ron and Howie Alpert. And we did two albums with Stephen Stills and Manassas, both with Ron and Howie at Criteria. We would always rent a house and do the whole number. It worked out well. As I recall, Gene [Clark] had some issues at the time. God rest his soul. Water down the stream, Lee. All gone now.
You've had such an amazing career and been a part of so many amazing bands... It's hard to know where to start.
You're very kind. I'll tell you something. I've always loved music, but I didn't really seek out to be a rock star. I was shy; I didn't really set out to do that. It took me a while just to be able to sing. I could sing in tune, but I wasn't a very good singer. In the early days of the Byrds, working with David and Roger and Gene, who were great singers, I learned. So I just about got the confidence from McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman onwards, where I could just about use my voice.
I just loved music, but I don't know if maybe I was just lucky. I wasn't the greatest writer or player or singer, but I had a great time. I think I survived by not seeking out that stardom. It came to me later. I had some great groups. I don't look back in any negative way. I really don't do that in my life. I got to do what I was supposed to do. Maybe I could have done it better [laughs], but I'm still playing, and that's a joy. It's a blessing, I gotta tell you. As long as I can still sing and play and somebody wants to hear me, I'm good. That's a good thing. I worked with some wonderful people.
What is the state of the Desert Rose Band these days? That band has been around in some shape or form around 25 years, correct?
It's been dormant for a while, but it rises now and then. There is one show coming up at a festival in Norway in early July, and the band is going over as the six-piece original Desert Rose Band. So the point being is that occasionally we will get together. Why? Well, we parted company when we finally put it out to pasture, but we remained friends. When we were playing together in the '80s, we never had any baggage figuratively, not baggage in the sense of giving in to areas that were bad -- drug abuse, for example, or this or that. It was a consistent professional situation. Our consistency was 90 percent onstage, and after all these years, I'm in a band that I'm basically heading up, writing the songs, and singing lead. But besides that, I'm in a band that's really professional, that knows how to go out there and do a show.
So we remained very good friends, and that's a good thing. So we go out as an acoustic quartet or trio, and then once in a while, we do the entire band, as with the Norwegian gig. I don't know if we'll go back there, if we'll play again after this July; I don't know. It's just a day-to-day thing, and we'll have to see what happens.
So do you have any plans to do any recording?
Actually, tomorrow I'm going into the studio with Steve Hill, my writing partner for 20 years, and I'm going to lay down all these new songs I've accumulated. I was saying to him the other day, we have all these new songs. We've got about 14 songs that haven't been recorded and a few outside things, and we've got to lay them down acoustically. Let's go see what we've got. And maybe it will lead to another record. One last hurrah. I would like to do another record, but I don't know. The way the business is, I probably would do it myself. I know Roger McGuinn does that, and maybe he could teach me how to do it. But it hasn't worked out where he sells them to Amazon and so on. That's a long answer to your question, but, yes, I would love to put out another record, and I'm now inching towards that.
If you were to do a new album, would it be with the Desert Rose Band or some other outfit or a solo album?
It would be a solo album, but I would incorporate it so I could bring in all my old friends to work on it. The way the technology is today with Pro Tools, if I wanted Emmylou Harris to be on my album, all I'd have to do is send it down to her in Nashville. If I wanted McGuinn's 12-string, all I'd have to do is to send it to him. In fact, Roger and I had written a song at the end of McGuinn, Clark, & Hillman in the late '70s and we did it one time onstage, one time in Long Island. And I listened to this song the other day, and it sounds like a 1966 Byrds song, and I really want to tackle that. It's not going to be the Byrds, but it just has that feel to it.
If you wanted to do some recording with Roger -- and it sounds like you have a good relationship there -- if you wanted to do something, inevitably people would say, "It looks like the Byrds are getting back together." And maybe there would be a Crosby factor?
Well, that just will not happen, at least not as a planned-out thing. Roger's not interested in having that happen. I don't know why, but I respect it. That's OK.
There was a recent article in which Crosby said McGuinn is the sticking point as far as any reunion is concerned. He is. I get along with both of them. Roger and my communication is via email. Crosby I speak to because he's about 50 miles away from me. I don't really have any issues with anyone who's still around. What's the point?
You say it will never happen, but never say never, right? As long as you guys are still around, who knows what might happen?
You're right. There's been offers that would astound you for us to get back together, but it's not going to happen. And I'm OK with that. I respect Roger, and he really loves what he's doing now. We're all getting older. We're all lucky that we're still working. David just made a really good album. He's singing great, and it's different, and he's coming up with some really interesting stuff that's out of left field. And that's refreshing.
How about a Hillman-Crosby album? I'm just tossing this out there now.
I think I'd rather do a Hillman album and have friends guest on it. That's the best way to approach it. [laughs]... You gotta make something look really great to make it enjoyable. You can't put a gun to someone's head and say, "Let's get the Byrds back together." It's like you can't march some poor guy on drugs into rehab at gunpoint. If they're going to clean up, it's got to be his idea. They have to come up with some kind of epiphany where they think, "Oh, that's a good idea." I'm happy doing what I'm doing, to be honest with you. There's not much more I really want. I'm totally blessed to be able to do what I do.
You left behind this incredible legacy in your wake. That must be incredibly gratifying.
Well, I'm -- excuse the corny cliché -- I'm really blessed. I had a great job, to be able to do what I wanted. I got to do what I love, and I survived. I made stupid mistakes like everybody else, but I never went over the line of decency. If I had, I wouldn't be talking to you now. It was really great. If everything stopped tomorrow, I'd have had a wonderful time. I'd say, thank you very much. I got to do what I love. I don't have animosity towards anyone. No, I'm not some perfect being that you're talking to. I still have areas I try to get better all the time. There's some stuff I'd like to do, but it's narrowing. I'd like my kids to be successful.
Can you still relate to your contemporaries, those that you came up with in the '60s?
I'll tell you one thing, and this is kind of left field, but it ties everything in. Everything that my generation in the '60s was going on about, f'ing on traditional values, boy, were we ever wrong. Everything that we were stepping on were the things that held civilization intact for thousands of years. And we're reaping the benefits of it now. I'm not at all like my peers. I'm very conservative. I'm not a fan of the current administration at all. I'm more libertarian if anything. That lends itself to some interesting conversations with David Crosby.
[laughs] I say, let's put it this way, Crosby. Ted Nugent and I are on the same page. He and I are one side of the fence, and all the other guys are over there. Anyway, it's just a joke.
There are certain people you've known who sadly aren't with us anymore. People like Gene Clark, like Gram Parsons. How often do they enter your thoughts? Are they still present in any way to you?
I think of them all the time. I think of them in a good light. I never think of them with anything bad. I had two great years with Parsons when we hired him in the Byrds. There was about six months with him there.
And then you went on to play with him in the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Yes, I did, and the first year was really good. Then we lost him. We lost him to excess, and I had to part company with him. I just remember the good times. He was funny. He was bright, He was great to write songs with. He had a great take on things. And Gene was a great guy. Even after the Byrds, I would work on some of his projects. And that was sort of interesting. He would call me and I would come in and play on his records. I liked the guy. I always respected him, even when I didn't like him. I miss Mike Clark too, the drummer.
Thanks to the grace of God, I always think of the good old days. I don't believe in holding a grudge or this or that. It's not worth it. In the early days, when we were just getting together, Mike Clark and Gene and I lived together. Gene would write four or five songs a week, and we would use maybe three out of five. That's how prolific he was. So we'd sort of work them up and then we'd share them with David and Roger. Gram gets a little more attention now than Gene, but it doesn't really matter. They both died tragically. And that sort of enhances the legend.
It does indeed..
I don't know why I'm talking about all this, but I guess the point is, we blow these people up to some mythical proportions, whether it's a musician or an actor. Look at Philip Seymour Hoffman. Look at how much press he got. What a great actor. So you say, wait a minute. All these guys -- Gram, Gene, Jim Morrison -- they're all good. They were all gifted and talented. What is that? Likewise, Philip Seymour Hoffman. He wasn't just some hack actor. He was a really, really good actor. Very good at his craft. I could get into a basic spiritual take on it all. I do believe this, that that place that you get to when you find that success, everything you do, it's almost like the devil opens this door and says, "Great, come on in. I got more stuff to show you." It's very rare that someone that talented maintains that stability, and what helped me was I figured out when to leave the fantasy behind and cross the line into reality.
The Desert Rose Band, featuring Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen, and John Jorgenson, perform at 9 p.m. Thursday, March 13, at the Bamboo Room, 25 S. J St., Lake Worth. Tickets cost $33 to $38. Call 561-585-BLUE, or visit bambooroomblues.com.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.