In the music and recording business, longevity is a coveted state. Too many good, even great, artists fall out of style, burn out, or otherwise fall by the wayside. Some hang around by glomming on to the latest rage--Pat Boone in leather and chains?!. Others faithfully bang out their old hits on an endless circuit of bars, small clubs, and state fairs. Others, yet, wrestle with in inner demon that demands creativity, innovation, and, perhaps most of all, an audience. Chris Hillman was a founding member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas, the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, and the Desert Rose Band. All along, he's issued solo albums, indulged in one-off projects, and guested on innumerable albums by other artists. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the original Byrds (Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, and Michael Clarke) in 1991. His last band, the Desert Rose Band, also scaled the heights of success on both Billboard's country and Gavin's roots charts, garnering two Grammy and three Country Music Association award nominations, among them CMA's prestigious "Horizon Award" in 1989, in the process. The Desert Rose Band was also named "Band of the Year" by the Academy of Country Music from 1989-91.
Yet for all his success, Hillman remains a restless but oddly contented soul, ultimately unaffected by the trappings of career-long success and only slightly put off by the lack of recognition for his contributions to multiple musical genres. The interview below was conducted by telephone in October 1998, while Hillman recovered from a bout with a long dormant case of hepatitis-C, which prevented him from touring behind his latest solo effort, Like a Hurricane.
The astute reader will notice an occasional disconnect between the question and the answer. Chris has a tendency to take an idea into any direction that suits him. I guess it suited me, too. Well, you tell him to get back on track!
KE: What astounds me from the liner notes to the Rounder record [Out of the Woodwork] you did with the Rice brothers and Herb Pederson last year, was how formative the bluegrass scene was in southern California in the early '60s. The Gosdin brothers, the Rice brothers, Pederson, and Roland and Clarence White were all gigging around LA when you met up with them. What hooked you on bluegrass in lieu of other musical genres when you were very young?
CH: I started with the guitar and folk music. I heard bluegrass and really liked it. Then I got a mandolin and learned how to play off records. I got a few lessons from Scott Hambley, who was a mandolin player from Berkeley. Scott was filling in for Roland White, who was in the Army in Germany, playing for the Kentucky Colonels at the time that I met him. He sort of set me straight on a few things, but that's basically it.
KE: Your work with the Hillmen was extraordinarily facile for a 19-year-old.
CH: I find that mandolin playing to be pretty bad. I've certainly learned how to play it better than that. But then I didn't pick it up for years until the Byrds.
KE: There are a lot of other mandolin players around, like David Grisman, Mike Marshall, and some newer players, Chris Thile, Matt Flinner, Tina Adair. Do you listen to new mandolin players?
CH: I don't listen to them to be honest with you. I love Ronnie McCoury with the Del McCoury band. Ronnie is about the best bluegrass mandolin player around. Sam Bush is an exceptional player. And these are guys who have thorough knowledge of bluegrass, but can take the instrument another step. I like Roland's [White] playing. I think it's very subtle. You don't have to play 3,000 notes in a measure on the mandolin. Sometimes less is more, and no one does that, so I tend to listen to things that are simpler and more traditional sounding. My expertise is limited. I learned off of Bill Monroe and John Duffy records and that's who I liked. But these kids now are phenomenal. But I don't listen too much to be honest with you. There's too much music out there.
KE: And was the mandolin your first love or the guitar?
CH: I don't play mandolin that much. I play guitar mostly when I do play. I love the mandolin. Actually, starting the last few months, I've been practicing again. I've been lazy on it for 25 years. I've been really lazy; just haven't followed through with it all that much. I'm starting to get more involved with it now.
KE: In the liner notes to Like a Hurricane's "Sooner or Later" you say: "I finally accepted the term `country-rock' after 25 years." Is this begrudging acceptance, or just acknowledgment of your place in history?
CH: I never liked that term, but it's okay. Now I don't care. But I think it's just a matter of being able to differentiate between the styles of music and categorize things. I guess that's valid. I don't know. It's funny because what we call "country rock" is basically 9,000 generic Eagle clone bands coming out of Nashville. I guess they call them "country" bands, but they're doing what we were doing out in California. That's all it is: doing the same thing--not as well either and not as interesting. But country-rock is basically more emphasis on the backbeat in the rhythm section. For a while in the '60s they were tagging the term "rock" and putting a little descriptive thing in front of it: jazz rock, raga rock, country, whatever. It was probably the Byrds' fault.
KE: In Younger than Yesterday there were a number of tunes tinged with something you'd never heard before ...
CH: The very first country-rock song was [Hillman's] "Time Between" on the Younger than Yesterday album, with a backbeat and a different approach, but still in a genre that you could describe as country or bluegrass chord changes.
KE: It seems, then, that the last three albums that you've done, Bakersfield Bound with Herb Pederson, Out of the Woodwork with the Rice brothers and Herb again, and Like a Hurricane are a summation of your career.
CH: It could be. Whether I make another one I don't know. I have the opportunity. I'm very lucky. I'm very blessed. I can make records for Barry Poss at Sugar Hill for as long as I want to, as long as we agree that it's something that's valid musically and lyrically. But you never know. I don't have the same passion for music that I had 30 years ago. I like it. I like to play. I will not go out on tour. I will not put myself through that again. I did it for 35 years. I will go out and do some brief shows, but you never know. I don't find the same attraction for music. I love it.
Somebody asked me the other day, "What are you listening to now?" I should have answered, "Ask me what I'm not listening to": mainstream country music, country radio, rock and roll top 40, rap--I don't listen to any of that stuff. I don't like it. I listen to opera, classical music, talk radio ... and I listen to '60s jazz from John Coltrane to Art Pepper to Eric Dolphy and to things from the '40s and '50s. I find myself listening to things my parents listened to, saying, "Gosh, they were right." [Laughter.] Now don't get me wrong, I love the Beatles, but as far as keeping abreast of what's going on, I have no idea except through my 15-year-old daughter. She listens to all the young, alternative rock bands, and most of them are pretty interesting. But I don't hear anything groundbreaking.
Let me give you an example. I'm at the Gavin convention in Lake Tahoe last month, and they're pushing this new band called The Great Divide. Well, they look great and they sound great, a five-piece country rock band. I went, "Boy, they sure sound good, real tight, but I don't hear anything different. I hear the same changes I heard 20 years ago." You know, the same subject matter. Is this a new version? Well, I don't know. So, I'm not trying to be bitter or anything, but sometimes I go, "I've heard this before--what else do you have?"
We're in a situation that it's such a disposable culture. And we're inundated from film, TV, records, and there's not a lot of substance all the time. I'm tired of these in-my-face, violent, and sexually explicit movies. Almost like a conspiracy to strip our imagination away. I think music videos also did that in a sense. Videos were a wonderful marketing tool, but once again it takes a piece of music and gives you a visual. You didn't pick that visual, but somebody made you aware that this is the visual that you're supposed to accept as part of this song we're trying to sell you.
As I explained to my 10-year-old son, "One of the best things about reading is that you have an imagination, you get into the characters, and it takes you to a whole other place. It's just the most wonderful escape in the world, and you may learn something." But I still like videos. We certainly had a good time making them with Desert Rose. There was a time when record companies would sign you, and if you showed promise, would nurture you along, and everybody got greedy in the late '80s, especially in Nashville. My God. We have all this smarmy, mediocre stuff thrust in our face. How can they call this country music? I can't listen to it.
KE: That makes two of us. I can't listen to it either.
CH: It's awful. The other day I ran into Keiran Kane of the O'Kanes. Remember that band? There was a brief moment between 1985 and 1990 when there was stuff on the radio out of Nashville from Rosanne Cash to Rodney Crowell to the O'Kanes, Desert Rose even, and it was refreshing. They were wonderful. Wouldn't you like to hear that on a country station? And you're hearing this lush pop music, and it's pretty bad.
KE: Who are your favorite people to play with?
CH: There were good and bad moments with every group I played with. I liked playing with McGuinn. McGuinn's a great musician. He's very subtle. I really enjoyed working with him. Herb's great to sing with.
KE: And how is Crosby? He's back in the hospital?
CH: He's fine. He was in just briefly. This is the problem with a liver transplant. That is why by the grace of God that I was diagnosed through a physical that I had hepatitis. I never had symptoms. I was never sick. I didn't get sick until I started taking the interferon shots. As David said to me, "I don't want you to end up dealing with what I've had to deal with." What he's dealing with is having had a transplant. You have to take anti-immune suppressants to keep the immune system from rejecting the organ. He's doing great, but unfortunately with your immune system compromised, anyone can cough in your face: David got a big infection and had to go into the hospital.
So that's why I don't have any qualms about telling anyone what I'm going through. In fact, hepatitis-C is a virtual epidemic. You don't have symptoms. It'll sit in your liver for 20 years, and then it'll get you. And everybody my age that had any kind of risky behavior is subject to having it. For some people it becomes active, and for others it's in their system for the rest of their life, and it never does anything. But it's a killer. There was a gal in the next town over, a beautiful woman, 30 years old with two kids, waiting for a liver transplant. She got it from a blood transfusion. She didn't get the transplant, and she died. So that's why I'll talk to anybody about it. I'm in the process of helping six people who also have it. Thank God the medicine worked on me.
David's fine. It's a day-to-day thing. However long we have David around, it's a good thing. I saw him on television the other night. I saw him singing with Phil Collins on A&E. It was just spectacular. Collins is fabulous, just a wonderful musician. And David sounded great with him.
And I loved working with Steve Stills. Steven and I have an affinity for the same type of music. He's very aware of country and the blues, roots-oriented music. He was interesting to work with. I learned a lot of stuff from him.
KE: And Richie Furay?
CH: Richie's great. It just wasn't the best combination of people. It [The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band] just didn't bring out the best in any of us. I think we were all compromised in just having to work with each other. We liked each other, but it was never a band. Souther wasn't really band oriented in the sense of working with other people. Which was fine. He did what he did. Richie did what he did.
KE: You took some time off between retiring the Desert Rose Band  and recording Bakersfield Bound . You sound like you're ready to take another break.
CH: I might. Yeah, I might. I'm supposed to go over and do this tour of Europe in June that I postponed last year, and I'm trying to think about that right now. Whether I want to do that.
KE: And you'd be touring with whom?
CH: Well, I'd go with a bass player and another guitar player, just an acoustic trio. I wouldn't take a band over. I'll tell you one thing I probably won't ever do again, put together a band. And I shouldn't say "never," but at this point in time I don't see myself doing that.
CH: I can't conceive of going through step one and doing all of that again, and then going out on a tour. I'm real burned out about touring. I love to play on stage, but I don't want to travel. It's just not comfortable for me anymore. I love to play, but if I have to go out and travel, like the European thing, it doesn't appeal to me at this point in my life. I'm probably going to do this though, and I'll have to adjust a bit. When you play clubs in Europe, these guys want you on at 10:30 at night. I don't play at 10:30 at night. I did that. I've done every facet of the music business. There's certain things I just don't want to put myself through, and if I'm dealing with something where I have put my health in a manageable position, meaning I feel good, I'm off the medicine, I'm not going to jeopardize my health by going over and putting it at risk again. Not because I'm ingesting anything into my body. It's because stress and strain can activate any kind of virus, even if it's dormant.
Let me put it succinctly: to get me out to play on a tour, it would have to be a lot of money. That's the best as I can do. Roger [McGuinn] feels the same way about the Byrds. He won't tour with the Byrds, and we've been offered a lot of money, to tour, the three of us. He doesn't want to go out and do that. He's more comfortable playing little clubs by himself, and that's understandable. I respect that. No one's putting a gun to his head. And it wouldn't be entertaining if we had to resort to pressure.
And it was wonderful. I had a great time on the road with all of those bands. Really wonderful time: there were great moments; there were horrible moments, but it's very hard on your body. It's very hard on your life. There's no foundation in reality. It's a fantasy world. You're getting waited on. You're getting taken care of. You're getting complete adulation all the time. How do you come home with that and separate that and have children and a wife. It just doesn't work.
KE: You can't go home and expect everybody to wait on you.
CH: Well, you can't go home and be a good father if you're not home. You can't come home whenever you feel like coming home. And your dealing with incredible amounts of temptation out there, because you're gone for three, four, or five weeks. It's a tough one.
KE: Speaking of family, you've been married to Connie for how long?
CH: Twenty years.
KE: Probably one of the institutions in rock and roll to have been married to the same woman that long.
CH: Well, I have a wonderful family. One of the reasons I stopped going on the road when I retired Desert Rose is that I didn't want to miss any more of my children's birthdays. I didn't feel it was conducive to a good family life, and this is what matters to me now. As long as I can feed them and make a living doing this that's fine. I don't need to have 10 Ferraris in the driveway. I really don't care about the accouterments any more. It really doesn't matter.
KE: But you never had 10 Ferraris.
CH: No, I had seven. [Laughs.]
KE: Let me read a couple of quotes to you, and ask you to react to them The first one is, "This Californian has been perhaps the greatest influence on the country-rock/folk genre that's taken for granted today." [American Music Guide]
CH: Well, I tend to agree. I don't get a lot acknowledgment, and it's okay. I chose not to pursue that actively. I never wanted to live in Hollywood and be in the clique there. It's just something I never wanted to do. It does occasionally get me crazy when somebody writes "Gram Parsons' fabulous song `Sin City,'" and there's no mention of me. But I know what I did. I wrote half the song while he was sleeping in the next room. And I know my contribution, and as my wife so pointedly points out to me, "Do you want to trade places with him?" And I say, "No." You know. It's not being cruel or weird. It is what it is, and I don't really care about all of that. It really doesn't matter to me. But once in a while, it gets me. And when somebody will mention Gram Parsons and the Burrito Brothers--yeah, he was very innovative, and he did wonderful things, but sometimes I feel like I was the guy carrying his guitar case. So, I don't buy into it too much. I know what I've done, and I know what I can do. I know the certain areas I can handle. I'm fine. Death is a wonderful icon. It creates this thing, like Jim Morrison of the Doors. When Jim died, he became a genius. Death does that, doesn't it? It's the unattainable: we can't have that anymore, so we're going to elevate it to icon status. And that's part of our culture that we've created in this country. Not other countries, this country. It's amazing. We love to have these superficial gods to look up to. And I'm not being bitter.
I get incensed sometimes; I feel that Gene Clark never got any recognition, and Gram Parsons got a lot of recognition. Some of it was deserved, and some of it wasn't. But Gene as a songwriter was heads and tails above all of us. He wrote songs that were unbelievable. Unfortunately, he was short-circuiting way back then. I think they're putting a Gene Clark album out in England, and it's going to open a lot of people's eyes to what this guy really accomplished. You go back to the Byrds, "Feel a Whole Lot Better." I love that he put in "I'll probably feel a whole lot better ..." Here's this 19-year-old kid writing that song. I love that, and it's so subtle. Instead of saying, "I'll feel a whole lot better ..." And Gram, too. Gram wrote some great songs. It is what it is. I think we're dealing with the departed, the unattainable. And I'd rather wait a few years for that accolade. When I'm 85 years old, and then I can be a hero, too, but right now I'm a hero with my kids. They love me. They don't like the music I do all the time, but they love me for who I am. That's all that counts to me.
KE: Okay, this is the second quote: "Hillman is full of renewal and redemption zoith a reminder about the sanctity of life that should grab even the most cynical among us." [Alanna Nash's review of Like a Hurricane, Stereo Review, August 1998]
CH: I like that quote. I'm a very devoted Christian. I'm not a born-again Christian. I was a born-again Christian about 10 years ago for about 10 minutes. I'm a Greek Orthodox Christian, very similar to Russian Orthodox, very similar to the Catholic Church. But as far as ever going out and actively pushing an agenda through my music, I didn't do that. I did make some gospel records [with Bernie Leadon] back in the early '80s when I was flirting with the born-again movement, and I found it was not comfortable. I found it to be very judgmental. I sure like to try to fuse some kind of positive thing in there sometimes. Steve Hill and I both see things the same way--sort of tried to sneak some of that into the Desert Rose songs. Little tiny positive things.
KE: You do a lot of songwriting with Steve Hill.
CH: He's an old friend of mine, and we seem to click pretty much when we work together. We've been writing for 10-12 years, and I enjoy him. He's a good friend.
KE: And you acknowledge him quite generously on Like a Hurricane. Do you split the songwriting duties at all?
CH: We just sit down swap off melodies, lyrics. That's usually how it works. There's never any kind of set rules that we follow. Sometimes I'll have a song almost done, and I'll have him come over and help me finish it, and sometimes vice-versa. He'll write with other people, and I will too. I haven't been doing that lately.
KE: What's interesting about your career is that you're in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Byrds. With the Desert Rose Band you were nominated for Country Music Association and Grammy awards. And even though Like a Hurricane is a summation, along with Out of the Woodwork and Bakersfield Bound, I would posit, wearing my critical hat, that you seem at peace with yourself.
CH: I'm very happy now in my life. It's interesting ... I addressed some teenagers the other day, along with some adults and some younger kids, about what I had done with my life. I was talking to them not a testimonial as much as telling them that music is really a wonderful, healing thing. It's a great thing in all facets of the arts. I said you can listen even to rap, and you don't have to buy into the negative. I think we're just bombarded with so much negativity now. I'm just curious to see where we're all going to end up. I'm not calling for censorship here, I'm just calling for good taste. It's like the ongoing battle with excessive violence in films and TV movies that really influence younger kids. And I think it does. I think it really desensitizes them.
I don't want to go off on a tangent, but I'm very at peace with myself. I want to tell you a little story about Like a Hurricane. It came out pretty good, but this is the first album I've ever had to recut. I cut it first with Herb, and it was all acoustic, and it didn't work. It was just no good at all. I went back in out of pocket with [Producer Ritchie] Podolor and [Engineer] Bill Cooper and recut the whole record electrically, and to some degree added more things. It was a save job. I kept two or three tracks from the original sessions with Herb, and there's a couple of tracks that John had produced for me years ago. But all in all I had to do the whole thing over. I'm not making excuses, but it's the first time I've had to do that. In hindsight, we're all geniuses, and I always look back and say, "If I'd just thought of that originally, I probably would have made a better record, but there'll be more to do later."
KE: In your interview with Billboard's Jim Bessman, you said, "I'm a lucky guy that I get to make records for Sugar Hill ... and don't have to live under the gun of what has to get played on radio. A t my age, radio doesn't want to know from me." Which may or may not be true. But there's a tone of resignation about that, "Well, I'll keep cutting this stuff even though no one listens to it." It's very difficult to do anything of an artistic nature unless you feel you have an audience because the only way art connects is if someone sees or hears it.
CH: Well, if nobody liked it, if nobody listened to it, obviously I wouldn't even be doing it. That's not even the case. If you don't get on the radio, what's your objective? Your objective is to get enough notoriety somehow critically to go out and work, and build your audience out there. But on the other hand, I've done that for so many years, I'm saying, "I don't even want to go out and tour." Even if I felt better this year, I don't think I would have done that many dates. I would have gone out and played a few markets, but that's about it. Whether that translates into sales or not, then you're going back to distribution. The Desert Rose Band had number one singles on the radio. We would play big cities with Reba McIntyre, and our records would never be in the stores. They were never in there. Now how did that work? If, you're playing for 4,000 people, and 300 of them walk out the next morning to buy your record, at various record stores in that area, and your record is not in there, are they going to order it? No. But they're in that record store, and they'll go, "Well, you don't have that? Gee, they were good last night. Let me have that new blah, blah, blah. I'll take it." And that's the catch. You can play for 300 people in a club in Boston or someplace, and maybe a third of them already have the record, maybe an eighth of them will buy the record, and you better hope to God that they're available for them to buy. Because the attention span of the public in this country, in this hemisphere, has been reduced to that of a mosquito. Like I said earlier, you're inundated, bombarded with thousands of things. It's disposable. It's unfortunate, but it is what it is. And what we get told is wonderful to buy doesn't necessarily attract me or you or anyone with an ounce of taste.
KE: Careful, I'm one of the guys who tell you what to buy. [Laughter.] So what are your recording plans for the future?
CH: There's a second Rice brothers thing I'm supposed to do. Herb and the Rice brothers cut some tracks in Virginia earlier this year. Some of them I like. Some of them I don't like. We'll finish it out here in the next month. But I'm not going out on tour with them. As far as my own recording plans, I have none. I get projects coming my way. I've got the Gram Parsons tribute project. I did a track with Steve Earle on that. I did a duet with Jennifer Warnes on the Lowell George tribute album, which I believe only went out in Japan. [It was released stateside in March 1998. --KE] It has Bonnie Raitt on it, Taj Mahal, and Jackson Browne. [Long pause.] I'm quite happy in my life. I feel very lucky that I got to do what I got to do. It's not over.
The List: A Selected Chris Hillman Discography: The Hillmen (Recorded 1963; issued on Together Records, 1969; reissued on Sugar Hill, 1995)
With The Byrds: Mr. Tambourine Man (Columbia, 1965) Turn! Turn! Turn! (Columbia, 1966) Fifth Dimension (Columbia, 1966) Younger Than Yesterday (Columbia, 1967) Notorious Byrd Brothers (Columbia, 1968) Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Columbia, 1969) Byrds (Asylum, 1973) Three Byrds in London (Live at the BBC, 1998; recorded, 1977; appeared as The Chris Hillman Band)
With The Flying Burrito Brothers: Gilded Palace of Sin (A&M, 1969) Burrito Deluxe (A&M, 1970) The Flying Burrito Bros. (A&M, 1971)
With Manassas: Manassas (Atlantic, 1972) Down the Road (Atlantic, 1973)
With The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band: Souther-Hillman-Furay Band (Asylum, 1974) Trouble in Paradise (Asylum, 1975)
With McGuinn, Clark & Hillman: McGuinn, Clark & Hillman (Capitol, 1979) City (Capitol, 1980) McGuinn-Hillman (Capitol, 1980)
With The Desert Rose Band: Desert Rose Band (Curb, 1987) Running (Curb, 1988) Pages of Life (Curb, 1990) True Love (Curb, 1991) Life Goes On (label unknown, released in Europe only, 1994)
Solo/Partnerships: Slippin' Away (Asylum, 1976) Clear Sailin' (Asylum, 1977) Morning Sky (Sugar Hill, 1982) Desert Rose (Sugar Hill, 1984) Bakersfield Bound w/ Herb Pederson (Sugar Hill, 1996) Out of the Woodwork w/ Pederson, Tony Rice, Larry Rice (Rounder, 1997) Like a Hurricane (Sugar Hill, 1998)
Chris has appeared as a guest on quite literally dozens of works. He's also contributed to assorted compilations, either solo or in partnerships. There are also of course countless rechurnings of Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, and Desert Rose Band recordings, including a number of "posthumous" albums of demo tracks and other unreleased material. This listing has been culled from four different references: The American Music Guide, Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, and two web sites devoted to the Byrds. They are http:// members.aol.com/byrdsonlne/byrdstuff/ chillman.htm and http://www.waxingeloquent.com/byrds. -- KE
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|Title Annotation:||rock musician Chris Hillman|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1999|
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