Chris Hillman: "I Figured Out When to Leave the Fantasy Behind and Cross the Line Into Reality"
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.
Photo by A&M Records via Wikipedia Commons Chris Hillman with the Flying Burrito Brothers.
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?