Chris Hillman,
The TVD Interview

“Things are happening incredibly fast.

How strange would it be to have something like that written about your band, in the liner notes of a “greatest hits” album, less than a few months after your band came and went, and all before you turned twenty-five?

It seems impossible now to truly separate rock and roll and folk, but at one time they were two very distinct genres. And it seems impossible to think of folk rock without The Byrds, and yet there was a time when even Bob Dylan was a pariah for bridging the gap between folk and rock. Then when The Byrds brought folk rock to the pop charts, they changed the way everyone sounded—even The Beatles—and there was no looking back.

Chris Hillman was part of it all, trailblazing this new genre with the highly influential, yet relatively short-lived group. (The liner notes got that right.) He went on to pioneer the melding of country and rock with a later incarnation of The Byrds and, eventually, with country rock trailblazers the Flying Burrito Brothers. He never really looked back, and has had a long career as a solo artist and with various groups who brought diverse genres together.

Chris has almost always been enamored with old-time music, folk, and bluegrass; he took up the mandolin at an early age and continues to bring the songs he grew up with to life. His current summer tour—with long-time collaborator Herb Pedersen and, occasionally, an incarnation of his popular Desert Rose Band—brings together the music and the mandolin he’s always loved with a new voice he’s discovered from his storytelling “lectures” that he’s been presenting at universities nationwide over the last few years.

Our talk with Chris covered a lot of ground, but his core artistic philosophy is clear: create and create with meaning. The rest of our conversation touched on performing, whether or not to pursue a life in music, and how he would instruct a group of students about the value of vinyl.  

When I found out I was going to be speaking with you, I thought about my own experience with bluegrass music: I never appreciated it until I lived in the Ozarks for a while. I was curious—what was it about that music that moved you when you first heard it?

It’s funny; my parents loved music. They played their generation’s music, which was big band and Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin—that era of music. So, it was an alien art form for them. I started with folk music in 1959 and 1960, and I sort of gravitated more towards the mountain, rootsy sound. Old time music, and then bluegrass was a natural progression from that.

There was an energy to the music and a freeform improvisation in the soloing, so it was almost like hillbilly jazz to me. These guys would get up and sing these beautiful three-part harmonies and then play these great solos! Nothing was written up; they couldn’t read music or anything, but it just connected with me. I was probably one of three guys in my high school—and it was a small, little rural area with about six hundred, seven hundred kids in my high school—who liked that kind of music. But at that point in time, 1959 to 1960, folk music was making its mark in the music world through the Kingston Trio and all that. So, that’s a long answer to your question. I think it hit a nerve with me.

My understanding is that you first decided to play guitar and then decided on mandolin—not the easiest instrument to learn to play!

[Laughs] It’s been baffling me for fifty-one years now! But yeah, I started on guitar and then I went to mandolin once I heard all these guys playing bluegrass and I said that’s the instrument I want to play. Initially, it was very hard to find anybody where I lived who could give me lessons. I had to travel all the way up to the San Francisco area from my house [in San Diego].

I got a couple of lessons from a gentleman who was very good; he set me right and got me going, but like most people my age, I learned off of records. We didn’t have instructional DVDs and all that stuff. We’d play the record and slow it down and try to listen to the notes… it was fun. I really had a passion for it. I never thought I’d make a living doing it! I thought, well, I’ll go through school, graduate, and hopefully get into college and go on to do something else. But it just wasn’t meant to be. I got to live my dream.

I guess I hadn’t realized just how young you were when The Byrds hit—you were all of nineteen. Would you recommend the experience?

Well, [laughs] if it was out there I think I would. But I would hope that… I don’t know what to say about that. It was so exciting to all-of-a-sudden have that kind of attention. I think I turned twenty shortly after our first record hit, but I don’t know what’s out there now. It’s a different world. You’ve got to remember, this was 1965. No computers, no MTV or cable TV, and the music business was a very small, cottage industry. Could I recommend it? Yeah, of course you know?

But let me add a little addendum here. I have many, many young people coming and asking for advice that have bands, or they’re singers or songwriters. And they’re about eighteen or nineteen years old. I’ll tell them, “I really think you should play and continue to have as much fun as possible. But I strongly urge you to stay on the educational curve and go get a degree in something you like—a four-year degree or maybe a master’s degree in something you enjoy doing. It doesn’t have to mean that you stop playing music! It’s a different world now and the odds of you getting a career in music and sustaining it through ten, fifteen, thirty years are pretty slim.” That’s what I tell kids and most of them understand it… some of them don’t. Follow the art, but be able to feed yourself—that’s what I’m trying to say.

I think one of my peers mentioned that same thing—Al Kooper, who was a musician who played with a lot of people. He said, “I would tell a kid to go to plumber school or electrician school.” He was dead serious!

Based on my conversation with Mr. Kooper, I’m not surprised to learn that he said that!

He’s a smart guy—a good guy—and he’s been around a long time and is a great musician and a very logical, practical man.

To go back to something you said earlier, about how you used to slow down records to learn how to play, it’s always struck me just how many musicians of your era really had no formal training. The passion was so strong that they’d listen to music, pick it up by ear, just keep repeating it until something came of it… and that’s how they developed themselves musically.

Yeah, sometimes… I don’t regret that I didn’t learn to read or write music. I sing in a choir on Sunday and I can sort of—now that I’ve been doing it long enough—I can sort of read a vocal chart. Barely! I’m basically an “ear” musician. If it happens to be a hymn I’m not familiar with—it’s a Byzantine choir that I’m in, in a Greek Orthodox church—so it’s not your normal Western, Christian stuff… it’s all my ear. I’ll hear it and I’m able to figure it out with practice, practice, practice.

It’s so interesting… I’ll read about some of my old jazz heroes from the ‘30s and ‘40s and a lot of them couldn’t read [music]. But they’d work up an arrangement, learn it, and play it from there. Both schools are good, but I guess I’m saying I don’t regret not learning [how to read music], but I wish I had formally learned to read and write music.

Given that you’ve been on a very steady touring schedule and haven’t released new songs in some time, what’s more meaningful to you at this point in your career—songwriting or performing?

I’d have to say performing. I love to play; the hardest part of what I’m doing now is the traveling. But I think that traveling is hard on everybody—any age, and whatever you’re traveling for. It’s not always easy to get from point A to point B. I do like to perform, I do actually have enough material to make a record, but I don’t have the call yet. Either I’m lazy or… I’ll get to that. I’ll get around to it. [Laughs]

I do love to perform. It’s always a challenge and I really do love playing in the format that I do, which is acoustic. It’s the way I started fifty-two years ago: putting a microphone next to my instrument and a microphone for my voice, and that’s the way it is. No amplifiers, no drums—none of that. Which is fine, but for me right now the challenge of playing… it’s almost like you’re one-dimensional and you have to make it three-dimensional in your presentation. I think that’s what it is.

So, I love to go out and play—as long as I can sing, Jennifer, and play. Seriously! As long as I can sing and play at a competent level, and as long as people want to hear me. If I can’t, I’ll do something else.

When I think of you and I think of your songs and your career, you’ve always struck me as someone who has needed harmony for creativity as opposed to conflict. Is that true at all?

I think that’s somewhat true. When it comes to conflict I would say that I, or any younger person, would take that as a motivational part to songwriting. Now, I look at the songs almost like I’m writing a short story, so it becomes more of a story song.

Believe me… I would draw from conflict [when I was younger]. It’s pretty hard for me, approaching seventy years old in a few months, it’s really hard for me to write some unrequited love, horrible… I don’t live that. I have a very loving, close family. A wonderful life, two great kids that are grown. So, that’s what my point is, I’ll create scenarios… I don’t know if it’s intentional, but I do lean more to a positive message in the songs.

I was just telling somebody about a song I have that I haven’t yet recorded. It’s called, “Such Is the World That We Live In.” But it starts out as a story-song; it’s almost more of how things were and how sketchy and edgy things are now, but such is the world that we live in. But, you see what I’m saying? I’m trying to draw on other things. I can hear a catchphrase uttered by a complete stranger on the street, and if I remember it, it can be a complete beginning of a song.

The topic of “Such Is the World That We Live In” is obviously something that everybody can relate to…

Yeah, what I’m trying to say too is that I don’t want to write anything that’s dark. I think it’s very difficult out there right now. Not that it’s always been a wonderful world! But it’s very dark right now, and the last thing I want to do is get up on stage and sing songs that are going to be depressing, you know? [Laughs] Or laments about my pitiful life. I don’t have a pitiful life. I thank God every day and, this sounds like a cliché, but every day is a blessing. It is a cliché! But it’s a truthful phrase!

I think that’s wonderful. Do you choose your set list with that in mind, to want to uplift people?

Well, I really don’t think in our forty-song set list, I don’t think there’s really anything that’s a down or negative thing, really. I do draw all the way back to The Byrds and before that and most of the stuff in The Byrds—and I was very lucky to be part of that band—I mean, I pick out some songs that I think are uplifting and that were quite popular. I mean, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”… I’ve been performing that for fifty years almost, you know? In fact, Roger McGuinn sang that at my wedding thirty-five years ago. It was beautiful, just a wonderful gesture on his part.

You know, funny enough… when you said “set list,” I’ll put that in a certain area on stage and I never follow it! I just gauge how everybody is reacting and I’ll just go completely off-list, which completely confuses everybody I’m working with, but it works out fine. I’ve got such good players. I mean, John [Jorgenson] and Herb [Pedersen] are terrific players. It’s nice having an audience who have literally grown up with me. Some are younger—I have some guys that come to my shows that are infatuated with the Burrito Brothers or The Byrds and all that—all is good.

Hopefully, as I said earlier, they’ll all continue to want to hear me and I’ll be able to deliver on a good level of performance. But I’m fine. [Laughs] I haven’t had any problems so far.

I’ve noticed that you’re mixing up your tour with Herb Pedersen with a few dates with the Desert Rose Band. Why did you guys decide to do that?

Well, that’s basically just adding John Jorgenson, so we call it “Desert Rose Acoustic;” it’s just the three of us. I think what it is on that is we just add more of the Desert Rose material. But this particular run will be the last time we do it. I shouldn’t say that—maybe it won’t be. But I don’t see us doing it any more. When it’s Herb and I, it’s a different set. It’s not that much different, but we just don’t do as many Desert Rose songs.

One of the things I did not know about you, Chris, is that you give college lectures. Given who I write for, I was curious: if you were to give me a lecture on the importance or significance of vinyl records, how would you start?

Well, I would start that out by talking about the technology at the time, the state-of-the-art. Vinyl recordings, to me, caught such a warmth from the performance. We didn’t have all the wonderful things that we have now—Pro Tools and multiple tracking. A lot of the times, [recording] was done live. When The Byrds started recording, we had eight-track. But I would go off and talk about the recording techniques. Because, what’s the main objective of making a record? And I will call them records until the end of my days. [Laughs] The main objective is to capture that emotion—it’s not perfection, it’s emotion. I’ll tell you, if I go make another record—which I probably will—you know how I’d want to do that? Yeah, I’d probably do it with Pro Tools and all that. But I would set up in a way that we all play and I sing—not overdubbed—to go for the feel and the emotion at the time.

Vinyl always had a warmer sound to me. It wasn’t that crispy clean thing that’s sometimes devoid of emotion. It’s a little sterile.

I’ve got to tell ya—I’ve not owned a turntable for fifteen or twenty years and my wife bought me one! [Laughs] I still got a bunch of albums out in the garage and I’ll put ‘em on. It’s really interesting. They’ll crackle and this and that, but I’ve got some wonderful things. Most of the great music has been reissued… it’s just a different world. Downloads and stuff are fine—you adapt. You adapt to what’s out there as far as the business model. If I were making a record right now yes, I’d make hard copy CDs to sell at my shows or to sell through Amazon or on my website. And yes, it would be available for downloading. That’s just the nature of what it is right now. I think we’ve created a disposable culture. It’s a very short shelf life for a movie star, for a musician—unless you really, really transcend that. As far as music, there’s so much out there…

I should have told you that in my lectures, I go off on tangents… [Laughs] I’m learning! I love the challenge of it—it keeps me alive. I’d love to do more of those.

I inherited many of my dad’s records and wound up with his copy of The Byrds’ Greatest Hits. The last sentence of the liner notes on the back says, “Sometimes things happen so fast, that we lose track of what is really the most valuable.” It struck me because it sounds like a line you would have written.

You know, the greatest advice that we got in The Byrds—and as you know, we were kids—was from the man who was our manager. He said, “You guys make records that you will be proud of in four years. Go for substance. Go for depth in the music.” He was the one that brought us Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” which had four beautiful verses; we only could do one because of time constraints on the radio. But, that was the greatest advice I ever got. I mean, you drop the ball sometimes and you do stupid records. But all in all, you go for that meaningful lyric that you can listen to thirty, forty years down the line. I am very proud of The Byrds. As I said earlier, I was lucky to be a part of it. Most of the time, the music we did was very sophisticated.

“The Bells of Rhymney” is, by far, my favorite Byrds song. And I’ll tell you why: that song itself is what The Byrds were as far as musically. That song is exactly what we were as singers and as players. It’s so moving, that song. And there we were, just kids! But that’s what I think any artist should shoot for—go for substance in anything you do.

I started a memoir and yeah, the world doesn’t need another aging rock star autobiography, but I did start a memoir about growing up in California from 1949 to 1961, when my father died. I did write that thinking that I was going to do Volume 1 and Volume 2, and then go into the music. Of course, the publisher that was interested told me, “You gotta do one book!” And then I got bored. I’m sort of working on it, but I’m not. You know what I mean? I remember everything and I’m certainly not going to write a book about so-and-so had a drug overdose… that doesn’t mean anything. It’s irrelevant. It was about the music and the time and the experience. I’ll get to it sometime. [Laughs] I’ll put that next to the shelf next to the next album I’m going to do under the “lazy man” file. [Laughs]

Well, I still think your first manager would be proud. You followed his advice…

I try to, I really do. Hey, listen, I’m very, very blessed to be working. I have a good time. If I don’t have a good time up there, no one watching is going to have a good time. So, my job is to get up there and make sure everybody enjoys their night. I know that sounds rather dramatic, but it’s true. That’s the game—that’s what we do this for.

Chris Hillman Official | Facebook | Tour

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