Chris Hillman,
The TVD Interview

PHOTO: LORI STOLL | The first book from Chris Hillman has the same title as the first song he wrote as a founding member of The Byrds, Time Between.

Subtitled “My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond,” the volume, due out November 17 on BMG Books, chronicles the nearly 60 years of music he’s made as a member of a handful of potent musical units that combined bluegrass and country into folk and rock, from The Byrds to The Flying Burrito Brothers to Manassas and the Desert Rose Band, not to mention a trio of amalgamations that sounded more like law firms from Souther-Hillman-Furay to McGuinn, Clark & Hillman.

His intent in writing, he says over the phone from his home in Ventura, California, is “to leave some kind of record, a story of me, for my kids,” that includes two grandkids so far. But also he adds, “ I’d read so many inaccurate stories, inaccuracies on The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers,” that it made him think, “Wait a minute, I was there! Let me clarify this a bit!”

Setting the record straight means dousing the notion that, say, The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which celebrated a 50th anniversary tour in 2018, was not in fact either the first country-rock record nor the first hint of Americana. “We were doing country stuff way before Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” says Hillman, 75. The band’s second album Turn! Turn! Turn! in 1965, with the hit title song and two Bob Dylan covers, included the track “Satisfied Mind.”

“I had heard that song by Porter Wagoner when he had the hit on it, and loved it. I loved the lyric. It was great. It was perfect for The Byrds. And I talked the guys into doing it,” Hillman says. “It was the first time we had really done a country song,” he says. But he adds, “It wasn’t a stretch for us. It never was. Because we were basically folk musicians, you know. I was more bluegrass, but we did not come from a garage rock band background. I would say we literally plugged our amps into the wall, and started to transpose, going from acoustic to electric.”’

As such, they were likely to have nudged Dylan to go electric after he saw what they did with his folk ditty “Mr. Tambourine Man” which, Hillman says, “didn’t knock us out when we first heard it.” “Bob Dylan had written it in a very countrified grove, a straight 2/4 time signature,” Hillman says. Byrds bandleader Roger McGuinn tinkered with it and “puts it in 4/4 time, so you could dance to it. And Bob had heard us do it and said, “Man, you could dance to this!” It really knocked him over and he loved it.“

The public loved it too, as the gently electrified “Mr. Tambourine Man”—“the first single we ever did”—went to Number 1 on the charts earlier in 1965. Their deal with Columbia Records, he writes in Time Between, was for one single: If it was a hit, they’d get to do an album; if a flop, they’d be dropped. And perhaps more surprising is that deal with Columbia was suggested by one of the label’s leading stars in quite another field, jazz.

“Miles Davis, he had no idea who we were at the time, that was just a favor he did,” Hillman says. “He was a friend of our manager’s. But it was a hell of a favor, because he called up the head of Columbia and said, ‘Give these guys a break. Let them make a single and see what happens.’”

“Thank you, Miles Davis,” Hillman says. “We never met him. We did cut one of his songs, ’Milestones,’ as an obscure B-side. And it’s pretty good. We played it pretty good, for a funky rock band from L.A.” That rarity appears as a kind of jam captured in a 1966 documentary The Songmakers, and in a live recording of the Byrds as trio—with McGuinn, Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke—at Winterland in late 1967.

And while The Byrds made their name with jangly, folk rock interpretations of Dylan and Pete Seeger, they were also influenced by other sources. It was after playing a Hugh Masekela-produced session with South African jazz singer Letta Mbulu that inspired Hillman to start writing songs, coming up with “Time Between” and ”Have You Seen Her Face” within the same week.

The middle part of “So You Want to be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star” that he co-wrote in 1966—the la da da part—was lifted by McGuinn from a Miriam Makeba song. The recording features trumpet from Masekela. And the inspired frenzy of “Eight Miles High” was inspired by free jazz they listened to on a turntable they rigged up while on a Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tour in 1965.

“We were listening to [John] Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, and a lot of jazz, Miles Davis, and just stuff like that along with everything else we could listen to at the time,” Hillman recalls. “But we did get a lot of that John Coltrane, who was a huge influence on the song ‘Eight Miles High.’ A very very big influence.”

Hillman writes of his early work in a variety of California bluegrass bands as a teen, and hanging around folk clubs where he first caught the harmonies of McGuinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark. “I went wow, this is something. They’re going to do something.” So when he got a call a couple of weeks later asking if he’d like to play bass for their new band, he didn’t hesitate, even if he’d never played bass. “I just lied,” he says. “I didn’t even have a bass. I had to get off the phone, hustle around and found something.”

His background in bluegrass and country turned out to be “my contribution,” Hillman says. “So when we did go to Nashville in 1968, to do Sweetheart of the Rodeo, it really wasn’t a big stretch for me.” Meant to be a one-off, “we were making this one album, a country album. And then we were going to go back to what we were doing normally,” he says.

“I’m amazed Columbia even allowed us to do that. It was like a jazz group saying they want to go to Nashville,” he says. “But it worked out. The album, at the time, wasn’t my favorite. But man did it grow. In a manner of years, it became such a huge cult record.”

Part of its success was the addition of Gram Parsons as a hired hand, whom Hillman later joined to form The Flying Burrito Brothers. “The first year we worked together was great. He was ambitious, and he was working harder. He was hungry. He wanted it. He wanted to do something. And first year, that first Burrito Brothers album, we had some great songs we wrote together, the proof being a lot of people covered the songs we wrote—Dwight Yoakam, k.d. lang, Beck, Emmylou Harris. They recorded “Sin City” and a lot of our songs,” he says. “And that’s a wonderful thing when that happens. It’s like a stamp of approval when someone looks at your stuff and cuts it.”

The revolving Burritos lineup included a number of stars from future Eagle Bernie Leadon to Rick Roberts, who would go on to form Firefall. When Hillman left in 1971, he worked in aggregations including Stephen Stills’ Manassas, a trio with future Eagles songwriter J.D. Souther and Richie Furay of Buffalo Springfield and Poco; and various reunions with McGuinn and Clark. He had his greatest country chart success with the country Desert Rose Band with Herb Pedersen and John Jorgenson from 1983–1994.

Amid his notable recent projects was a 2017 album, Bidin’ My Time, produced by noted Byrds fanatic Tom Petty. “I had no intention of making another album, and that came along. I’m not going to turn down Tom Petty, are you kidding? It was an honor,” Hillman says. “It was a joy working with him.

“Tom Petty, in one of his last interviews, said, ‘Yeah. Chris is a damn good musician, but I don’t think he ever liked show business.’ I read that and said, ‘He’s right.’ “I didn’t like show business. I didn’t want to be in a limousine and all that junk. It didn’t mean anything to me. I just had a good time playing music with people. It sounds noble and corny, but that’s what it was.”

He credits his family, and Christianity, for lasting a long time in the business and remaining on good terms with nearly everyone he played music with. “I’ve been a blessed man,” Hillman says. “I would always say, well, if it stops tomorrow it’s OK. I had a great time. I mean, I got to do something I love. And that’s when you look at it and go: How many people in the world get to do something they really love and make a living? It’s very important.”

Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond will be released November 17 via BMG Books.

Our 2014 conversation with Chris Hillman is here.

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