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A Byrd still flying high

As one of the original members of The Byrds, Chris Hillman was a distinctive figure in the formation of the country rock genre. His Tom Petty-produced solo album, 'Bidin’ My Time,' proves the musical energy is forever there.
 Chris Hillman and Benmont Tench perform onstage during the 2017 MusiCares Person of the Year event on February 10, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Scott Dudelson/Getty Images.

Chris Hillman and Benmont Tench perform onstage during the 2017 MusiCares Person of the Year event on February 10, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Scott Dudelson/Getty Images.

By Mike Greenblatt

Chris Hillman formed The Byrds with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby in 1964. He pioneered country-rock in 1969 with Gram Parsons in The Flying Burrito Brothers. He formed Manassas with Stephen Stills in 1972. He co-founded The Desert Rose Band in 1985. If any one musician can be said to be the forerunner of what is now the radio format known as Americana, it is Chris Hillman. His new album, Bidin’ My Time (Rounder Records) is his first solo outing in 12 years. Produced by Tom Petty, it actually gathers McGuinn and Crosby on an album together for the first time in decades. It also has three Heartbreakers and three Desert Rose Band compatriots. It is, without a doubt, one of the year’s best CDs.

GOLDMINE: Congratulations on finally bringing David Crosby and Roger McGuinn together. It’s practically a Byrds reunion!

Chris Hillman: It’s the closest we might ever get. Tom (Petty) knew what he was doing. He tried to get Roger to come into the studio on the same day as David but his schedule didn’t permit it. We’ll see what happens as far as a Byrds reunion, but that was like the door slowly creaking upon. Hey, you never know. It’s not like we all don’t get along. Roger, David and I are good friends these days. There’s no issues whatsoever. Hell, we’re all in our 70s.

GM: McGuinn said he’d never be in a band with Crosby ever again.

CH: I know. But I’m here to tell you that those two are, indeed, talking.

GM: That right there is good news. I understand you yourself had to be led to this solo altar kicking and screaming.

CH: (laughs) Almost! It was a situation where I was constantly asking myself in the studio , “What’s really going on here?” I was not thinking of making a record, that’s for sure. I didn’t really understand where these recordings were going to go as we were doing them!

Hell, I figured I was done, not out of bitterness, but I liked where I was at the time. You know the way the record business is today. Unless you’re Taylor Swift, you’re never going to win on that end, but when interest was shown, my biggest concern for Tom was that he hadn’t yet even reviewed the material that he was supposed to produce. I was so worried before I gave him the tapes. But he assuaged my fears when he said, “Chris, there’s nothing to worry about. If I don’t hear it, I’ll tell you.” As we proceeded onward, I noticed what a great guy he truly was. When I first started playing him the songs, he goes, “Oh! Ok! I hear a folk album.” I went, “Yeah, I guess so.” And then it morphed into having the Heartbreakers come in and overdub on a track or two that made it electric. Tom was totally open to whatever I wanted to do and — believe me — he was an incredible producer.

GM: How about the fact that a young long-hair from Gainesville, Florida who grows up loving The Byrds ultimately gets to produce three of them on this record.

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CH: (softly) I know, right? Damn, but I’d throw that record in the trash right now if he’d only walk through the door. It was horrible. John (Jorgenson), Herb (Pedersen) and I (Desert Rose Band) were in Nashville together when we heard (of Tom Petty’s death). We were devastated. I was going to cancel the last four shows and just go home for a little while but McGuinn calls me up and tells me not to do that. “Tom would not want you to cancel these shows,” is what he said. Roger and Tom were very close friends. They go back 30 years. So it was Roger who talked me back into doing those last few shows and he was right. “Go out and celebrate him and what he did for us through his music,” Roger had said. So on we went.

GM: There wouldn’t be a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers if it weren’t for The Byrds.

CH: Tom always acknowledged that fact. But, man, he took it 10 more rungs up the ladder. I’ll never forget the first time I heard his “Listen To Her Heart.” Man, that’s some high-end Byrds right there but he took it beyond that. I mean, that was an early one. What he did over the course of a 40-year career span was amazing. I just don’t know anyone else who approaches his work. Nobody! As far as I’m concerned, Tom was the guy. Period. Nobody has his ear for hooks and for writing hits, minimalizing it to some degree but always accessible to everybody. I think that’s why his death affected everybody.

GM: David Crosby first sang high harmony on Pete Seeger’s “Bells Of Rhymney” on the 1965 Byrds Mr. Tambourine Man debut album. Now you have him singing harmony on the same song in 2017. What a coup!

CH: David lives up the road about 40 miles from where I live. We talk a lot. He’s great, he’s always been generous with his time and talents and has been on previous solo albums of mine. So I just asked. “I’m there,” he said. “Just tell me where and when.” I told him I had a part for him I wanted to him to sing with Herb (Pedersen). Those two guys have always been my favorite tenor singers. So he wound up driving to Tom’s house and spent three hours working on it.

GM: Don’t tell me he did the exact same harmony part that he recorded for The Byrds 52 years ago.

CH: He actually recorded a lower harmony part. When we did it in 1965, he did the tenor part, a third above. In 2017, on the same song, he’s singing a lower part, a baritone part, with Herb doing the high tenor.

GM: Way to go, Herb!

CH: David’s still such a phenomenally good singer with such a great voice.

GM: That’s what I said about you when I first heard this record.

CH: I’ll be 73 next Monday, buddy.

GM: I’ve wanted to ask you this for years. When you were changing the face of modern music in the 1960s with The Byrds, and then with Gram Parsons in The Flying Burrito Brothers, taking from bluegrass and folk to add rock, practically inventing a new genre like Bill Monroe did with bluegrass in the 1930s and Elvis Presley did with rockabilly in the 1950s, did you know what the heck you were even doing at the time and how significant it would prove to be?

CH: I couldn’t think it through so vividly. There was one song I wrote, though, “Time Between,” on the Younger Than Yesterday 1967 Byrds album, where we dared to talk about stuff like that. It was the first song I’d ever written. I brought Clarence White into The Byrds to play guitar on what I envisioned only as a bluegrass song. A few more compositions later, we did indeed talk about our role in actually moving the music forward. We were very proud of that.

GM: Then you and the tragic Gram Parsons [1946-1973] refined that technique and took it even further in The Flying Burrito Brothers in 1969.

CH: We were flying by the seat of our pants. It wasn’t a scene where we’d say, “let’s add this ingredient and that ingredient and we’ll get the perfect cake.” It worked out well. It was hardly a stretch. I mean, it all comes from the church, right? Sometimes you mix and match but Parsons and I just put a backbeat to what would otherwise be a country song.

GM: And it came out rock ‘n’ roll. How was Gram to work with? What kind of guy was he? I’ve read he took to being a rock star a little too much. I’ve also read that he couldn’t keep up with Keith Richards once he started hanging out and doing heroin with the Stones in France and it killed him. Musically, though, he turned the Stones on to country and every time I hear songs like “Country Honk,” “Dead Flowers” or “Sweet Virginia,” I think of Gram.

CH: You’re not too far off with that assessment. When I met him, he was the sweetest young guy, full of vinegar, focused, ambitious and ready to go. He was the perfect guy to hire into The Byrds. McGuinn and I both agreed he gave the band new blood. Plus, he brought in two great songs of his own, “Hickory Wind” and “100 Years From Now.” All of a sudden, I’ve got a guy who understands good country music, so we go to Nashville to record Sweetheart of the Rodeo (in 1968) and he was great.

GM: But you and Gram leave The Byrds in 1969 to really revolutionize what we used to call “hippie country” in forming The Flying Burrito Brothers. The Gilded Palace of Sin is a masterpiece.

CH: Thank you. Yeah, and he was great throughout the next 18 months as well. By 1971, though, I noticed the change. He was so over-the-top talented that I realized he didn’t really work at it like the rest of us, plus he got wrapped up in all that rock star stuff. I remember taking him aside in the studio to tell him, “Gram, you gotta really work at this. You cannot just walk into an open limousine door all the time. It doesn’t work that way. You have to put in the work.” And that was his fatal flaw. Although he had an abundance of talent, he had no work ethic. It came too easy to him and, as a direct result, he squandered that talent. But he was such a good guy and we were such good friends. There was a period of time for almost two years that we were like brothers.

GM: Do you blame his lack of a work ethic because he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and had a trust fund in his name so he received a check every month from his wealthy family?

CH: I do, yeah. Money was never a detriment to him like it was to the rest of us. We were all young, scraping by for food because we had no money, doing whatever we could within the realm of dignity and integrity to follow our musical passions. He had no worries about money ever. He was getting over 50 grand a year from his family and back then it was a lot of money. It proved to be a problem. The poor guy would’ve done himself a favor by telling his family he didn’t want the money. Or he could have given it to charity and jumped in the pool with the rest of us. I had come out of The Byrds doing pretty well for myself. Then there were times I wasn’t doing so well.I remember for a long time missing the halcyon days of The Byrds.

 NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 1965: The Byrds (L-R David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, Michael Clarke and Gene Clark) perform on the NBC TV music show 'Hullabaloo' in November 1965 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Hullabaloo Archive/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 1965: The Byrds (L-R David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, Michael Clarke and Gene Clark) perform on the NBC TV music show 'Hullabaloo' in November 1965 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Hullabaloo Archive/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

GM: You were also in a position to really get to know the young David Crosby. He admits today being a total a-hole in The Byrds.

CH: And he was right. (laughs) That pretty much describes him back then. I mean, I love the guy. I truly love him. There’s a part of Crosby that’s very giving, a really loving guy who always had my back. I was like a little brother to him. But, then, he could be the biggest son-of-a-bitch-ever. There were times back then when I wanted just to smack him up against the wall. I came close. So talented but a huge pain-in-the-ass. Then again, we all were weird in The Byrds. Our strangeness was diverse. It also was our strength because it gave birth to the sound. Out of nothing! We made that sound around Roger. And it worked. And it still holds up. That’s the best part. It holds up today. It still sounds good. I’m so lucky to have been in that band and I’m so proud of it.

GM: Another one of the songs on the new album is “Here She Comes Again,” which you and McGuinn wrote back in the day and was only available as the “B-side” of an Australian single. Plus, you’re playing bass again for the first time in 30 years.

CH:Yeah, I had a cassette tape of that song from a 1979 concert we did as McGuinn, Clark & Hillman. We’d played it once or twice on stage. I’d been listening to it more and more and was wondering how I could use it when I showed it to Tom (Petty). He loved it and suggested I cut it with Benmont (Tench) and Steve (Ferrone) which we did, ultimately adding McGuinn and Petty himself. It came out great, very reminiscent of who The Byrds were in 1965. It just has that feel about it. Once again, Tom’s instinct and ear were right. I’m glad we did it.

GM: It’s such a masterful composition. It’s like you excavated it from the coal mine, dusted it off, shined it up and, man, how good does it sound now!

CH: I gotta say a lot of the credit for this record has to go with Tom’s engineer, Ryan Ulyate, who got vocals out of me I didn’t even know I had. Plus, the record is mostly live-in-the-studio. You can’t beat that because you’re so in-the-moment. To recreate that moment after the fact during overdubs is uncomfortable. But when you’re singing and watching the band play in another room across the glass is such a fantastic feeling.

GM: The other discovery for all us Byrds fanatics is Gene Clark’s “She Don’t Care About Time.” His premature death at age 46 was a shocker. He looked okay at The Byrds 1991 Rock Hall induction ceremony but reports had him soon returning to crack cocaine and he died mere weeks later. The song was the original flip side of your “Turn! Turn! Turn!” single.

CH: Yeah, I love that one, too. Gene’s lyric on that? My God! He wrote that when he was 19! He kept churning out great songs right up to the time he died. It’s a shame, really, but he had some tough issues to deal with and none of us could help him.

GM: What was the relationship like between members of The Byrds and Bob Dylan, whose songs you electrified one after another early on?

CH: Really good! We originally got permission to record “Mr. Tambourine Man” via Bob’s manager Albert Grossman. When Bob heard what we had done with a song he intended as a folk song, he said, “Oh my God, you can dance to it!” He loved it. And he stayed onboard publicly telling the press how much he enjoyed us interpreting his material. That was a big boon to our career. We went from doing Dylan to doing “Eight Miles High” and “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” We grew tremendously in a few short years. Bob, for his part, was overjoyed to hear his songs done in an electric format.

GM: You also formed Manassas with Stephen Stills. How was he to work with?

CH: That band was very stressful. We worked under the constant stress of having to please Stephen. He was at the top of his game. It was 1972. He was riding a wave of success that not too many achieve, what with the CSN album and the CSNY album. I accepted an offer from him to start this band despite the Burritos doing really well. Gram and I had made the Burritos into a tight quintet who was pulling in good business consistently on the road. But I was also frustrated so I took the chance to work with Stephen because I knew he was such a great player, singer and composer. I learned a lot from him. To write with him? To watch him up close? What an education! He would save little scraps of paper with lyrics on them. You’d never know. We’d work up a song, scrap it, then he’d pull out of a ledger a line that perfectly fit the song despite it being a year old or so. That was Stephen. Amazing. His electric and acoustic guitar playing were phenomenal. He’s an interesting guy. All and all, he was fine to work with. He’s so naturally gifted. Totally creative. But he kept me on my toes. The band had such good players and we all were stimulated enough to walk a fine line between having fun and knowing we had to come through or Stephen would scrap the whole thing on a moment’s notice. I almost felt as if I wasn’t even good enough for this band. I think you can here it on that debut album. What new band makes a double-album as a debut? We used to go out on the road and do the entire album every night. We were a solid stage band too. It, like everything else, ran its course. Two years later, Stills rejoins CSN and I go in the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band.

GM: How was that?

CH: SHF was an interesting idea that didn’t work.

GM: Furay told me the story of everyone telling him that Poco’s “Good Feelin’ To Know” was going to be a huge hit but when the band toured behind it, all they kept hearing on the radio was that damn “Take It Easy” by the Eagles and it drove him up the wall into wanting to just quit the business completely, which he did to become a preacher!

CH: Jackson Browne wrote “Take It Easy” and, no disrespect to Poco, but just look at the two songs. “Take It Easy” has an incredibly deep lyric. The Eagles took what everybody was doing at the time AND DID IT BETTER. C’mon, you know it and I know it. The Eagles always had better songs. Don (Henley) and Glenn (Frey) were writing such great music. Poco was a different kind of a band.

GM: Rusty Young told me that David Geffen tried to break up Poco [interview on Page 24] just so he could have a CSN-styled band with you, Souther and Furay. He apparently had issues with CSN as their manager and it stuck in his craw.

CH: Well, it was a great idea on paper.

GM: The SHF self-titled ’74 debut was great.

CH: You really think so? It was ok. I actually just listened to it about a month ago. I was on the road driving with John Jorgenson and he put it on. I hadn’t heard those songs in decades. “They’re not bad,” was my response. But the album has all of these ‘70s musical nuances I could detect that were popular at the time. It sounded like the damn Doobie Brothers. It’s not that it was bad, I mean, Richie was great to work with and he’s still a great singer. JD has always been a great songwriter. Plus we had drummer Jim Gordon who had just come out of Derek and the Dominos. What a great drummer! He actually asked me if he had to audition. I just said, “you’re hired.”

GM: Little did you know who you were hiring. [Jim Gordon is in jail today after killing his mother.]

CH: Oy! You’re not the first person who has said to me how much they love Souther-Hillman-Furay. The first album was pretty good but the second album?

GM: I liked Trouble In Paradise when it first came out in 1975. I subsequently learned that the title said it all.

CH: (laughs) I was cast in the role of the mediator. It wasn’t the first time. I did that in both The Byrds and McGuinn, Clark & Hillman.

GM: But what may be the most impressive feat of all is that after being in the business for over 20 years, you start from scratch again by co-founding The Desert Rose Band in 1985 for five solid albums in six years.

CH: Funny but I had no intention of starting up an electric band. I had been working acoustically in duet, trio and quartet formats. Jorgenson pushed that deal so without seeking it, it came to me. I was the most surprised person in the world when the second single we put out went Country Top 5. That’s not supposed to happen. I was like, “I already went through all this.” We wound up having an eight-year run. It turned out to be my longest run in any one band. No baggage, real pros, solid work ethic, no problems, man, it was great. After all those years of having to deal with one or two knotheads in the bands I’d been in, Desert Rose was a gift. I certainly cannot say it was the best band I’d ever been in but it was up there. Plus, it was my baby. I did the work, wrote the songs and it was truly satisfying to see it succeed.

GM: It’s been 12 years since your last album. Were you retired?

CH: Herb and I would go out sporadically. We even played Europe and Australia as a duo. It’s on a live album. I never really retired. I wound it down a bit. I wasn’t seeking the gold ring. And I’m still not. Hey, I’m the luckiest guy in the world having done what I wanted to do since 16. Herb and I did some bluegrass with Tony Rice. We played some festivals but remained under-the-radar.

GM: What’s the difference between your interpretation of Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” and the original.

CH: None at all. I hadn’t heard the song. Herb brought it to me and when I asked Tom if he’d mind that we cut it, he just said, “I’d be honored.” It closes the album on such a sweet note but has since taken on a whole new meaning since Tom’s passing. Especially that last verse. The thing about Petty that was great was his spontaneity. We didn’t intend to cut “Walk Right Back” by The Everly Brothers. We were just fooling around in the studio and Tom said how great it sounded. “Let’s cut it right now,” he said. John put a solo on it and we did it in 40 minutes. Tom was right. Again. That’s the thing about him. He would go for it. Just go for it, man. He told John to play that solo over the track. He told me to sing it live. Man, it felt great. That’s how to make records!”

“You belong among the wildflowers
You belong somewhere close to me
Far away from your trouble and worry
You belong somewhere you feel free
You belong somewhere you feel free.”
—Tom Petty

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