Byrds, Burritos, and Bluegrass: Chris Hillman Interviewed

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"'Pay attention. It's very strange out there.'"

Often overshadowed by flashier, more volatile, or more tragic bandmates, singer and multi-instrumentalist Chris Hillman's cred as a pioneer of country-rock is nonetheless impeccable. As a co-founder of the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas and the Desert Rose Band - in addition to a dizzying variety of solo, duo, and trio work - Hillman has had a career closing in on 50 years.

More recently, he's been sticking to his first love of a bluegrass/country mix, performing acoustic shows with longtime collaborator Herb Pedersen. The duo's most recent album, Live at Edwards Barn, finds them playing barn-dance-worthy versions of originals, classic country and gospel covers, and familiar tunes from Hillman's previous groups.

Rocks Off spoke with the amiable Rock and Roll Hall of Famer from his California home about mandolins, the shadow of Gram Parsons, and a promise to play a Rocks Off special request at Saturday's show at Dosey Doe in The Woodlands.

Rocks Off: One of the things I like about the CD is that you adapt the rock and country-rock songs to your current style.

Chris Hillman: Well, with a song like "Eight Miles High," we're obviously not trying to compete with the Byrds version at all. But it's such a great lyric, and it's about us flying to England in the summer of '65 and we were kids and had never been out of the country.

But [radio programmers] thought it was a drug song, and all the AM stations dropped it like a rock! But it really was about being in an airplane! Herb and I work up a lot of different songs this way, though. Mandolin and guitar shouldn't be just in the bluegrass genre.

RO: You've known Herb since 1963.

CH: The only guy I've known longer is Bernie Leadon, who I worked in the Burritos before he went on to become an original Eagle. But Herb and I connect on that vocal level as singers.

Note: Before the Burritos, The then-teenage Hillman and Leadon first worked together in the bluegrass band Scottsville Squirrel Barkers in the early '60s.

RO: For most of your bands, you weren't the front guy, but had to make the transition when you started the Desert Rose Band (right). Difficult?

CH: It took time and it was natural. When I started, I was a terrible singer with no commitment behind the vocal, so that took me about 15 years. I was also the shyest guy in the Byrds. We'd be around the Beatles or Bob Dylan, and I'd be standing in the corner not saying anything! On the plus side, I was able to absorb a lot of things. I was a first mate in a lot of those bands, then I became a captain.

RO: I read the Hot Burritos biography that you contributed to, and I'm glad that you were able to sort of set the record straight about the group, in that it wasn't just Gram Parsons' band. But it's hard to challenge the cherished myth of Gram's life-fast-die-young persona, isn't it?

CH: Up until about five or six years ago I'd get - no pun intended - my feathers ruffled when people thought he was the band. I mean, I wrote part of "Sin City" before I even woke him up! But my wife said "You know, would you want to trade places with him right now?" and that kind of put it in [perspective].

But I'm not bitter. Gram and I were really close, and we produced together some of the best songs I've ever written. And then I lost him. His whole life and family were like from a Tennessee Williams play. But if we'd worked harder as a band, we could have done a lot more. We left an indelible mark, but we were really so lazy in our presenting and executing.

RO: Then came Manassas, which I think was very underrated and never had enough time to reach its potential.

CH: That was a good band. It's funny, there are so many people that remember that band and wish we'd get back together. I would and I would definitely do something with Stephen again. We were only together for two years. But we did incredibly good business on the road, mostly on Stephen's coattails with CSN. He was at the top of his game, and I learned a lot about songwriting from him. But that was one sharp outfit. It kept me on my toes!

RO: You and Herb should do "Jesus Gave Away Love for Free" from the first Manassas album. That would go well in your current style.

CH: I've been playing around with that on the mandolin. I'll work it up for Houston. I promise!

RO: It was the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo album and then the Burritos that really opened the door for country rock. Too bad it was the Eagles who took that sound to the bank.

CH: But Bob, as a music lover, you know it's not your bank account that matters. It's what you leave behind. I know that record opened up [a country sound] for a lot for people. So when I hear the Avett Brothers, and they're really good songwriters...it's worth it. The Avetts also love the Desert Rose Band.

RO: What about contemporary country on the charts? I imagine much of it is too pop-sounding for your taste. Do you ever see it reverting back to a more traditional sound?

CH: I remember when I was in the Byrds I was 20 or so and this guy was in his fifties or sixties, and quite the Bohemian who came out of the Jack Kerouac era. And he said "You know, the Beatles are great, but you don't understand. Listen to Ellington and Basie, that's music, and it will never be that way again." And I went "Yeah, sure."

But you know, that's the music I listen to now, and I love it. But who knows if there will even be a music industry anymore? Kids ask my advice about their band, and I say get a four-year college degree in something you like, but never stop playing music and having a good time.

As for that classic country sound, I don't hear much of it on the radio anymore. Except Brad Paisley. I like him, and he is so attached to the old music. So was Vince Gill. And Alan Jackson. And Emmylou is still straight and true to her music.

Rocks Off: Finally, as a member of one of the great American bands of the '60s, what does that decade look like to you today?

CH: The '60s were a wonderful time until '68 or '69, when it turned dark. We played Monterey with the Byrds, which was the best rock festival ever. Then, within a year and a half, we had Altamont. [David] Crosby was there with CSN and I was there with the Burritos, and I'll never forget when they got offstage and we were going on, he passed me and said "Be very careful. And pay attention. It's very strange out there." And that's all he said.

Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen play 8:30 p.m. Sat., Feb. 5, at Dosey Doe Coffee Shop, 25911 I-45 N., The Woodlands, 281-367-3774 or www.doseydoecoffeeshop.com. Tickets are $62-92 and include a three-course dinner and soft drinks before show.

For more in Chris Hillman, visit www.chrishillman.com.

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter @HPRocksOff.

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