Classic Rock Corner

Byrds, Burritos, and Bluegrass: Chris Hillman Interviewed

"'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.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero