Throughout his nearly 60-year career in music, he’s flown high as a Byrd and a Burrito Brother. He’s served as a Squirrel Barker and a Golden State Boy. He left the train depot in Manassas on his way out west to pick a Desert Rose. And he’s been rightfully lauded as a founding father of country rock.
So Chris Hillman has a lot of stories to tell and observations to make about music, life, and his former bandmates. And he does in Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond (315 pp., $29.99, BMG books). And while the book takes its title from a Hillman song, it’s not exactly what he wanted it to be called.
“I was going to call it My Life as a Beatle, but nobody wanted to publish it!” he laughs. “I just don’t understand why!”
Hillman’s story opens up with a childhood near San Diego in Rancho Sante Fe, California. His father was an advertising and newspaper man, with great assist from his mother. And while family finances were sometimes issues, it was a youth filled with horse riding, surfboarding, car riding, and music.
He also met western-tinged local characters like The Red Cowboy and Old John Robertson, the latter of whom would be immortalized in a Byrds song.
“John Robertson was just a lovely man. He was also always throwing money at us,” Hillman recalls. “If you saw him on the street he’d say ‘I think you dropped a dollar,’ and point to the ground where one was. I’d say I didn’t have a dollar. He’d go ‘Well, you better keep this one until you find out who it belongs to.’”
Barely out of his teens, Hillman was drafted to play bass the Byrds. They exploded in popularity and helped invent the genre of folk rock (sometimes tinged with psychedelia) with songs like “Turn! Turn! Turn!” “Eight Miles High,” “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n Roll Star” and their danceable Dylan cover, “Mr. Tambourine Man”—which in turn influenced the Bard of Hibbing to steer his own career in a more rock direction.
Among music nerds though, it’s the band’s 1968 Sweetheart of the Rodeo album that has taken on the most mythical status as Ground Zero for Country Rock. And while new Byrd Gram Parsons has been given “credit” for moving the band in that direction, it’s a misnomer. One that’s only grown given the Cult of Gram that has developed around the late performer who died in 1973 at the age of 26 from a drug overdose.
“I didn’t think it was the best album we ever did, but we were doing country songs in 1965, and lot of people don’t understand that,’” Hillman offers. “They say ‘Well, Gram Parsons got them to do a country record,’ and that’s not the case at all. On the second Byrds album we did a Porter Wagoner song. So Sweetheart wasn’t really a stretch for us.”
Hillman also notes that all of the Byrds had come out of folk music, and is proud that the album “blew open the door” for bands like Poco, Pure Prairie League, the Eagles, and even Hillman’s next group (co-founded with Parsons), the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Hillman writes candidly about Parsons and Byrd David Crosby. And while he respects them as friends and musicians, their ego, hubris, and sometimes childish behavior derailed important moments. In the case of Parsons, he had become enamored of the Rolling Stones and especially his new drug buddy, guitarist Keith Richards.
He began spending more time with the Englishmen than hanging out with his own group. Hillman and bandmate Roger McGuinn saw the writing on the wall when the Stones took the Byrds to see Stonehenge one early misty morning while the American group was on tour in England.
“We were walking through the wet ground and Mick Jagger and Keith were ahead and Gram just went running after them [like a puppy]. I’ll never forget Roger says ‘Uh-oh, someone’s fascinated with the Rolling Stones.’” Hillman says.
Jagger – who sent his chauffeur to bring back dry socks for the bands – was not a fan. Hillman writes that one day when he had to search out his bandmate to ensure he made a concert that evening, he found Parsons stoned out with the Stones. Parsons would receive a tongue lashing from Jagger.
“Mick was really onto him, saying he needed to be professional and responsible and owed it to the audience who had paid their money to see him. If people are buying tickets, you need to show up,” Hillman says.
Hillman recalls that when the Burrito Brothers were scheduled to play in apartheid-era South Africa, Parsons made an “impassioned” speech about why he wasn’t going, and how growing up in Georgia and Florida made him extra sensitive about racism in all forms. Hillman was nonplussed.
“He really just wanted to stay behind with Keith Richards. I had to fire him three or four months later. But it’s all water downstream,” he says. “I liked the guy, but his biggest problem was having the family trust fund and getting a check every month. You have to struggle and suffer to attain success, it’s part of the process. And he had this safety net behind him. I think it held Gram back.”
As for the still-alive-against-all-odds David Crosby, Hillman says “David has outlived a lot of people. What an amazing constitution! Yes, he gets into mischief every five seconds by something he’s done or said. He can’t seem to keep his mouth shut, but I love the guy.”
Hillman took on a more prominent role – even as vocalist – in the incredbile Manassas, led by Stephen Stills. When it’s suggested to Hillman that he seems to have always taken the “Graham Nash role” as band peacemaker, he laughs. “We share that role! Graham was in the middle of two maniacs with Crosby and Stills. I know. because I worked with them both!” he laughs. “But I love them. I was the mediator like he was.”
Hillman would go on to find mainstream country success with the Desert Rose Band in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and today tours with former members Herb Pederson and John Jorgenson. He’s continued to record, his most recent effort being 2017’s Bidin’ My Time. It was produced by Tom Petty (always heavily influenced by the Byrds), and included contributions by Petty and his band the Heartbreakers as well as McGuinn and Crosby.
Time Between also covers Hillman’s deep Christian faith and spiritual journey. He became an evangelical Christian in 1973. After marrying Connie Pappas, whose own religious background is in the Greek Orthodox church. Hillman got curious about that faith after attending some services with her and their two children.
“I felt a strong calling and talked to the priest for a few days and asked about icons and things like that. I love the layers and layers of tradition. I was brought into the church in 1996. And the way I see it, we’re all on the same ball team if you’re a Christian,” he says.
He goes on to describe his journey in more detail, before stopping himself and laughing. “I feel like I’m giving you a theology lesson! I’m not trying to proselytize!”
As for his musical career in the Age of Coronavirus, Hillman says he has a handful of dates booked in 2021 (including two in Texas), but is frustrated by government rule and regulations (Hint: he is no fan of California Governor Gavin Newsom). But it’s not just his bottom line he’s concerned about.
“That’s the sad part of this whole deal, the economics. Maybe Texas is a little more on the ball, but here in California where they’re shutting things down and these guys that have a small business or restaurant, it’s gone. It’s over. It’s very sad,” he says.
“And what’s implied in my book is this: don’t give up. Pick yourself up and keep moving. When my dad died [by suicide] and we were flat broke, and my mom said we had to move, my sister and I didn’t complain. We went and did it, and kept moving. Nobody said anything was fair. You have to work things and respect others and stop with all this vitriol."
Hillman stops himself, then lets out another laugh. "There, I’m preaching to you again!”
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