Chris Hillman (The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers)

by Roger Catlin

Chris Hillman was still a teenager when the busy bluegrass musician was asked to join with a couple of other guys on the Los Angeles folk circuit to form The Byrds, arguably America's most influential band of the 1960s, bringing electricity and drums to anthems that endure today. After forays into psychedelia and inventing the kind of country-rock that passes for Americana today, the band broke up after several incarnations.

Hillman continued to mine country with Gram Parsons in The Flying Burrito Brothers. He was in Manassas with Stephen Stills and part of the Souther-Hillman-Furay band before heading the Desert Rose Band in the late '80s and early '90s.

At 75, he tells his tale in the book Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond. Speaking with Songfacts from Ventura, California, he talks about "Mr. Tambourine Man," his first encounter with Emmylou Harris, and recording with Tom Petty the year before he died.
Roger Catlin (Songfacts): What made you want to write a book at this point?

Chris Hillman: Well, I really started this book to leave some kind of record, a story of me, for my kids, and then now I also have two grandkids, and probably more, God willing, are coming. So that's really what it was initially: I was writing a memoir for them.

On the same note, I felt like I'd read so many inaccurate stories, inaccuracies on The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Not the other bands I was in, but those two always get this fake news. I love that term. And that would apply to some of the stuff that these guys have written about The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers.

Songfacts: What exactly have been some of those discrepancies?

Hillman: There's an author in England that wrote a Byrds book that is out in two volumes. It's just not really exactly accurate. He'd tell a story about something, and I'd go, It didn't happen that way. And it was biased in a way. Most of them were centering in on Roger [McGuinn], and that's OK. Roger was the leader of the band, that's fine. He's the lead singer, and that's OK.

It wasn't a question of being jealous or anything like that. I didn't ever seek that position. It fell into my lap in the Desert Rose Band, and the end of The Burrito Brothers, where I took over and ran the groups. But prior to that, in The Byrds, gosh, no.

So that's the reason I wrote it. And I remembered everything that happened. You're not going to need a dictionary to read my book. I wrote it very concisely, as if I were having a conversation with you, just telling you, here's what happened, here's how it happened. And that's exactly the way I wanted to write it. I didn't want to get into these descriptive areas, as if I were writing fiction. Maybe this is fiction, you never know.

Songfacts: You began as a musician doing bluegrass, and in the book you make it sound as if every bluegrass musician in California knew each other. Was it because of camaraderie or were there just not very many of them?

Hillman: There weren't that many people. And the bands that were really good were The Kentucky Colonels and The Golden State Boys - I got to play in The Golden State Boys briefly and I met Clarence White when we were 16. I'd drive up to LA from San Diego and see those guys. I'd see Clarence once in a while and we'd play. He was good then, an incredible musician. His brother Roland helped me on the mandolin. When Roland came back from being in the army, he helped me one night. I'll never forget, he sat up with me all night and showed me some mandolin things. Dean Webb from The Dillards, he showed me some stuff when I was just in the learning stages.

But it was The Kentucky Colonels, The Golden State Boys, Herb Pedersen's band The Pine Valley Boys came down from Berkeley and played out in LA, and then The Dillards came out of Salem, Missouri.

There was a band in the Pasadena area that David Lindley was in, and Chris Darrow and those guys had a bluegrass thing, but seriously, maybe 20-25 people that were totally my age immersed in the music, loved it. Absolutely loved it.

Songfacts: Was there a difference between a California bluegrass sound and one from the Appalachias?

Hillman: In bluegrass, not so much, but in country music, absolutely. When we were younger we'd do Flatt & Scruggs or Bill Monroe material. No one was writing songs at that point. Now, country music, on the other hand, there's a little bit of difference between Nashville and the Bakersfield sound. I always attribute that to the fact that there was a different environment. I can hear it in Buck Owens records - a very heavy Hispanic influence. So Buck's out in Bakersfield and Merle Haggard, he's out there. They're kids and they move out there, Wynn Stewart and these guys.

And Buck on the radio would hear mariachi, norteño, banda — some of Buck's stuff sounds like banda, because of that fast 2/4 beat. So the difference is the environment, because of that Hispanic musical element that Nashville didn't have. There's a sameness, but it's a little different on the West Coast, and there's a lot of country music out here. A lot.

Cal Worthington, the car dealer, had a country music show on live TV every week. When I was 18 years old and in the Golden State Boys, I got to see unbelievable acts coming through, and they'd be on that TV show. Of course they'd want to get on there, because it would promote them. I'm just sitting there watching them: Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, Lefty Frizzell, all kinds of people.

The nucleus of The Byrds came from the folk and coffeehouse circuit. Chicago native Roger McGuinn (whose name was originally Jim McGuinn) had played with groups like The Limeliters that featured Glenn Yarbrough, and had also been in The Chad Mitchell Trio, which later had John Denver as a member.

Gene Clark had been among the revolving membership of The New Christy Minstrels, which also included Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes. David Crosby was with Les Baxter's Balladeers, a singing group from the inventor of the lounge music known as exotica. When McGuinn began doing acoustic versions of Beatles songs in his solo set at the Troubadour, Clark approached him with a similar interest; they soon started a duo specializing in Beatles-style versions of traditional folk songs. At one of their shows, Crosby introduced himself and the three began harmonizing. They began performing as The Jet Set.

It was manager Jim Dickson who suggested they round out the group with bass and drums, so they added Hillman and a bongo player Crosby knew, Michael Clarke.
The Byrds in 1965: David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn - Sony Music EntertainmentThe Byrds in 1965: David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn - Sony Music Entertainment
Songfacts: Speaking of influences from international sources, I was surprised to read not only of Miles Davis' effect on The Byrds' career, but about all the African and Cuban influences on The Byrds.

Hillman: The Byrds, we used to listen to all kinds of music. Very eclectic. And when we were on this one tour, it was early, probably the fall of '65 and we're on the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars. Bo Diddley's on it, Paul Revere & the Raiders, the We Five, and The Byrds, which at that point just had "Turn! Turn! Turn!" going right to the top of charts. We had our own little bus, and Roger rigged up a turntable and the speaker and 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. But Coltrane was a huge influence on the song "Eight Miles High." A very, very big influence.

And Miles Davis, he had no idea who we were at the time, but he did us a favor because he was a friend of our manager's. It was a hell of a favor, because he called up Goddard Lieberson, the head of Columbia, and said, "Give these guys a break. Let them make a single and see what happens."

So we got this single deal. If the single works and it's successful we get to make an album. Thank you, Miles Davis.

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 LA.

The Byrds' performance of Miles Davis' "Milestones" appears as a kind of jam captured in a 1966 TV documentary The Songmakers, alongside the backing track of David Crosby's "Flower Bomb Song." Davis' original instrumental with Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane was the title track on the jazz legend's 1958 album.

Another Byrds stab at "Milestones" pops up on a live recording of an unusual iteration of The Byrds as trio - with McGuinn, Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke - at Winterland in late 1967.
Songfacts: So you cut your test single for Columbia, and it was "Mr. Tambourine Man"?

Hillman: Yes it was. That was the first single we ever did. "Mr. Tambourine" in 1965.

Songfacts: And it was a hit!

Hillman: #1 all over America, France, England, wherever, Western Europe.

Kudos to Roger McGuinn for taking on "Tambourine Man," which didn't knock us out when we first heard it. Bob Dylan had written it in a very countrified groove, a straight 2/4 time signature, and Roger takes the song home and works with it, puts it in 4/4 time, so you could dance to it. Bob heard us do it and said, "Man, you could dance to this!" It really knocked him over and he loved it.

Maybe we were instrumental - no pun intended - pushing him that 20 feet into plugging in. I wouldn't claim that, but I think Bob Dylan wanted to expand on his music and expand it with an electric band, as we did.

Songfacts: You started writing on the second album?

Hillman: I think it was the third album, Younger Than Yesterday.

According to Hillman, he and David Crosby joined trumpet player Hugh Masekela at a recording session for the South African singer Letta Mbulu. Inspired by the African musicians he was working with, Hillman started writing songs. Masekela ended up playing on The Byrds' song "So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star," which Hillman wrote with Roger McGuinn.
Songfacts: What was your approach to writing? Was it something you wanted to do? Something you were encouraged to do?

Hillman: I hadn't even thought about it, I confess, but I had so much fun playing on the Masekela session in an area of music I'd never ever touched before. The gal who we were tracking the songs for that day, the singer [Letta Mbulu], was so complimentary to me, it just blew me away when she said, "Chris you're cooking on the bass." I was having such a great time.

I sat down with my guitar and wrote "Time Between." I don't know where this song came from - "Time Between" is not anything to do with where I had been all day.

It's actually logical: I have my background in bluegrass and country music, and every day afterwards I was writing. "So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star," I showed that to Roger. He came up with the bridge, which he had borrowed from Miriam Makeba - he had worked on one of her albums, and he knew her. He borrowed this little six or eight bars and it worked great in "Rock 'N' Roll Star" - "La da da da da da, da da da da da." That part in the bridge. That was a great track.

The best thing about The Byrds is we went from covering Bob Dylan to, within a year and half, doing songs like "Eight Miles High" and "Rock 'N' Roll Star." We really turned into a great band. And I must say that with all humility. I was very lucky and very blessed to have been a part of that group. I kid McGuinn to this day. I say, "I was probably the 17th guy you called for the bass job." No, he says, "You were the first guy, and it worked."

Songfacts: But the bass was not your instrument at that time, was it?

Hillman: No. I didn't know how to play it. I just lied. "Can you play the bass?" "Yeah. Sure can. Not a problem!"

Actually, I had heard David Crosby, Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn — Jim McGuinn at the time — I had heard them sing and I went, "Wow. This is something." So I didn't think anything about it when I had a call two weeks later, "Can you play the bass?" Immediately I said, "Yes, of course I can. What do you have in mind?" They said, "Come on down tomorrow night."

I didn't even have a bass. I had to get off the phone, hustle around until I found something. I ended up with a red, $50 bass made in Japan God knows when. Early '60s. It wasn't very good. But I walk in there, Lord help me. Let me get through this.

I didn't even know those guys when I walked into the studio where they were practicing, World Pacific Studios. There was one amplifier in the corner, Roger was plugged into that. I said, "I guess I'll plug into that too," it being the only amp in the room. Then I look over and there's the drummer. I never met him. Mike Clarke. And he's got one cymbal and two cardboard boxes and one little snare. That's his drum kit. We had nothing. David had an acoustic and Gene had an acoustic, and off we went.

So we start playing. We used to get in there around midnight for about two, three hours, and Jim Dickson, our manager, would tape us right to two tracks.

We had come out of folk music, so we had a sense of time and rhythm. It was just basically transposing it into an electric format. And there you go.

Songfacts: Was it The Beatles that inspired you to a rock and roll direction?

Hillman: I loved The Beatles, but I had no aspiration to play rock and roll and I continued bluegrass until I got the phone call. I said, "Hm, that sounds interesting." And that's when I jumped into The Byrds.

I always kept that background in bluegrass and country in just about everything. That was my contribution. So when we went to Nashville in 1968 to do Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, it really wasn't a big stretch for me. And it really wasn't a big stretch for McGuinn either. He was the ultimate folk guy.

We were basically folk musicians, you know. I was more bluegrass, but we did not come from a garage rock band background. We literally plugged our amps into the wall and started to transpose, going from acoustic to electric.

For Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, it wasn't like The Byrds are coming to Nashville to make a country album or The Byrds are crossing over to become a country band. No. We were The Byrds and we were making this one album, a country album. And then we were going to go back to what we were doing normally. I'm amazed Columbia even allowed us to do that. It was like a jazz group saying they want to go to Nashville.

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 and made the Top 100 records in Rolling Stone and all that. I was like, Wow, who knew? And then when we went out on the tour a year and a half ago, we were selling out. It was one of the better tours I've gone on in my life.

While it wasn't strictly listed as a Byrds reunion, the 50th anniversary of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was celebrated with a 2018 tour led by Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman along with Marty Stuart and his band the Fabulous Superlatives. Stuart's use of the very 1954 Fender Telecaster used by Clarence White on the original album almost made it seem like another member of The Byrds on stage.

In addition to all 11 tracks from the album, the concert included two other Byrds classics: "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star," and also three songs from Tom Petty, who died the year before at 66.
With Marty Stuart and Roger McGuinn for the 2018 Sweetheart Of The Rodeo tour.

Songfacts: Country hadn't been a big shift for you, since, as you point out in the book, you had recorded a country song, Porter Wagoner's "A Satisfied Mind," for the second album. But you get credit for creating country-rock and even the Americana genre with that album. And you could see for yourself from the 2018 tour how much that album was loved.

Hillman: They grew up with us. Most of them are our age or maybe a little bit younger. There were a lot of young kids in their 20s who had figured out The Byrds and loved it. That was great. I loved that tour. I absolutely loved it.

The Superlatives are probably the best band around. Marty is such a great musician and such a good mandolin player, I was in awe watching him. And one of my favorite parts of that show was playing acoustic lead guitar with him when we were doing "I Am A Pilgrim." We were swapping solos, and I went, "This is great."

Those guys were so nice to work with. No one had attitude or anything, and all that silly stuff you do when you're younger and you're in a rock band, no. These guys were pros from day one. I've always had a great working relationship with Roger McGuinn since 1965. Always professional and gets the job done, and that's what it's all about.

That's what I always was: I was a musician. I didn't want to be a rock star. In fact, Tom Petty, in one of his last interviews, said, "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.

Songfacts: You've lasted a long time in music and that's pretty rare.

Hillman: It is. I've been a blessed man. If it stops tomorrow it's OK, I had a great time. I got to do something I love, and how many people in the world get to do something they really love and make a living?

In the book, I state that what's really successful in my life was having a wonderful family. Now this will sound noble and corny, but it's not. That's what really counts in my life.

Songfacts: It seems like, unlike a lot of other rock autobiographies you read, you still get along with everybody.

Hillman: I did to a point. We were kids, and we had issues, but The Byrds were, for all intents and purposes, the original five people, and those were the people who got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Chris Hillman. And after that, Roger and I rebuilt the band in '68 and we hired Gram Parsons as a session player, and we hired my cousin Kevin [Kelley] to play drums. David had gone, Michael had gone, Gene was long gone - he left in '66 - but it was still a viable sound and style of music that we created.

Chris Hillman has a knack for working with other stars of Southern California. His Flying Burrito Brothers included not only Gram Parsons, but also future Eagle Bernie Leadon and future Firefall founder Rick Roberts. He spent some time in Stephen Stills' short-lived Manassas before recording a couple of albums with the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band in the mid-'70s, with future Eagles songwriter J.D. Souther and Richie Furay of Buffalo Springfield and Poco.

There were some occasional Byrds reunions, starting in 1973, but he also recorded a couple of albums with fellow bandmates Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark as McGuinn, Clark & Hillman. His Desert Rose Band from 1985-'95 may have been his most successful post-Byrds enterprise, with nine Top 10 country singles. He continued playing with Herb Pedersen and John Jorgenson; he and Pedersen put out three albums together; the two also joined Larry Rice and Tony Rice for a trio of bluegrass albums starting in the late '90s.
Songfacts: It seemed like Gram Parsons tested your patience from time to time.

Hillman: The first year we worked together was great. He was ambitious, and he was working harder. He was hungry. He wanted it. And the 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. 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.

But I never stopped loving the guy. He was a really interesting man. Very intelligent. But he had a tough background - not poverty, but it was just very hard for him growing up.

Songfacts: I was interested in the part where you discovered Emmylou Harris in DC. Was it at The Cellar Door?

Hillman: I was working at The Cellar Door on M Street in Georgetown, and she was working at Clyde's, which was down the street from The Cellar Door. It was an afternoon where we had done our soundcheck and Emmy was doing an afternoon show. I saw her and I thought she was really good. It was mostly folk. She was doing Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Carolyn Hester, Judy Collins, that kind of stuff. We asked her to come up to The Cellar Door and sing one with us, and she brought the right song to the party. She sang, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" - Kitty Wells had a hit with it.

I kept her in the memory banks and when I ran into Parsons again he was going, "I need to find a girl singer. I want to make a record." And I said, "I know just the person!" But it took hours for me to convince him to call her. And then he did make the call, and that was it. They were off and going.

His first solo outing in more than 10 years, Chris Hillman's 2017 album, Bidin' My Time, included the mark of its star producer, the longtime Byrds fan Tom Petty, including one of his signature songs, "Wildflowers," and participation of Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell and Steve Ferrone of his band The Heartbreakers. But there were touches from all over Hillman's career, from the participation of both Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, plus a revisiting of some of their past glories, from the "Bells Of Rhymney" that starts the album to the Gene Clark song "She Don't Care About Time" and another go at "Old John Robertson" from The Notorious Byrd Brothers album. Longtime associates from the Desert Rose Band also participated, including Herb Pedersen, John Jorgenson and JayDee Maness.
Songfacts: It must have been great to work with Tom Petty on your 2017 album, Bidin' My Time.

Hillman: I met Tom in '78. Then the album happened and it was a joy working with him. I got to really know him that couple of months we worked together. He's a wonderful, wonderful man. I never met a more humble man who occupied such an important spot in music. He was huge. He had so many great songs that he wrote that were successful. But there he was, one of the most humble people I've ever met.

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. The last conversation I had with him I said, "I can't tell you how much I appreciate what you did." He said, "What do you mean?" I said, "Doing this album - it was a great way to end my recording career." He said, "What are you talking about? I'm not done with you. I want to do an electric rock and roll album and a country album!"

I had so much fun doing Bidin' My Time with him. We probably had it done in six weeks, maybe less, but it was just going so easy, and everyone was having such a great time on it.

Yeah, he was such a cool guy. It broke my heart when he died. Broke my heart.

Songfacts: Will you go ahead and do those albums?

Hillman: I don't know about that. I'm waiting like everyone else. I was just having lunch with John Jorgenson, who I've been working with for over 25 years. He was supposed to go out with me in September and start promoting the book, so everything's on hold. And John says to me, "Gosh, I don't know any of us are ever going to play again." I said, "John, I think it's going to happen again. It will all be rescheduled and they'll work it out. Live music will not go away."

Songfacts: How have you been coping with the pandemic these past months?

Hillman: Let's see, I learned how to properly load the dishwasher and I learned how to fold my clothes correctly because someone has been trying to teach me for about 40 years. But no, I've been fine. It didn't bother me not to leave the house. I feel bad for the guy who has a small business.

I read a lot of books. I really need to do some more playing. Here's what I should be doing: I should be practicing an hour a day, and I should be cleaning my garage out. Should be getting rid of things. I don't want to turn into a hoarder. Things are fine. We're going to get through this. We're all going to survive this. God willing.

December 1, 2020

More on Hillman and information on how to get the book Time Between is at chrishillman.com.

More interviews:
Roger McGuinn
Mike Campbell
Benmont Tench
Graham Nash

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • Jeff Prine from Ft. Lauderdale Florida What a great interview with Chris Hellman I started playing the guitar after hearing the Byrds and the sound of Jim’s Rickenbacker 12 string . Growing up with n New York my brother would take me t you he Fillmore Easy every weekend from 68/70 and I finally got to hear from he Byrds whom at the time Clarence was playing with them ! What a treat! Spin the clock forward to 2019 and I got to see them play at my he Parker Playhouse in Ft. Lauderdale for what you as a fantastic show . Thank you for a great interview. Would be great to interview Jim McQuinn
  • Dennis from New JerseyExcellent !!!
  • Recordsteve from The Emerald CoastGreat interview & getting to know Chris=thanks! I've been trying to find one of Chris' album. I don't know the title, but thought it was religious; is it still available?
see more comments

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