Chris Hillman: A Byrd Takes Wing

In his revealing new autobiography, singer, songwriter and multi-faceted musician reflects on times pent in two of themes influential outfits of all time — the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers

Chris Hillman (Art: Ron Hart)

Chris Hillman has reason to be frustrated, and rightfully so. As a musician who’s performed ever since his early teens, this former Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother has been grounded by the pandemic.

As Hillman approaches his 76th birthday, he finds, for the first time in a nearly 60 year career, he’s unable to do the thing his loves most, that is, to go out and make music.

“I hope someday I can get back out and play,” Hillman lamented during his interview with Rock and Roll Globe. “I actually had some shows booked, and we were going to start playing this month. But I think it’s January now that we have a couple of Florida dates that hopefully will happen. And then in March we’ll go out and start promoting the book.

In the meantime however, Hillman has another credit he can add to his remarkable resume. He’s authored a new book, Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond, an autobiography that takes the reader from Hillman’s early idyllic life growing up in rural California through the tragedy that beset his family when his father committed suicide and forced him into a search for his own identity. It was the lure of music that eventually gave the shy, insecure young man the direction he craved, first as a mandolin player with the early bluegrass bands the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and the Golden State Boys (later known as the Hillmen), and then as a multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter with the Byrds and the Burrito Brothers, the groups that would ensure his immortality. 

He would go on from there of course, finding further success with Stephen Stills’ Manassas, the Byrds reunion of sorts dubbed McGuinn Clark & Hillman (later, shortened to McGuinn-Hillman after the departure of Gene Clark), the combined talents of John David Souther, Hillman and Richie Furay, a superb series of solo albums, and ultimately the successful country outfit he helmed called The Desert Rose Band.

 

 

 

It’s a remarkably revealing book in every regard, no less so than when he talks about the friends that fell by the wayside due to becoming prey to the terrible vices that claim so many great musicians at too young an age — in this case, fellow Byrds and Burrito Brothers Gene Clark, Gram Parsons and Michael Clarke. He also speaks candidly about a near tragedy of his own, an illness that almost took his life. At the same time, he tells of the redemption and faith found through religion and marriage to his wife Connie, the woman he credits with helping him carry on and realize the good fortune that he had accumulated, both past and present. 

Indeed, Hillman’s list of accomp-lishments — as a multi-faceted musician, singer, songwriter, and bandleader — are among the most formidable of any practitioner of popular music in the past half century. Now, with this new book, those credits become clear.

Rock and Roll Globe recently had the opportunity to talk with Hillman and ask him about the book and the incidents and events he recounts in such vivid detail. Gracious and soft-spoken, he possesses a knack for immediately putting a person at ease. Above all, he’s forthcoming, allowing for a most insightful interview.

 

For starters, how did you decide to go about writing the book and why did you believe that now was the time to tell your story? 

I was tired of reading such inaccurate accounts of the Byrds and Burritos, if nothing else. Mostly, it was motivated by wanting to leave a good story for my kids and grandkids. 

 

What was the process of writing this book like for you as you were looking back?
It was quite cathartic. There are a lot of things that we all do that we later regret, but it isn’t really relevant to go back and start looking over your shoulder. 

 

You really lay yourself bare when you talk about your family and the difficulties they went through when you were in your teens.

The hardest thing was talking about my dad’s suicide, but I had come to grips with that after 30 years of anger. He was a good man, a great father. Between my mother and my father, they really taught us well, despite any strong or firm religious background. They taught us about responsibility and work and morality and values. I hold that as why I survived a very insidious business. There were others around me who died young, but it got to the point where I made peace with him. 

 

What finally allowed you to do that?

I had done this really intense interview with the religious program called “The 700 Club.” We were in my house talking, and I really let my feelings out, and everyone there that was listening was in tears. It wasn’t something I felt I needed to run away from or hide. It wasn’t difficult. I was perfectly at ease with it all. Most of my life I was very angry and I finally got over that. So when I finally got down to writing things, that was the thing that was most tough to write about. The subtext is my redemption of coming out of a very unpleasant situation at 16 years old. My mother, God bless her, isn’t with us anymore, but what an incredible woman she was. When my dad died, we realized we had no money. Then we were. So what do you do? Do you complain and go off and hide, or do you pick yourself up? Thank God for my stoic mother. We all went to work. I went to night school to get my high school credits so I could work in the day time. We survived. And we all survived well. Right up to the last year of my mother’s life, as she was dying, she looked up at me and said, “I failed you.” And I said,”No you did not. Everybody in this family is successful because of you.” And everybody was successful. My sisters were great teachers. My brother was a retired lieutenant colonel in the airfare and an airline pilot. We were all successful. We worked hard and a lot of it was how we were brought up. So sharing that might enlighten people. I don’t know. It enlightened me. I got through it. And of course a major part of my survival was meeting Connie. My God, what a wonderful woman. 

Chris Hillman’s new memoir Time Between: My Life As A Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond is in stores now

Nevertheless, the book makes it clear that was music then that put you on the path to success and personal prosperity.

I had such a passion for music, but I never thought I could get paid for it. Getting paid was like, wow! I remember when in 1963, I got my first $10 or whatever we got as part of the Squirrel Barkers for a couple of gigs and doing an album and all that. With the Byrds, the success came along, but unfortunately as it happened to many acts, it starts to crumble. We were young kids and we needed someone driving the stagecoach and (producer/manager Jim) Dickson was the only one, but didn’t quite do it right, and things fell apart.

 

It’s pretty incredible that you’re still good friends with Crosby, despite his craziness and the fact that you guys are on the opposite side of the political divide and have such different mindsets.

I don’t hold any animosity to anyone I ever worked with who’s still around, still alive. I just don’t. What’s the point? I love David. I read about something he’s done and I just start laughing. David is just prone to getting into mischief. And mischief is a kind word. I read about some of the egregious things he’s done and I say, ‘My God.’ But I can’t judge him. He’s done some really interesting things in his life. Plus he helped me when I needed help. He was there for me. As was Stephen Stills. They were there for me when I needed help. I didn’t need to beg them. They were there for me when I needed help, as all my friends were. So was Roger. 

 

 

Last year’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour, which found you reconnecting with Roger McGuinn, revisiting that landmark Byrds album seems to have been very special for you.

It was great to work with Roger again. We took it as far as we could go with it. We couldn’t keep going on that premise of the 50th anniversary.

 

Maybe you can do it again on the 55th anniversary.

None of us in our age group now — those of us in our mid to late 70s — don’t even know if we’ll be able to play anymore. We’ll see. Hopefully, there will be live music venues again. Whatever. I look at it like, hey, I had a really wonderful career, and I’m very blessed to have gotten to do anything. So I go with where it’s going. I’m assuming I will be playing in the spring.

 

In retrospect, what are your thoughts about the period when you were at the helm of the Flying Burrito Brothers, the band you started in the wake of your departure from the Byrds? In the book, you indicate that you have mixed emotions.

The last album we did, Last of the Red Hot Burritos, was a smoking live album. I’m proud of that. I wish I had taken control of it earlier, from day one. But once again, we’re looking over our shoulder and saying, I should of, if only I could of. But it came out the way it should have. It all came out great. 

 

You’ve been given credit for helping to initiate that format that we’ve now come to refer to as “Americana.” Clearly, the Byrds and the Burrito Brothers were at the forefront of that sound long before anyone ever came up with the term.

I like the Americana genre because it encompasses all genres. We were never going to Nashville to be a country act. We were the Byrds, making a country album. That album was Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I do regret that I didn’t stick around a little longer when Clarence White was with the band.

Chris Hillman: Younger Than Yesterday (Art: Ron Hart)

You mention in the book how the Desert Rose Band fell out of favor with country radio because of the way country music changed course. So much of it seems like frat boy rock these days. It’s hard to be a fan of that sound.

None of us are. I had a long talk with Steve Earle the other day, and Steve said, “Oh yeah. I got on the radio just after you guys and that period in the late ‘80s  is what I refer to as ‘The Great Credibility Scare’ in country music.” And I said, “Right. It was all good songwriting and great country acts — Kathy Mattea, the O’Kanes — and then it just changed. Radio changed. Garth Brooks and all these other acts, good or band. And he’s good. He certainly knows what he’s doing. Very smart man. But that changed the radio. I don’t listen to it. It’s horrible. But that’s the way it is. 

 

People must ask you all the time about the possibility of a reunion, either with the remaining members of the Byrds or the surviving members of the Flying Burrito Brothers. Have you ever considered either?

No. I’m going to fulfill any commitments I have and whatever looks doable as far as performing. But otherwise, I don’t want to go backwards. I don’t see any point in doing that. Never had to. I would have if I had to gotten to the point where I had to support the family. Then I would have. But no, no reunions now. 

 

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

6 thoughts on “Chris Hillman: A Byrd Takes Wing

  • October 6, 2020 at 3:11 pm
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    Great interview. Can’t wait to read the book. Love Chris and all his music from the “Barkers” to his current stuff. An Icon of American music and having met him and talked with him several times, one of the nicest people in the business. Honest, kind, and down to earth.

    Reply
  • October 6, 2020 at 4:31 pm
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    nice piece & wasn’t hillman in manassas too l loved that little celebrated band & lee just a wild ask i had a poet friend from maryville lost track of stephen thompsen thought it couldn’t hurt mentioning he called me in atlanta my friends wife lost the message w the number he never called back & again love chris hillman his music stands

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  • October 6, 2020 at 6:29 pm
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    lee nice piece wasn’t chris in manassas w steven stills loved that record loved that group saw them a few times once at the celebration of life concert and now lee for something a bit of an aside i see you live in maryville i had a poet friend from there named stephen thompsen he gave me a rod mckuen book to inspire me i am a writer rocker too he called me in atlanta but my friends wife at the time lost the message & re stephen your article mentions friends lost along the way so i thought i would take the slight chance & thx nice article hillmans creative works stand the test lee s

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  • October 6, 2020 at 6:54 pm
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    I like reading all about Chris Hillman and the groups he was in. Would like to know more about his family…his children and grandchildren and are they involved in show business. Enjoyed reading this interview. The last time I saw him was at Sellersville, PA with John Jorgensen and Herb Pederson. Wish I could see them again sometime!😍

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  • October 7, 2020 at 12:38 am
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    Great interview. Really looking forward to reading the bio. Chris didn’t have the personality associated with the big “stars,” but he leant his talents to more great groups than anyone I can think of (and he played an integral part in each): Byrds, FBB, SHF, McGuinn-Hillman-Clarke, Manassas, & Desert Rose Band, not to mention his solo work and collaborations with Herb Pedersen. That’s a darn impressive resume for anyone! I saw him perform last year with Herb at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad. Great show! Hopefully he’ll be back on the road once more.

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  • October 9, 2020 at 12:47 pm
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    Love Chris Hillman and his music from the ’65 Byrds all the way up to the Desert Rose Band! This was a great interview with a great artist! Saw an unplugged concert with him and a condensed version ofvthe Desert Rose Band, early 2015 in Tucson, AZ. Long throw from first seeing him and the Byrds (minus Gene Clark) on L.I, NY, summer of ’66. Have always had the utmost respect for him as a gentleman, mudician, hard-working human being, family man. So sorry he went through what he did after his father’s suicide. Love to see you out there again playing, Chris, after this is all over!!

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