Guitarist saw his share of ups, downs in his career
The life of guitarist Chris Hillman is filled with moments both celebratory and bittersweet.
Heralded as one of the pioneers of country rock through his work with such iconic groups as The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Desert Rose Band, bands who became known for experimenting with foundations of American music, the multi-instrumentalist continues picking his way through an illustrious career.
Following a successful reunion tour with The Desert Rose Band two years ago, Hillman returns to the Crystal Palace Wednesday, June 27th with original members Herb Pedersen, John Jorgenson, Jay Dee Maness, Steve Duncan and Bill Bryson.
“I feel really lucky,” said Hillman, 67, during a phone interview from his home in Ventura. “I never considered myself the greatest player in the world, but I’ve been fortunate to have played with some really great people. I never wanted to be king or top of the mountain solo country or rock star. I always wanted to work in a band and be a band guy, so that’s what’s really sustained me. I don’t mean it in the past tense either, I’m still working and having a great time.”
Above: The Byrds
And after nearly 50 years of performing, Hillman’s name continues to be mentioned in the same breath as many all-time greats of his era, especially among music historians who note many of his collaborations as groundbreaking. Among them is his work with the late Gram Parsons, who was hired by The Byrds to replace David Crosby in 1968. For the next few years, the two bonded through their pursuit to push the boundaries of rock.
Above: The Flying Burrito Brothers
“Working with Gram in the beginning was great. He was ambitious, focused and really going after it. I had some great years with him in both The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. We were like brothers, with a truly close relationship. We shared a house together, and everyday we worked and worked.”
Hillman’s creative relationship with Parsons ended after only two and a half years, but while it lasted, the two helped craft some of rock’s most genre-bending releases: The Byrds’ “Sweetheart of The Road,” and The Flying Burrito Brothers’ “The Gilded Palace of Sin.”
“After that first year, I noticed I was already starting to lose him. Gram and I wrote all the songs on the first Flying Burrito Brothers album in that house, but he started getting into the dark stuff with substance abuse, and I think he was probably bored and wanted to do other things. For awhile we were just really close, almost like Cain and Abel in the Bible. Maybe not that bad, but we started to drift apart.”
Above: Chris Hillman today
Hillman understands he and Parsons will always be synonymous with each other, but adds that rock ’n’ roll is filled with all too similar cautionary tales. Parsons died of a drug overdose in 1973, but his memory follows Hillman as a haunting reminder of their brilliant but artistically stormy partnership.
“The darkness always begins to creep in, in any band you can name. Whether it’s Guns N’ Roses, or even The Beatles, whatever, you just start out with this goal, and you’re starting together to attain it. I always say it’s like five people holding a paint brush and trying to paint the Mona Lisa smile. You strive for something together, but then something creeps in and starts breaking it apart. Some groups survive, and I can only think of one, The Rolling Stones. It happens.”
That brief period with Parsons ultimately groomed Hillman for The Desert Rose Band, his most commercially successful project formed after the breakup of The Flying Burrito Brothers. With Hillman once again on lead vocals, the group’s more straight-ahead country sound brought them to the country charts with a string of hit singles and six full-length albums.
Above: The Desert Rose Band
“This group was part of an evolution when we formed. We started messing around with more country styles with The Byrds, around ’66 to ’67. None of us came out of rock ’n’ roll, we came out of folk music, and I came out of country and bluegrass music. I was listening to guys like Buck Owens, who was a big influence.”
Hillman’s admiration for Owens runs deeps, and even goes as far as to credit him with developing the concept of country rock years before he and Parsons would take the concept into new territory.
“I think Buck Owens and The Buckaroos were doing what we would refer to as country rock, because he had this great groove and wrote these songs that people could come out and dance to. It was more of an upbeat groove than Nashville had at the time. I always say that without Buck, there wouldn’t have been The Byrds or The Flying Burrito Brothers.”
The Desert Rose Band
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 27th, 2012
Where: Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, 2800 Buck Owens Blvd.
Admission: $35 to $44
Information: 661-328-7560 or vallitix.com
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Also printed in the 6-21-12 issue of The Bakersfield Californian