A rock and country legend 

Byrds, Flying Burrito Bros. and Desert Rose Band founder Chris Hillman plays Randy Wood’s

RANDY WOOD'S Concert Hall in Bloomingdale so frequently touts the artists they book as “world class” that you’d be forgiven for simply assuming it’s so much hype.

However, the simple truth is that Wood, a “world class” luthier himself, is a real stickler when it comes to acoustic folk, bluegrass, blues, jazz and pop music. He’s simply not interested in presenting anyone who isn’t near the top of their game. Every once in a while, this results in acts gracing the small, low stage in his unpretentious listening room that are world famous as well.

That would certainly be the case with this Friday’s attraction, the duo of Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen. Both masterful string-musicians with tons of successful albums and tours to their names, frontman Hillman is a true legend of modern popular music. A founding member of The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Mannassas, he has quite literally played a key role in the so-called “folk-rock” boom of the ‘60s, the birth of the initial country rock movement, and the subsequent spin-off genres of alt.country and Americana.

click to enlarge Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen
  • Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen

A member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (Class of 1991), and blessed with a wondrously sonorous voice and way with a phrase, he’s a four-time Grammy nominee whose Desert Rose Band was named Touring Band of The Year from 1988 - 1990 by the Academy of Country Music Association. He also nabbed a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004 from the Americana Music Association.

I caught up with this iconic artist by phone at his Ca. home for the following leisurely and candid conversation.

You’re something of a journeyman musician, in that over the years you’ve played in a number of different formats, with a number of different people, and yet your voice and your playing style always shine through to anyone who is familiar with your sound. Looking back, can you discern any particular common thread that runs through all your projects, from The Golden State Boys to the Byrds to the Burrito Bros. to the Desert Rose band and beyond even if its a personal one that might not be obvious to even the most careful listener?

Chris Hillman: I think it’s the bluegrass link there. That and basically growing up with folk music. Having been around and listened to and loved the early rock and roll from 1955 as well as real folk music. I kinda bypassed the Kingston Trio and all that. I got straight into the mountain music. Maybe that’s where my vocal style comes from, I don’t know. There’s also a lot of the old church-style singing in there as well, because that’s my foundation, really. But I’m looking in the mirror here. You’re a better judge than me! One of the reasons I’m enjoying this is that I’m playing the mandolin again, which I had put down for about six years in the Byrds.

You’ve lived a most unusual life, in that you’ve not only been present, but intimately involved in more than a couple of stylistic shifts in popular American music that have gone on to create ripples and waves all around the world. They say that hindsight is 20/20. When you were actively forming bands and crafting arrangements that helped usher in the so-called folk-rock movement and the early days of country rock, did you or anyone you were working with have a real comprehension of just how influential some of the approaches and production decisions that were being made would still have, as much as 40 years later?

Chris Hillman: No. If you were really looking at it that way, it would never happen. You’re in the moment. I have never strayed too far away from my base musical roots. From square one, it’s always been about bluegrass and folk. The Byrds weren’t really a rock band. We just plugged the instruments into the wall and started learning! (laughs) We had no blueprint or preset idea in our minds at all. I think I can look back at that band today —which is almost 45 years later— with pretty clearly. You know, The Byrds, we never got really rich, Jim. We did quite well relative to the time, but what I’m most proud of that far outweighs any monetary gain is that we left a musical path for everyone to follow. Be it the Eagles, or Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty — who has always acknowledged it. I mean, I don’t even know anything about Kenny Chesney, except that he’s a huge country star. But I saw an interview the other day where he was saying that he felt there wouldn’t even be any country music today without The Byrds, because we had folks like Vern Gosdin —who was an old band-mate and friend of mine— open up for us. It was a very nice sentiment.

All of my bands have had their defining moments. It’s just that the Byrds were the most well-known of them all. As I like to say, it seems I’ll never get fully out of the nest. (laughs) We had a wonderful man named Jim Dickson who was our manager. He drilled into our heads to go for substance more than anything. He told us we should try to make music we could listen to in 30 or 40 years and be proud of, rather than to go into the “boys and girls” territory. Of course, since we had such gifted songwriters as Gene Clark and Roger and —a little later on—myself to an extent, it worked out well.


Here's a rare, live bootleg of the classic Byrds lineup with Hillman playing their trademark hit "So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star" in Sweden, 1967:


What kind of artists do you try to see in concert these days?

Chris Hillman: Personally, I don’t go to concerts anymore. The last one I saw was a Brad Paisley show at the Santa Barbara Bowl. It was so loud it was assaulting. We take a very different approach in these acoustic gigs. As I said earlier, we can offer a nice and restful evening, but that’s not to say it won’t hold your attention. You’ll be awake and excited! I truly can’t think of a better time for folk music to come in than these days. There’s a song I wrote called “It’s Gonna Be a Good Year,” and it goes, “Heaven knows we’ve seen tough times/This past year seemed to swallow us in.” I wrote that three or four years ago when things were going fine, but it’s very relevant now. We’re in a heck of a crunch. But everything is gonna work out. The bottom line is your health, and just knowing that everything will be okay.

As a working musician myself, I know how frustrating it can be to have an acclaimed musical project in your past that a lot of people have affection for, but which for whatever reason isn’t up and running. There seemed at times to be so much drama and acrimony involved with the Byrds name and legacy. I know that you include some Byrds material in your albums and sets now, but I wondered if there was ever a time when that stuff soured you on actually performing those songs that you played such a vital role in creating?

Chris Hillman: Well, I personally went through it right up until the very end, when I thought it was time for me to leave. I wasn’t sick of the songs, but I felt I was just spinning my wheels. My only regret is that I told Roger to hire Clarence White, and I only wound up doing one or two shows with him before I left in a bit of a stormy departure. It wasn’t one of my better moments as a human being. We’re all geniuses in hindsight. You know? I’ll be 64 in a number of weeks, and I think now that all things happen for a reason. You’re presented with choices.

See, I went off and did the Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons, and Jim, at first it was really good. But I soon wound up thinking, God in heaven, here the Byrds started out just playing Bob Dylan songs and then by the end of the band, we’d come out and play things like “Eight Miles High” as almost jazz explorations! Then all of a sudden, I’m back to playing country music again, but playing it badly! How did I let that happen? (laughs) That’s all water downstream now, though, Jim. I mean, what are you gonna do? It was a step I had to take. I never looked back with distaste in my mouth.


Here's Chris singing lead on a live cover of the Dave Dudley gear-jamming classic "Six Days on The Road" with the Burrito Bros. after Gram's departure from the band:


You brought up John Fogerty, who I respect as a songwriter very much. But I’ll say this: when the Byrds were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, we all got up on stage together. Here we all were being honored for a special moment and time in our lives when we were all reaching out for the brass ring —that’s the best way I can describe what we did together— and we all sat at the same table and we played together that night. And you know what? I don’t think too many bands did that, because there was so much hostility between them. But when it came to John Fogerty, there was an incident where Stu Cook and Doug Clifford from Creedence (Clearwater Revival) got up to play and he wouldn’t let them on the stage. Now, it’s not really my place to judge, but that just didn’t seem right. Our induction seemed more like a fitting closure, even though I hate to use that term. We had a unique sound, and we made it to the top of the charts, and all those years later we played that one last show together. Not long afterwards, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke both died, and it was very sad for me as I was very close to both of them.

I just recently attended a special screening of a new documentary on “The Wrecking Crew” and the whole L.A. session scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s directed by famed session guitarist Tommy Tedesco’s son. As someone who was around a lot of that, have you seen or heard anything about the film?

Chris Hillman: Well, Denny Tedesco contacted me a year ago about being interviewed, but I said I hadn’t really done those kind of sessions. I suggested he talk to Roger, because the Wrecking Crew played on “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Now, I know most of those guys by name. Hal Blaine is a friend. Those guys were all phenomenal. I mean, whether it was the Beach Boys or whoever, they played on everybody’s records! But Carol Kaye didn’t play bass on Tambourine Man, Larry Knechtel did. That was the only song we didn’t play on, because Columbia was hedging their bets. They signed us initially just for a single, so in case that didn’t sell well, they wouldn’t be obligated to make a full record with us.

I think we may have been the very first rock act that Columbia signed, and after us they signed Paul Revere & The Raiders. The Beatles were selling tons of records at the time and Columbia said we better get one of those! I got two takes on that session. Leon Russell actually played on it, too. That was back before he had long hair. He had short hair and glasses and a suit on. I remember it to this day! (laughs) Roger played on it of course, because he was the better musician of the band at the time. Part of me does still wonder though what it would have sounded like if we’d rehearsed a lot and gone in and just blown it out.

A lot of folks don’t know that Miles Davis actually helped us get the first session. He called up Goddard Lieberson who was running Columbia at the time, and a very good guy, and he said, (attempting Davis’ famed raspy growl) “sign those guys!” (laughs) See, late at night, when the Byrds would rehearse, we’d have all kinds of people come down and hang out. Folks like Lenny Bruce would be there watching us practice. We had one foot in the beatnik Bohemia era that came along before hippies, when people like Marlon Brando and Lloyd Bridges would pal around and show up out of the blue. It was very exciting to be involved in those different scenes.


Here's a live clip of the Desert Rose Band (featuring Herb Pedersen and the great John Jorgensen) playing their hit "Running":


Your website makes a point to highlight the fact that you’ve slowed down a bit of late and are putting emphasis on your family life, rather than the road. What do you find yourself doing most in your downtime from musical pursuits?

Chris Hillman: I was very active, and I’ve had to change my priorities. My friend’s a foreman on a 4,000-acre ranch in San Diego County. I grew up with horses, but I never did cattle. I don’t own a horse of my own now and I don’t want one. But I got back into riding a few years ago, and they’ve been kind enough to teach an old fat man like me how to rope cattle. (laughs) It’s not the season for branding, but I’ve been getting into that as well. Believe it or not, I find myself doing about an hour or two a day on the computer, answering people who write to me, working on projects or writing songs.

Anything else?

Chris Hillman: I’m also teaching about four students mandolin and guitar. I don’t charge them any money. Me and Herb also taught real classes at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch Camp. Lord knows I’m not Tony Rice or Sam Bush, but I’ve been at this a good long while and have a lot that I can show folks. The same with vocals. It took me a long time to learn to sing properly. It was mostly a confidence problem. I’m shy as a bug. But it’s very rewarding to teach others, and I like to give back in a sense. I have a couple of young kids who are so good on the mandolin that they soak up whatever I show them like sponges. Soon they’ll be teaching me! (laughs)

How much longer do you plan to continue working actively on music?

Chris Hillman: I don’t know if I’ll ever make another CD. If I do, it’ll be available at my shows and for download only. I still love to play concerts, but I don’t like to travel much. I don’t know anyone who does anymore! McGuinn has really go the touring thing down, though. He and his wife have a nice, big van of a thing and they just take off and go. When the show’s over, they’re back on the road, and they love it.

So, they’re basically living in an RV, and just stopping whenever it’s time to do a gig?

Chris Hillman: Yeah! And his shows are very good. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a chance to see him in concert, but he’s always been a great showman. So, yeah, I’m really semi-retired, but I still love to play. I don’t play golf, though. As Mark Twain said, it’s “a good walk spoiled.” (laughs)

For this show, you’ll be in a little, 100-seat listening room run by Randy Wood. What are some of the positive aspects of doing smaller, more intimate shows like this one?

Chris Hillman: Lemme tell you something: I’d rather play for 100 people than 10,000. I like the intimacy. I like to sit down and just be able to talk to the people about the music we’re playing. I don’t tell them what the songs are about, though, because that’s open to their own personal interpretation. I don’t get too long-winded. Herb will smack me if I go on too long.

He’ll bring out the hook?

Chris Hillman: Exactly. (laughs) Still, it’s kind of like a fun little musicology class.

As a mandolinist, I’m sure you know of Randy’s work, but I wondered if you and he had any history together?

Chris Hillman: I’ve never met the man. I just know him by his reputation. He used to take bad Gibson mandolins and re-do them and they’d literally be unbelievably good after he’d gotten hold of them. I’m assuming he’ll have some absolutely fantastic instruments laying around down there to pick on. I have a weakness for amazing instruments, so I’ll probably wind up giving him my pay back that night and walk out of there with something. (laughs)

You know, maybe that’s why keeps booking great mandolinists. (laughs)

Chris Hillman: That would be a great racket! (laughs) I already have enough mandolins for an entire village in Guatemala to play, though.

So how’s life for Chris Hillman in late 2008?

Chris Hillman: Life’s good and I can’t complain. I have survived a very tumultuous business. God knows why, but in the entertainment business, be you an actor or a musician, the door swings open and the devil comes right through there. And it ruins so many lives. I’m serious. It’s that sense of entitlement and power. Abraham Lincoln said if you wanna judge a man’s character, give him a little power and see what he does with it. That’s true, and applies to the entertainment business.

So many of my friends have fallen by the wayside. Two friends in the Byrds have died and Gram. But it was by their own choice! No one put a gun to their head. I could have been a statistic, but I never lost my sense of decency. I credit that to my parents, and I’ve tried to pass that along to my children. My kids are real achievers.

I was a lucky kid. You know, I always wanted to go back to college and study for a history degree, but I wound up learning it on my own. I’m not quite done yet, though, and —God willing— if I hit my mid-seventies, I might sit down and write some funny stories about my adventures. Nothing nasty, though. Just the funny stuff that I’ve seen in this business. But you know, if everything stopped tomorrow and I couldn’t perform anymore, I had a great time, and I’m lucky I’m still here to remember it.

When you look out into the crowds these days, what does your fanbase look like? Do they resemble you in terms of age or background, or is it a real mixed bag, with very young people sitting right next to your peer group?

Chris Hillman: Probably 85 percent of my current following is my age, although lately, I’m getting a lot more young people who are infatuated with the Byrds or the Burritos. My age group always recalls some special time when they first heard this music. For example, I was sitting on the balcony at my house the other day and smoking a cigar, and a guy walked by with his son. He asked if I was Chris Hillman, and I said yes. Then he told me that the Byrds changed his life. He went into a big, ten-minute thing about studying in college and laying his head down on the floor between the speakers and playing “Turn, Turn, Turn” over and over. It was quite complimentary, and it meant a lot to him.


This fan-shot clip from just a few months ago of Chris and Herb doing their own version of Dylan's 1965 composition "Mr. Tambourine Man", made famous by the Byrds hit single, gives a taste of what folks who make it out to this Bloomingdale show will be treated to:


Have you ever played Savannah before? If so, what do you remember about the town?

Chris Hillman: I know I’ve been there. It could have been in the early ‘70s with Manassas. The Byrds may have stopped there as well. Mostly, in my mind, I’m only going on pictures I’ve seen. I know it’s a gorgeous town, and I’d love to be able to spend some time down there. My daughter would love to visit there as well, because she’s a huge fan of Paula Deen’s cooking show, and can’t wait to go to her restaurant.

Yeah, Paula’s a big tourist draw these days. She’s kind of like the whiter Oprah.

Chris Hillman: I know what you mean, exactly! I think I like Paula better than Oprah, because Oprah just seems so phony. Paula seems more real.

Well, maybe if you met her in person, you might have second thoughts on that one. (laughs)

Chris Hillman: Really? Oh well, see, you never can tell.

I’m just saying that I’ve never met Oprah, but I’ve met Pula plenty of times, and she’s absolutely nothing like the way she acts on TV.

Chris Hillman: Gotcha.

What can folks in the Savannah area expect from this show? What will the setlist be like, and will it cover your entire career, or emphasize or de-emphasize certain time periods?

Chris Hillman: Certainly at Randy’s we’ll tackle everything from “Eight Miles High” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” to stuff from Manassas and the Burritos with just those two instruments and our two voices. When you play in that way, the pure essence of the songs come through. This is not like a loud, assaulting concert. We take an entirely different tack. It’s a gentle approach, but it’s not gonna put you asleep! (laughs) Herb Pedersen and I want to get folks into the venue and put a smile on their faces. That may sound like a tired old cliche, but I mean every word of it. If there was ever a time to come in out of the rain, so to speak, now is it. I’m proud to say that I’ve never had anybody ask for their money back. Not in 45 years!

Even when David Crosby was in your band?

Chris Hillman: (Laughs) They might have asked him for their money back! (laughs) Yeah, there were moments sometimes. We were dumb kids. I took a lot for granted, and now I look back and realize I’m so blessed to still be working. Wherever I am, I don’t care if anybody buys a CD or something like that, it’s a pleasure to come out after the show and meet everyone and thank them for supporting what I do.

Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen

Where: Randy Wood’s Concert Hall (1304 E. Hwy 80, Bloomingdale)

When: Fri., 7:30 pm

Cost: $30 adv. for ALL-AGES @ 748-1930

Info: chrishillman.com, randywoodguitars.com


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