Chris Hillman

Bluegrass, Bass, and Back Agian
Bluegrass, Bass, and Back Agian

American music legend Chris Hillman is an accomplished guitarist. He has wielded a variety of stringed instruments in a number of notable bands, as exemplified by his tenure as a member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Desert Rose Band, and other aggregations.

Vintage Guitar: You grew up in rural San Diego County, so one might presume you’ve been influenced by Mexican music and/or surf music, yet your first bands and recordings were in the bluegrass genre, which had its beginnings on the other side of the country.
Chis Hillman: The school I went to was heavily Hispanic, so I did hear a lot of that music, but I got to watch television as a kid; a faint signal coming from L.A. I saw Spade Cooley, Cliffie Stone, Tex Ritter; all kinds of live country shows like “Town Hall Party” and “Cal’s Corral,” which I ended up working on later. For some reason, I really liked those shows.

My older sister went to college in 1953, and when she came home she started to play folk music. When I was in junior high around ’58, she turned me on to the Weavers, Pete Seeger, and Leadbelly; I spent maybe five minutes on the Kingston Trio (chuckles). When I heard the New Lost City Ramblers, with Mike Seeger on mandolin, I started learning how to play. Then I picked up an album of the Newport Folk Festival that had four Flatt and Scruggs tunes on it, and that did it for me. I wanted to know what that old-timey, high-energy music was. I started buying bluegrass records, and tried to pick out the mandolin parts.

I met some guys who lived in San Diego – Kenny Wertz and Gary Carr – and we started playing together. We would drive to the Ash Grove in L.A., a club that was booking all this kind of music, from Lightning Hopkins to Flatt and Scruggs. That’s where I met Clarence White. We were both in high school at the time.

Was your first instrument guitar or mandolin?
Guitar; my mom took me to Tijuana and I got a $10 guitar. She said, “If you stick with this for a year, I’ll help you get another one.” It wasn’t even firewood, but I stuck with it, and after a year I got a Goya nylon-string. I didn’t know anything about guitars, so I put steel strings on it, and the neck turned into a letter C (laughs). After I got rid of that, I got an Epiphone acoustic, dreadnaught-style. I wish I still had it.

Clarence was in a band called the Country Boys, which later became the Kentucky Colonels. They had a mandolin player from Berkley named Scott Hambly; I met him at the Ash Grove, and I rode the train for eight hours by myself – I was 16 years old – and went to Scott’s house to get some mandolin lessons, because nobody where I lived knew much about playing ’em. He straightened out my hands; showed me what to do.

Then what was your first brand and model of mandolin?
A Kay. It looked sort of like what Breedlove is making now; sort of double-cutaway, art deco-ish. It cost $55, and I had to save up for it. My heroes were Bill Monroe and John Duffy, who was in the Country Gentlemen and was later a founding member of the Seldom Scene.

It’s been reported that you also used to follow the Dillards to their concerts so you could watch Dean Webb play mandolin.
I got to know the Dillards after I moved to L.A.; I liked Dean’s style because it was so simple and understated. He always played melody on it real nice.

Other than the bluegrass album you did with the Hillmen, did you do any recording before the Byrds?
We did the Scotsville Squirrel Barkers’ album; that was the first band I was in as a bluegrass mandolin player, and was the band with Kenny and Gary, the two guys I mentioned. We worked in San Diego quite a bit, and that’s when I met Herb Pedersen, around 1963. We made that record in one day, and had to do public domain songs. It was on Crown Records; you could buy those in a supermarket for 79 cents. There all kinds of players on those records – B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner.

What you did back then was make a record so you could get work; you’d never hear such recordings on the radio, but they’d get you exposure. I was the odd guy in high school who’d listen to bluegrass and Delta blues. Herb was in the Pine Valley Boys, a Berkley-based group, when I first met him, then he was hired to replace Douglas Dillard in the Dillards.

You hadn’t played bass before you joined the Byrds. How and why did you end up on that instrument?
Well, David Crosby was the original bass player; it was a quartet, but Crosby didn’t want to be the bassist, and the guy who was working with them had worked with me on the Hillmen album, and asked me if I wanted to try bass.

But I approached the bass like a bluegrass guitar (chuckles). I played runs and stuff, and I didn’t really know you were supposed to play off the kick drum, initially, but I figured it out… We all figured it out! None of us were rock players then; we were all coming out of folk music. I had never even played an electric instrument before. I’d picked up Ed Douglas’ string bass when we were in the Squirrel Barkers, but I never knew anything about it.

First electric bass?
A Japanese bass, right when the Japanese started importing instruments in the early ’60s. They weren’t very good. I think mine cost 40 bucks. It was a Fender-type thing; we had terrible gear when we started out, except for Roger McGuinn (VG December ’97). He had a Gibson acoustic 12-string with a DeArmond pickup. I think I was running through an Epiphone amp with one speaker. Then when we got some money, I got a Fender P-Bass. That was my primary bass, but for a while I played a Guild double-cutaway hollowbody. I think I wanted it because it looked like the other guys’ guitars. The P-Bass was a great bass.

The Byrds were hailed as the preeminent American rock band and “America’s answer to the Beatles.” What was the reaction of the band then, and how does it look now, from a historical perspective?
When you were 19 or 20 years old, it probably went in and out in 20 minutes; things were going so fast back then. “America’s answer to the Beatles” was probably coined by our press agent, Derek Taylor, who had been the Beatles’ publicist. When he left Brian Epstein and moved to America, he worked for the Beach Boys and the Byrds. Derek took us to England in ’65, based on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but it was almost like he wanted to show Brian Epstein what he’d done in America.

As for what it means now, we had a brief time back then where we actually met the Beatles through Derek, and they liked us; they said we were their favorite band at one point, and they honored us in a song George Harrison wrote based on a song we’d recorded with the Byrds called “The Bells of Rhymney.” You already know that Roger was a 12-string acoustic player, but when he saw that 12-string electric Rickenbacker on the movie screen in A Hard Day’s Night, he was out the door to get one. And look what he did with it!

Why do you think Sweetheart of the Rodeo is considered such a landmark in popular music history? Do you think the critical adulation is valid?
Well, at the time it didn’t do anything. It got some good critical response when it was released, but it was our worst-selling record. It’s not my favorite; I thought we were just dabbling in country music, not putting our entire effort into it. It’s a good record in some ways; I guess I’m hard on it because I was such a terrible singer back then.

But what it did at the time – and what I hear now – was open a lot of people up to country music, so mission accomplished in that respect. It made a lot of people listen who otherwise might not have. We had some great guys, like Lloyd Green, John Hartford, and Junior Huskey, working with us; also Earl Ball and Jay Dee Maness. There are some great moments on it. We had that controversy about whether or not we could use Gram Parsons’ voice or not. But all in all, it came out okay.

That was the only Byrds album Parsons was on, and it was also your last album with that band; you both departed to form the Flying Burrito Brothers.
You know, there’s always been this perception about how “Gram was in the Byrds”. But Roger and I were certainly concentrating on the band; it’s like Gram was an “employee” for about six months.

I left maybe six or eight months after Sweetheart was released. The album before, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was the one where there’d been a change in personnel; David Crosby was gone, and Roger and I had finished that album ourselves.

The Burritos had a reputation for good material and a sharp image, but sloppy gigs.
We were trying to have fun, drawing things out of old country songs and even Baptist hymns. “Sin City” is tongue-in-cheek, and is about L.A., including verses about our manager, and Robert Kennedy.

Live, the Burritos were… (laughs) a pretty loose deal. What’s funny is that after Gram left, we got that band going, and got pretty darn tight.

Last of the Red Hot Burritos is the album often cited as a high-water mark, and it’s not only the last album, it was recorded live.
That’s the one that I could point to, out of all that old stuff. “The Gilded Palace of Sin” was recorded so strangely; they split our voices and somebody’s singing in the left side and somebody else in the right.

The band sounded really good on Last of the Red Hot Burritos.

“My Uncle” has to be one of the sneakiest and funniest songs about draft-dodging ever recorded.
That was when Gram and I were sharing a house, around the time of the first album; it’s also when he was the most coherent and disciplined. He was really crankin’ out good stuff. He got his draft notice, and instead of getting all crazy about it, we wrote a song!

The last album had a personnel composite showing different incarnations of the band. Did you ever have a favorite lineup?
As much as I loved Gram, he just wasn’t dependable. He was, as I said, coherent for that first album, then we lost him. He was not a “team” guy; he didn’t go to rehearsals, he was never sober enough to play onstage, etc.

So maybe my favorite lineup was the one with Bernie Leadon, and Al Perkins on steel. Rick Roberts was a good harmony singer; his songs took us away from the country edge we had, but he was good.

What’s your recollection about performing at Altamont?
We were invited to play by the Rolling Stones; Gram had been hanging out with Mick and Keith; Roger and I had introduced him to them about a year earlier. I had a funny feeling about the gig from the get-go.

We flew up from L.A. and drove out in a rented car; it was an ugly day – overcast and cold. Driving into the site, a guy ran us off the road. Sneaky Pete [Kleinow] was driving, and he took the car down the embankment then back up; we didn’t roll over, but it was a sample of the complete chaos going on.

Our two equipment guys had gotten there the night before, so they were parked at the stage, but I happened to have my P-Bass with me. We couldn’t get near the stage; there was no security, no nothing. So I walked through that crowd, holding my bass, out of the case, over my head. I’d never had to do that before in my life! I was going through the crowd like a snake, but everybody finally made it to the stage. It was crazy and violent; Marty Balin got hit while the Jefferson Airplane was onstage.

When the Burritos got onstage, the crowd actually settled down. I don’t know if it was because what we were playing was different – straight country stuff – but they calmed down.

But the whole day was a nightmare; I’d been stopped and pushed by two Hell’s Angels when I walked onstage to plug in my bass; they were out of their minds on God knows what. The minute we were done, I was outta there. Gram stayed with the Stones, and of course, you know what else happened.

I always use 1968 as the year when things started to go bad. When the Beatles came out in ’64, everything was positive and creative, but in the latter part of the ’60s, it went bad – Vietnam, assassinations, upheaval. Altamont was a footnote later.

Some writers referred to Altamont using phrases like “the dark side of Woodstock.”
I agree. One of the best festivals ever held was Monterey – the first one, with Hendrix, Otis Reading, and Janis Joplin. The Byrds and the Buffalo Springfield played; it was a great show – orderly, calm, peaceful – a wonderful time with all kinds of music. Altamont was at the other end of the scale.

After the Burritos, was your next project Stephen Stills’ Manassas?
Yeah; CSN had broken up – one of the many times they’ve done that!

Stephen called me to do some sessions. Byron Berline was with me, on fiddle, as were Al Perkins and Rick Roberts, and we all went to Miami and played with Steve. It got to the point where he wanted to do something, band-wise, and asked Al and me to join. I thought it looked interesting, so I left. Rick kept the Burritos together for a while after that.

Stills has noted that one of the key facets of Manassas was “Chris Hillman, who could play the **** out of a mandolin.”
(laughs) That’s so kind of him. I really enjoyed working with Steve and that band. I hold him very high up as a songwriter and as a player; he’s an amazing guitarist. I tend to like his acoustic playing even more than his electric playing, but he’s really good on both. I don’t think I would have changed anything about that band.

But one periodical described Manassas’ appearance on the original “In Concert” TV series as “disastrous.”
It had those moments. Sometimes it was brilliant onstage, and sometimes it was a disaster. Now, I can’t say that all of us were at fault; sometimes the leader got a little goofy if he’d stayed up for a few days (chuckles). But there were times when that band was swingin’! We could do anything from rock to salsa to bluegrass. Out of the four guys in CSNY, Stephen has the best feel for country and bluegrass; he understands what it is, how to sing it, and how to write it.

After that there was the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band…
…That was a nightmare (laughs).

I remember reading in one rock magazine that the band’s initials, SHF, actually stood for “**** Hits the Fans.”
A nightmare! It should never have been; I’ve always said that it was a great idea in theory. It just didn’t gel. In fact, I don’t have the greatest memories of the entire decade of the ’70s.

Souther-Hillman-Furay just wasn’t anything memorable. To this day, I’ll run into John David Souther, and we’ll laugh about it, saying something like “Ya doin’ any SHF stuff in your current repertoire?” “Nope. You?” “Nope!” (laughs).

He’s a really good songwriter, and always has been. And Richie Furay is the sweetest guy on the planet. It just didn’t work out.

Did anything significant come along prior to the formation of the Desert Rose Band?
I did a couple of solo albums, one of which I thought was pretty good; I really wasn’t yet a good singer. I still wasn’t confident enough to be able to use my voice properly, but I thought Slippin’ Away was a pretty good record, material-wise.

Then Roger and Gene Clark and I teamed up to do some stuff for Capitol. A couple of the things we did were interesting; Gene certainly wrote some good songs. The first album had some good moments, and I don’t look at that group as harshly as I would Souther-Hillman-Furay.

When McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman dissolved in ’81, I went back to square one. A young fellow from Sugar Hill Records called me; they were releasing the old Hillmen tapes from ’64, and I worked out a deal with them to do another solo album; I worked with Jim Dickson again; he’d worked with the Byrds. The first one I did was acoustic, and the second was electric. Al Perkins produced the second one, which was called Desert Rose, and it had Herb Pedersen singing with me, and most of Elvis’ old band, which had also played with Emmylou [Harris] – Ronnie Tutt on drums, Jerry Scheff on bass, James Burton on guitar, and Glen D. Hardin on piano. It was a really neat album, and we made it for $10,000 or $15,000.

Then I started playing more mandolin at bluegrass festivals. I started out okay on it back in the early ’60s, then I didn’t play it for about 10 years… and I’m still trying to learn to play it! I’ve got a neat goal: I’m gonna learn how to play better mandolin, even if I never play in front of people again in my life.

Herb Pedersen and I got to talking about doing a band, and we got Bill Bryson on bass, then found John Jorgenson playing at Disneyland. Bryson kept telling us about him. We went out and did shows, opening for Dan Fogelberg as an acoustic quartet… this would have been in ’84 or ’85.
When we got off that tour, John said, “Let’s get some drums and go electric!” I didn’t know if I wanted to do that again, but he talked me into it. We brought in Jay Dee Maness on drums, and Bill plugged in, as did John. But Herb and I kept hitting acoustics as hard as we could. So we started off as the Desert Rose Band by working small clubs, and here I was literally back at another type of square one, working for 20 bucks a night, like I did when I was 17, to get this thing off the ground.

And it was working. It sounded good and had a lot of potential. The vocals were there; I’d learned how to sing, and I was writing better. John was amazing, as were the other musicians, and Herb was an amazing singer. We played the Palomino, and got a record offer. We had a great run and had a lot of country hits.

Did you do any recording in Nashville?
We recorded one of our albums there; the first two were done on the West Coast.

Didn’t you have instruments made by Gibson’s Custom Shop?
Yes, we all did. I had a special Everly Brothers model. Jim Triggs used to work down there, and he helped us a lot in the mid ’80s.

We finally retired the band in ’94. John and Jay Dee had left, but we had Tom Brumley playing steel; he used to be with Buck Owens. We also had Jeff Ross, and Jim Monahan was playing guitar; I still play with Jim occasionally. It was the best band I’ve ever been in, although Manassas was a good band.

Did the musical time-in-grade experience of Desert Rose members in previous bands mean this band was more professional?
Well, I always called it “the highly evolved Burritos” (chuckles)! We knew how to think, and how to play. And I was a better writer and singer.

At one point, you did some “lawsuit gigs” with McGuinn and Crosby due to (drummer) Mike Clarke’s use of the Byrds’ moniker.
Yeah, we had that brief time where we went out, under advice from our legal counsel, to establish the name, and it was pretty neat. We played a bunch of pretty big places, club-wise; the Coach House and places like that, around California. The last place we played was at the Ventura Theatre, and we had Tom Petty on rhythm guitar that night! He based his whole musical career on the Byrds, and took it to another level. I had a Rickenbacker bass for those gigs.

We also did some recording then, for a CD box set; we did four songs, and I played the Rickenbacker then, too.

What about your latest album with Pedersen, Bakersfield Bound?
That was for Sugar Hill, and was a labor of love. We were honoring that part of the country that really influenced us. There’s a lot of Buck Owens stuff on there, but we were also highlighting our duet singing. In fact, we’ve got another Chris-and-Herb record coming out on Back Porch, called Way Out West.

You’ve also been on some Christian recordings. Have you had a born-again experience?
I did. In the ’80s I was an evangelical Christian and did a lot of gospel records with Bernie Leadon, Jerry Scheff, and Al Perkins. We did a really neat album called Evercall Ready. Now, I’m a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and I sing tenor in the choir, so that’s real different from singing bluegrass (chuckles)! My heart is in both schools; I do Byzantine chants in church and old Baptist gospel tunes onstage.

Collection-wise, what would you say your percentages are concerning mandolins, guitars, and basses?
At the moment, I have three mandolins – a 1924 [Gibson] Lloyd Loar with a Virzi tone chamber in it. I’ve had that since ’72; it was a gift from Stephen Stills. He got it from George Gruhn. I had a ’50s F-5 with block inlay. He got the Loar for me, and told me, “I owed you a favor ’cause you got us out first job!”; I got the Buffalo Springfield their first gig on the Sunset Strip.

I’ve also got a ’91 F-5L that Jim Triggs picked out for me, and a Collings A model. They’re unbelievably good; I’ve been playing that a lot. I’m in the process of getting a Rigel R-100 Deluxe; I had one before but sold it.

Guitars; I have a Santa Cruz Tony Rice Pro-Brazilian rosewood. I’ll hold that guitar up to anybody’s. It was one Tony was gonna keep, but I got it when he opted to get something different. It’s a great guitar. I’d put it up against any vintage guitar, for that matter.

The guitars that are being built now – Collings and Santa Cruz – are as good or better than any of the old Martins, in my opinion. They’re going to be monster guitars in 30 or 40 years. They already are, right out of the box.

I’ve got a Santa Cruz 000, koa wood, and a Collings CJ, which looks like the old Gibson Advanced Jumbos, in sunburst; another unbelievable guitar, and an early ’90s Gibson Advanced Jumbo that’s also great.

I’ve got a Lakland bass that was built for me; it was made exactly like my old P-Bass, which was stolen, but it’s even better. And that’s it. I own instruments to play. I did collect, but I thinned out the herd about two years ago. I sold a ’39 herringbone Martin, and sometimes I kick myself, but sometimes I tell myself, “Well, I never really liked that guitar. I didn’t look at it as a collectible; I looked at it as something to be played. I may wish I still had it at times, but that Tony Rice Pro is a better guitar than that ’39 herringbone.

What else lies ahead?
Hopefully, I’m gonna start another solo record; the last one I did was three years ago. Like A Hurricane was acoustic and electric, but I want to do another acoustic album, and I’ve got a lot of new material ready to go.

Chris Hillman has been at the forefront of innovative American music for decades, yet is still striving to become a better musician. And though he’s going at a less hectic pace, he’s still very busy, and it shows. What’s more, he’s still having a great time presenting (and refining) his musical efforts.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.