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 any