November 29, 2021 Interview – Chris Hillman Talks The Byrd & Beyond
The original bassist and one of the original members of legendary Rock band The Byrds, Chris Hillman is a unique talent as both a musician and songwriter. Creating a style that melds Rock, Folk, and Bluegrass, Hillman is a key figure in pioneering of the Country Rock genre. In the music world for sixty plus years now, Hillman has plenty of interesting tales to tell and it all comes together in his 2020 autobiography Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond.
A well-received piece of work full of compelling stories of his time in The Byrd and beyond, it most recently found its way to paperback and audio book on October 19, 2021 to reach an even broader audience. Excited to share his experiences in music and life, Hillman recently took the time to chat about the book, life lessons, plus a bunch more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in music professionally for six decades now. From your time with The Byrds to the Flying Burrito Brothers and beyond, you have really accomplished a great deal in your career. Before we go any further, how would you describe your incredible journey and music to this point?
Chris Hillman – I really think I was a very blessed guy, but I also really had such a love for music in the beginning. I never thought I’d even make any money doing it, and never go back to college. I think I just had a good work ethic installed in me by my parents, and I like to play. I wasn’t looking to be the band leader in the early days, I really wasn’t even good enough to do that. As a musician, I enjoyed working with other people a lot. I was always more involved in playing within an ensemble situation; quartet, quintet, but I love it. I was very lucky, I’ve just had some wonderful opportunities, and I took advantage of them when I could.
Cryptic Rock – Yes, you have done a lot of great things, and it all kind of started with The Byrds. You were an intricate part of the artistic development of the band in your time with them. Obviously, there were ups and downs, but overall, looking back all these years later, do you have a fond memory of your time The Byrds?
Chris Hillman – Love The Byrds, loved them. You’re working with other people and sometimes you don’t always agree on everything in a timely way, but overall, for what we did accomplish on record, what we recorded stands up today, 40 or 50 years later. We recorded good stuff, and we were very selective in what we chose to record.
In the beginning, I was really the bass player, I just played, sat in the back for 6-8 months. I played the bass until I got a good grip on it and I learned how to play the darn thing. (Laughs) Then, as I developed my voice a little better, then when Jean left, I was up in the front singing more and eventually writing. My musical career developed and grew in The Byrds initially, and then went from there where I was really on a roll and learning. As soon as I started writing songs, around 1967, it was really flowing quite well for me.
Cryptic Rock – You do have a very unique style. As you said, the bass wasn’t initially your primary instrument. Your style is a mix of Country, Rock-n-Roll, and Folk. Many would even call you a pioneer of Country Rock music. How did that style develop for you?
Chris Hillman – Well, my background was Bluegrass, I mean traditional, hardcore, Bluegrass. Stanley brothers, Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Reno and Smiley, everything, all that wonderful old Bluegrass from the late ’40s and ’50s. I loved it and that’s what I was initially learning how to play. I played in two really good Bluegrass bands – The Squirrel Barkers and then The Golden State Boys.
I really got a musical education working with Vern Gosdin, his brother Rex, Don Parmley, and the Golden State boys. Vern became a huge Country star in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He won song of the year and CMA Awards. He was like a mentor to me when I was younger, looked after me and taught me a lot. He really taught me a lot of music as they all did, everybody I worked for, I had always learned something from them. Maybe I taught them something too, I’m not sure but always my contribution was Country and Bluegrass. That’s what I brought into the mix. I love Rock-n-Roll of course, don’t get me wrong, and I loved the early Rock-n-Roll. I didn’t get involved in playing an instrument until Folk music and Bluegrass came along into my life around 1960/61.
Cryptic Rock – It’s very interesting to see what it developed into. A lot of what we are talking about right here is covered in your recently released book, Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond, which came out in November of 2020. This book vividly covers your life and career in music. That in mind, what inspired you to put the memoir together at this point in your life?
Chris Hillman – Well, I don’t know, I just started writing it one day. I think originally, I was just going to write something for my kids; they were still in high school and college. Now of course, it’s finished and it’s happened. I remembered stuff, I just remembered it all. There were a few times I would read books by other people about The Byrds, specifically, The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, that were just sort of inaccurate and I wanted to clarify some of it. If you ask me what specifically I was talking about, I couldn’t give you a specific other than there were a lot of things I had read in previous books, like I said, that just were not accurate portrayals of what happened at that particular time. Us being on the Ed Sullivan Show or us being on the road with so and so in Europe.
Having remembered all it, pretty much, it wasn’t too hard to put down on paper. Then after we made a deal to have the book published, it sat on my shelf for a couple of years. It was just sitting there, I talked to my wife and I said, “We’ve got to find an agent and get a publishing deal, see if somebody wants to publish this.” BMG is a great company, and when they made a deal with us, I actually started rewriting the book. I got rid of a lot of excess stuff that wasn’t really needed and I had to trim it down a bit. I had a lot of stuff written down, 600 pages or something. We trimmed it down, made it a little more meaningful and relevant.
I just covered every facet of my career. The good, all good. I never went into any negative stuff about anybody I worked with, I made it a point not to do that. I didn’t feel it was fair to judge others or denigrate others that I worked with, especially the ones that had passed on. There it is. It’s really about my musical journey, every band I was in, and how lucky I really was to be able to do all that.
Cryptic Rock – The book is quite a smooth read, plus the stories are very engaging. As you said, it carefully goes from your childhood in chronological order through your career in music. You have lived these stories, this is your life. So, what was it like sitting down and putting them all the paper like that? Was it a strange experience?
Chris Hillman – It wasn’t strange in the initial writing. Afterwards, when I started reading it back or I’d look at something and go back to an early chapter to maybe fix something that wasn’t quite right, I went, “Oh, my God, you know, I forgot all these weird adventures I was involved in.” It was really just to survive. I remembering living in Tijuana for a couple of months and it was quite interesting. I thought, “Oh, my God, how did I do that?” I was all of 18 years old. I met a Cuban guy who became a friend of mine. He gotten out of Havana the day Castro came in to take over Cuba, and he had escaped! It’s just unbelievable stuff.
I went, “How did I get to that?” Well, I was young and I had to, I didn’t have any options. I had to eat, I had to work and thank God, it was always a musical thing that I got to support me. Prior to really getting professional with music, I was briefly working in a department store. It was all a matter of survival and all good, that’s how we learn. We survive. We struggle. Whether you’re a writer, an actor, an artist, a musician, or whatever, usually you struggle in the beginning. That’s all good because it develops your craft. It makes you into whatever you’re seeking to do, makes it come out better having life experience just to draw on.
Cryptic Rock – Agreed. As you mentioned, it’s all positive memories. It is also a very honest recount as well. You talk about your own missteps and your own poor life choices amidst everything. That in mind, when writing this, did you learn anything new about yourself?
Chris Hillman – Well, I learned that, once again, I would always pick myself up and continue on. I would make the most egregious mistake or do something really stupid, but I’d always get back up on my feet, and keep moving forward. Like I say, I didn’t have a lot of other options at that point. I was very blessed and very lucky, because things would come along. A door would open, opportunity would present itself and I always would measure that. Somebody would say, “Hey, what do you think about getting together and doing this or making a record or starting a band?” I’ve looked at the whole thing and say, “Okay, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of dignity or integrity.” I mean, I didn’t see myself joining a Heavy Metal band, it wasn’t what I did. It would have been sort of ludicrous, you know, or Blues band. I love Blues, but I that wasn’t my strong suit. I just I think I learned perseverance, keep moving.
Cryptic Rock – It’s the key to life and your career continues on. You released the Bidin’ My Time album in 2017, produced by the late Tom Petty. It was your first solo record in 12 years. What was it like writing and recording Bidin’ My Time?
Chris Hillman – Oh, I loved it, just absolutely had such a great time working with Tom. First of all, he’s a great producer and he was a wonderful guy. He was so musical, meaning he loved all kinds of music. Initially, when we were talking and I went to his house with Herb Pederson, out of the blue, Tom says, “Play me a couple of songs,” and I wasn’t prepared at all. I started playing on one of his guitars, he says, “Oh, so we’re gonna do a Folk album.” I said, “I don’t know, Tom, I don’t think so.” He said, “Well, whatever.” Point being, he was open to doing anything, whether it was Folk, Country, or a Rock-n-Roll album. He was very open to all kinds of music that he liked. Whatever style that was in, as long as it was something that he liked, he would pursue that. He was a joy to work with. I was totally honored that he wanted to do that work with me. I had no intention of making another album, he sort of talked me into it. I went, “Wait a minute, I’m honored to work with you, are you’re kidding!” We had a great time; we had such a good time making that record.
A lot of times, Petty and I would be sharing old Rock-n-Roll war stories in the other room when somebody was overdubbing or something. It just broke my heart when he passed away. I’ve got to tell you he was a wonderful man, very humble. You don’t see that humility in a lot of people that are Rock stars, or whatever you want to say they are, or great actors. You don’t see a lot of humility all the time. He had that humility. He didn’t take himself that seriously. I just think he enjoyed what he was doing and he would have been still doing it but for his terrible pain he was in with his broken hip and all that.
It was a highlight of my life to be able to do something with Tom. He wanted to do more stuff, which is great. He told me in one of our last conversations, “Hey, I’m not done with you, I want to do some more records with you.” He was much fun to work with. We lost a good one. We lost an incredible artist.
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely, he certainly was. The album came out excellent, it received phenomenal reviews, and everyone really loves it. One last question, is there a possibility of new music from you again, in the future?
Chris Hillman – I think so. I’m not pursuing that right now. When this COVID thing came along I really wasn’t even playing or practicing. I finally got back into playing again and I started playing the mandolin and the guitar every day. So, that’s the first step and all of a sudden, I’ll start getting some ideas. I have a few songs I didn’t record. I have one song we did record we didn’t put it on the Bidin’ My Time album.
I wouldn’t say it is not within the realm of possibility. We’ll see what happens. But on the other side, I’ve had a great time. It has been almost 60 years. I got to do something I really wanted to do and I loved. I look at it like I was probably 1% of the population got to do something they loved and made a living and I supported my family. I think when everything resolves, when some semblance of normalcy comes back, I’ll start getting a little serious about the record.
I’ve got shows coming up in 2022. I’ve got a whole idea I’m gonna get up and sing of course, and I’m going to have Herb Pederson and John Jorgenson, my old friends from the Desert Rose band play with me. I’ll read from the book, and I’ll sing and I’ll tell even better stories than I did in the book. We’re gonna have a good show once we get out there on the road.
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Chris Hillman feature photo credit Lori Stoll