A Third-Generation Californian, Chris Hillman was born in Los Angeles, California on December 4, 1944. Hillman spent his early years on his family’s small ranch home in then rural North San Diego County. Growing up in the 1950s, Hillman listened to rock and roll on the radio, but it was not until 1959 when his older sister, Susan, came home from college that he was introduced to Folk and Country music and then decided to learn how to play guitar.
Seeing that his interest in music was a serious one, Hillman’s mother encouraged her son and bought him a $10 dollar guitar in Tijuana, Mexico, promising him, that if he stuck with it for a year she would help him get a better guitar. He also started listening to Bluegrass, and after hearing acts like Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe, Hillman fell in love with the mandolin. Learning that a young bluegrass group, The Kentucky Colonels, were based out of Los Angeles, a very determined 15 year-old Hillman convinced his family to let him go and see the group. Not only did Hillman meet and listen to the Colonels, but the group’s mandolinist, Scott Hambly, who was temporarily filling in for original member Roland White, offered Hillman lessons. Hillman then convinced his family to let him take the train by himself up to Berkeley, where Hambly lived, and took mandolin lessons from him.
As he progressed on mandolin, he met and played with the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, based out of San Diego, and was soon asked to be a member of their band.
The Barkers, which lasted two years, earned a well-deserved legendary reputation thanks to the skills and talents of its members. The Squirrel Barker lineup included such notable musicians as Kenny Wertz, Bernie Leadon, Larry Murray, Ed Douglas and the late Gary Carr. The Barkers recorded one album, Bluegrass Favorites, now a sought-after collector’s item. The album was recorded in four hours and the 17 year-old Hillman together with the rest of the band was paid $10 dollars each.
When the Barkers called it quits at the end of 1963, Hillman’s reputation, coupled with connections with other Bluegrass musicians, paid off as he was invited to join the Golden State Boys then regarded as one of the premier Bluegrass bands in Southern California. Featuring future Country music star Vern Gosdin, his brother Rex, and Don Parmley, the Golden State Boys soon made one album under their new name, The Hillmen, named after Chris even though he wasn’t the leader of the group and only sang one lead vocal on a cover of Bob Dylan’s “When The Ship Comes In”. The Golden State Boys were featured performers on the weekly television show, “Cal’s Corral”, a live Country music show on L.A.’s channel 13. They also worked in numerous hillbilly bars in the Los Angeles County area. After approximately 8 months the group folded. Considering taking a break from music and enrolling in college, he almost began studying at UCLA if not for yet another opportunity presenting itself.
In February of 1964, shortly after the Beatles had appeared on the music scene, a friend, Jim Dickson, who had previously worked with The Hillmen, invited Hillman down to World Pacific Studios to hear three guys with acoustic guitars singing Beatles songs. Those three guys were Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby. With drummer Michael Clarke, Hillman was recruited to play electric bass, and combined they formed the Byrds.
Having access to World Pacific Studios through Jim Dickson’s involvement, the Byrds rehearsed every night and refined their sound. Knowing Bob Dylan, Dickson heard a new song he had written and asked Dylan if the Byrds could record it. The song, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, was released as a single in the Spring of 1965 and became a number one song in Europe and America. Their first album, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, took a combination of Dylan songs and their own compositions and made Rock and Roll History as America’s answer to the Beatles.
The history of the Byrds, has been well documented over the years, but Hillman’s ever expanding contributions as a singer and songwriter is much less known. For the first two albums, Hillman stayed in the background with drummer Michael Clarke, providing a strong backbeat to the three-part harmonies of McGuinn, Clark and Crosby.
With the departure of Gene Clark following the recording of the album 5-D, McGuinn began to increasingly rely on his dependable bass player and Hillman began to develop as a singer and songwriter. The result was several Hillman compositions on the next album, Younger Than Yesterday. The single “So You Want to Be A Rock and Roll Star” penned with Roger McGuinn, and with guest Hugh Masekela sitting in on trumpet and another single, “Have You Seen Her Face” with David Crosby’s beautiful harmony and Roger McGuinn’s striking six string guitar solo was the launching of Hillman’s songwriting career.
The song “Time Between” saw Hillman bring in his old Bluegrass friend Clarence White to play lead guitar. White also helped out on another Hillman composition, “The Girl with No Name”. These songs paved the way for the Byrds next adventure – exploring Country music.
With the departure of Crosby and Michael Clarke the Byrds were down to just two original members, Hillman and McGuinn. The band recruited Hillman’s cousin, Kevin Kelley, to replace Michael Clarke but were still in need of another musician to round out the Byrds line-up. Hillman, upon meeting a young Gram Parsons in a Beverly Hills bank one day invited him to a Byrds rehearsal where he was quickly hired, rounding out the Byrds’ new line up. Together with Hillman, Parsons helped change the Byrds’ musical direction into more of a country sound, certainly not a stretch for Hillman and McGuinn who started their careers in folk and country music.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo their highly acclaimed Nashville release set a new course for the Byrds. The album’s influence can be heard today in the music of Country artists like Brad Paisley, Emmy-Lou Harris, Marty Stuart, Jim Lauderdale and Dwight Yoakum.
A Dylan tune, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, along with material from newcomer Parsons, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard and others, plus the array of great California country musicians – Jay Dee Maness, Clarence White, Earl P. Ball, and Nashville vets like Lloyd Green, John Hartford and Junior Huskey brought the Byrds back full throttle with a sound that mixed pure country with folk music.
When Parsons left the band shortly thereafter, Hillman brought in his good friend Clarence White to replace him, but the old magic of the Byrds was gone for him. Hillman exited the Byrds in September 1968 to join Parsons, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and Chris Ethridge in what soon became known as the Flying Burrito Brothers.
With first release, The Gilded Palace of Sin, The Burritos created an environment for “Outlaw Country” and for much of the success experienced by artists such as The Eagles, Poco, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt band. The Rolling Stones were even briefly influenced by the Burritos, with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards composing “Wild Horses” in honor of their friends, the Flying Burrito Brothers.
One song off that seminal first album – “Sin City” – not only aptly described Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s but was later included in the Smithsonian Institute’s “History of Country Music” collection.
The Flying Burrito Brothers achieving only minor success at the beginning found their true place in history in later years as they took on cult status and world-wide acceptance which still continues today.
Many of the early Hillman/Parsons songs have been covered by major artists in both country and rock and roll. Hillman and Parsons spent most of that first year writing songs and touring the country, by the second year and second album Parsons was beginning to lose interest in the band and left the group to explore other avenues. With Parsons’ departure Hillman rebuilt the band with Bernie Leadon, Rick Roberts and Al Perkins and captured the “live essence” of the Burritos with the album Last of the Red Hot Burritos, which was the last but quite possibly the best of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ recordings.
Near the end of his tenure with the Burritos, Hillman was performing with the band in Washington, D.C. Rick Roberts told Hillman about a young lady performing in a nearby Folk Club. That “girl” was Emmy-Lou Harris. Hillman was so impressed with her that he recommended her to Gram Parsons and musical history was made.
A phone call from old friend Stephen Stills set Hillman on a new musical journey. With Stills he formed the eclectic band Manassas.
Working with Stills opened up new musical adventures and produced two great albums, Manassas and Down the Road. The band toured around the world and Stills and Hillman wrote some memorable songs together.
The first Manassas album accomplished what the Byrds had considered doing before Sweetheart of the Rodeo, combining major elements of most forms of American contemporary music and fusing them together. There were bits and pieces of Rock, Country, Bluegrass, Salsa, and Blues blended together on the two albums the group created. Stills and Hillman also co-wrote a great song that is still part of Hillman’s set list to this day – “It Doesn’t Matter”.
Manassas broke up by the fall of 1973. By this time too, Hillman faced two major tragedies in his personal life, the deaths of his close friends Clarence White and Gram Parsons.
These two events occurring within a year took a toll on Hillman but he continued on with new projects. From Manassas, and a short-lived original Byrds reunion, Hillman, John David Souther and Richie Furay formed the band, Souther Hillman Furay, signing with Asylum records and releasing two albums in 1974-1975.
The band was a brief exercise in futility with great musicians and songs but never fused together in a believable form. They went their separate ways in 1976 remaining close friends to this day.
Hillman then went back into the studio and released two solo albums, Slippin Away and Clear Sailing, for Asylum Records. Hillman toured for a year and a half with his own band, and then after a 1977 British tour he reunited with Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark, forming the trio, McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman. They released three albums on Capital Records, with two top ten singles. By the beginning of the 1980s, Hillman returned to his roots in Bluegrass and Country music. He recorded two critically acclaimed acoustic and electric flavored recordings, and in doing so was reunited with his longtime Folk and Bluegrass collaborator, Herb Pedersen.
Hillman also found a songwriting partner and good friend in Steve Hill. The stage was set for the next evolution in the career of Chris Hillman – the incomparable Desert Rose Band.
The genesis of the Desert Rose Band began when both Hillman and Pedersen were asked by fellow Country Rock aficionado and Manassas fan, Dan Fogelberg, to record with him in the studio and accompany him on his High Country Snows tour in 1985. Hillman and Pedersen enlisted Bill Bryson to play bass and multi-instrumentalist John Jorgenson on guitar for the Dan Fogelberg tour. Comfortable as an acoustic band, it wasn’t until John Jorgenson who saw the potential for expanding into a full electric country band talked Hillman and Pedersen into bringing on board Steel Guitarist Jay Dee Maness a veteran of “The Sweetheart Sessions”, and former Rick Nelson drummer Steve Duncan.
Hesitant at first, Hillman quickly came to realize that this band, “The Desert Rose Band”, would be the best of them all.
From 1987 until the end of 1993 the Desert Rose Band recorded seven albums, scored a string of 16 top ten Country chart hits. They also garnered a number of awards from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association. Among these were:
- Academy of Country Music – Touring Band of the Year, 1988, 1989, 1990
- Nominee, Best Vocal Group Award, 1989, 1990
- Country Music Association – Horizon Award , 1989
- Vocal Group of the Year, 1990
Strong vocals, fine harmonies, and excellent instrumentation were what made the Desert Rose Band so special. Their live performances were always met with the utmost professionalism and integrity.
In 1991, while in The Desert Rose Band, Hillman’s landmark band, The Byrds, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a fitting tribute to one of the most influential bands of the 20th Century. By the beginning of 1994, saddened by the passing of his close friends and band members, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke, and wishing to spend more time with his family and watching his children grow, Hillman decided to call it a day for the Desert Rose Band. The original band members remain very close friends and occasionally get together for shows.
Since 1995 Hillman has kept busy having recorded seven albums. In Bakersfield Bound (1995, Sugar Hill) Hillman and Pedersen revisited their classic California roots. They then teamed up with their old Bluegrass friends Larry and Tony Rice to record three albums on Rounder Records, Out of the Woodwork (1997), Rice, Rice, Hillman and Pedersen (1999), Running Wild (2001). Sadly, Larry Rice has since passed on. Hillman also released a solo recording Like A Hurricane (1998, Sugar Hill). In 2002, Hillman and Pedersen again revisited California Country in the wonderful Way Out West (Back Porch), an album that had the flavor of old California music halls. In 2004, Hillman was honored by his peers as the recipient of the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2005, Hillman also received recognition from the Mojo Honours List as the recipient of the Roots Award, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award presented to his first band, The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, by the city of San Diego. Hillman’s next project, a solo recording entitled The Other Side (Sovereign Artists), included new Hillman-Hill compositions along with new recordings of “Eight Miles High”, “It Doesn’t Matter”, and two Desert Rose Band songs “Missing You” and “True Love”. In 2007 he was a featured soloist singing “What Does She See” on the Ian Tyson tribute album, The Gift. Hillman and Pedersen’s latest album, At Edward’s Barn, a live concert recording, is on the Rounder record label.
Hillman continues to record quality music, performing occasionally with Pedersen, Bryson and others. He is also active in his community, involved in his church, and a strong supporter of artists’ recording rights and traditional family values. Hillman has lectured at the Library of Congress, The Grammy Museum, U.C.L.A., Point Loma Nazarene University, and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
He is also deeply involved in passing on his (musical) gifts to others, teaching and encouraging new players and singers.
“I’m as happy and fulfilled as I’ve ever been. I am truly blessed to have such a great family and friends to share my life with. This is the best of times”.