As the days of the pandemic drag by, Fridays are important for Chris Hillman and his wife Connie. As a founding member of the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Manasssas, Souther, Hillman and Furay and Desert Rose Band, Hillman can be found playing Trivial Pursuit on Skype. The bassist and mandolin player has a tradition with lifelong friend Roger McGuinn and his wife Camilla and a few friends.
“Whenever they get a question right, they have a drink,” Hillman says laughing during a phone call with me to talk about his new memoir Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond (BMG). “We don’t do that in California. It’s too early.”
Hillman has known McGuinn for close to 57 years. The two would laugh that McGuinn was like Hillman’s older brother. Hillman characterized himself as a dumb little kid who was very shy back in the day and McGuinn was there for him.
“We’re very close where we almost meet at the country club to play bridge,” he observes about their relationship. “In the office of perceived rock and roll lifestyle, we’re playing Trivial Pursuit.”
In Time Between, Hillman reflects on the enormity of losses over the years including his sister, Byrds mates Gene Clark, Gram Parsons and Michael Clarke, Burritos’ alumni Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Chris Etheridge and friends Tom Brumley, Vern Gosdin, Joe Lala and Tom Petty. He recounts the harrowing day when rumors flew that Tom Petty had been hospitalized. Hillman initially received a call from his former Byrds bandmate David Crosby who had heard news reports. Hillman writes that when he received a call from Roger McGuinn the reality of Petty’s passing set in. Hillman writes glowingly of Petty, who produced his album Bidin’ My Time. It was Petty who famously said that Chris Hillman invented country rock. “Everytime the Eagles board their private jet, Chris at least paid for the fuel,” Petty once quipped.
Petty’s death coincided with a difficult period in Hillman’s life. He narrowly escaped a fire (one of three that he encountered in his life) and was very sick for a long period. One day McGuinn proposed that he join him and Marty Stuart and the Superlatives for a 50th anniversary tour of the Byrds’ landmark country album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. As Hillman writes: “It wasn’t until the second month of the tour that I found out what was really behind the concept to begin with. Early on, while he was in South America, Roger called Marty. ‘We have to get Chris going again,’’ he said. “It’s been a hard year with Tom’s passing and then his house fire.” My good friends rescued me, and for that I will always hold them close to my heart.”
“The Perfect Medicine”
On the tour, which Hillman calls “the perfect medicine,” Hillman writes that he realized the healing power of music once again. He went back to Nashville where the Byrds had once been booed when they played at the Grand Ole Opry. Hillman’s travels were a far cry from the years when the Byrds played in Georgia and a shocked suburban kid from San Diego saw signs for colored people and whites.
“You never really arrive in life,” Hillman writes describing his personal life journey as a set of experiences “guided by our Creator.” In our conversation he elaborated on the theme.
“I used to go ‘If only I’d…’ and fill in the blanks,” he says assessing his life. “Then you say, ‘What’s the point?’ Obviously I had to put it in a divine journey. God obviously put me in certain places all my life. Yeah, there was a point in my life when I’d say ‘I wish I had stayed in the Byrds a little longer because I really loved Clarence White since I was sixteen.’ That didn’t happen and I went to work with Gram. It wasn’t always that much fun. I loved the guy and he was one of the most interesting people I’ve worked with but it became where I couldn’t work with him.”
“The point being, I went through all these different phases of my life and ended up probably in one of the best bands, the Desert Rose Band, one of the best bands of all time since the Byrds. But I can’t compare them all. I really can’t because every band had its moments like Manassas. When Stills went back to Crosby and Nash, I went with JD Souther and Richie Furay.”
In the book Hillman re-enacts his exit from the Byrds which ended in a screaming match at the Rose Bowl over business differences with Byrds manager Larry Spector. Hillman grapples with the legacy of his former bands and the various reunions that have been rumored and attempted over the years.
“By the grace of God if we had financial problems don’t think I wouldn’t have put together a band and called it the Flying Burrito Brothers,” Hilman admits. “I would never do that but if I had to feed my family I would have done it.”
“Time Between” Revisited
Hillman began writing Time Between (titled after a song he wrote for the Byrds) seven years ago. Now with two grandchildren, he has a valuable piece of personal history to leave behind.
“I’ve read so many disingenuous inaccurate books on the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers,” Hillman adds, describing his thought process as ‘I was there. I’ll set the record straight.’”
But the book turned into something more. For one, it traces a life-changing central event in Hillman’s teenage years. Hillman suffered a wrenching death when his father left his family and committed suicide. This set off a chain of events in which Hillman then still in high school, had to fend for himself and his two sisters. It uprooted his family in the necessity of surviving and led him to Los Angeles, an alien place compared with his San Diego upbringing. Hillman pursued a degree and worked as a retail clerk before joining the Byrds. Within three years he went from stocking shelves at May Company to hanging out with the Beatles.
“It was a short period of time but I never looked at it that way,” Hillman says looking back. “My wife brought it up and said ‘When you look at everything chronologically, it happened so quick’ but I never looked at it that way.”
The book also assesses Hillman’s relationships with his lifelong friends and collaborators and fellow survivors.
“For anyone who gets older and maintains these relationships over many years, it’s so important especially now to count on your friends,” he shared with me. “Roger and David have always been there for me as much as David falls into all kinds of crazy stuff. We get a good laugh at the daily read on whatever David does. I do love the guy. I really do. I’d be there for him in a second.”
With great reverence, Hillman recounts the night all of the original Byrds were seated together and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Hillman also writes about the night he received the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into the Far West Folk Alliance. Yet all the accolades can’t replace the friends lost along the way. The personal losses for friends like Gene Clark and Michael Clarke pain him.
“I Tell You Man, I’ve Seen Fires My Whole Life”
If history doesn’t repeat itself, it is said to rhyme. On the day we spoke fires lighting up California. Hillman’s son in law Nick, a firefighter, was heading up the coast from California. The ridgeline in Napa was bright red. Firefighters from across the state were on call and ready to descend when needed.
“The Santa Ana winds…I don’t know what they’re called up north but the same winds make aerial drops impossible. I tell you man I’ve seen it my whole life.”
Three years ago, Hillman had to quickly evacuate his home during the Thomas Fire. Hillman and his wife gathered important paperwork and two instruments including a Lloyd Loar mandolin given to him by Stephen stills and a Martin D-28 guitar he got from the widow of Bill Smith.
“We didn’t know if we still had the house but as you read, I said it really doesn’t matter as long as we’re alive. We can replace anything.” Two rooms were gutted but miraculously the house still stood with devastation all around his neighborhood.
In addition to Hillman’s Friday afternoon game of Trivial Pursuit, Desert Rose Band compatriot Herb Pedersen has been coming over to see Hillman on Thursdays. Hillman says his playing has fallen off and he admits he should be practicing guitar and mandolin for an hour or two hours daily. But he’s looking ahead to getting out and playing with Pedersen and John Jorgenson to promote the book and play a few songs.
Recently Jorgenson called his old bandmate and said, “Could you please let me know what we’re going to play? I haven’t picked up a guitar in months.” Hillman told his old friend he was too good to lose anything.
Hillman, a longtime resident of Ventura, will be a subject of a new exhibit at the Museum of Ventura County entitled Chris Hillman: Time Between featuring memorabilia and his storied rise. A few weeks later, Hillman will be back when the museum hosts An Evening of Song & Stories with Chris Hillman.
“I don’t really mind not being active,” Hillman shared with me about the events of the past year. “I certainly don’t mind not touring. I love playing music while I can do it. As long as people want to see me and I can play that’s the whole idea. I will continue as long as I can.”
“I Wasn’t Looking To Be Bruce Springsteen”
Reflecting on what he calls a very blessed career, Hillman, the co-writer of “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star,” tries to put it in perspective. “I wasn’t looking to be Bruce Springsteen. I didn’t think I was good enough to be a solo rock star or at the time a country star. I was a musician. I had a great time and still do it. We’ll see if we can get out and play in front of people in the Spring.
Hillman sums up his life in a spiritual context reflective of his deep faith. “I’m grateful for all those who have supported me over all these years,” he writes, “and I know what I was put on this earth to do. I will continue to use the gifts God has given me as long as possible.”
Today Hillman can look back on a wonderful career and say that he managed to stay alive. In writing the book, Hillman assessed that the values his parents instilled in him kept him strong and able to navigate tumultuous times. The fruits of his labor are realized in the most important thing in his life– being able to hold his two grandchildren on his lap and know that more are coming.
In these pandemic times, Hillman is able to poke fun at himself with what Tom Petty once called his black humor. Hillman’s average day is spent walking the dog and cooking with his wife.
“I’m 75 years old,” he says matter of factly, a few weeks removed from another birthday. ”I could have a nap everyday. I earned it.”
For more about Chris Hillman: chrishillman.com