Chris Hillman – Interview with a Byrd
Chris Hillman, original bass player and later guitarist in the pioneering 60’s band The Byrds, is back out on the road touring with longtime partners Herb Pedersen and John Jorgenson. The tour commences a day before the official release of his outstanding new album, Bidin’ My Time. The album was produced by Tom Petty and features guest appearances from a number of Hillman’s friends including David Crosby, Roger McGuinn and Mike Campbell. We interviewed Hillman for WhatsUpRhodeIsland shortly before his tour began.
Bidin’ My Time
“I really had no intention of ever recording again,” Hillman admitted in our interview. “I felt I had a good career and I was done. I was going to continue to work once and a while with Herb (Pedersen) as a duet – go out and play a few shows. I’m 73 in December, so I was sort of winding it down.”
He shared the story of how the album came together.
“Herb was working for Tom Petty last year as a background singer in Tom’s original band Mudcrunch. The two of them came up with the idea to produce a Hillman solo album.”
Petty fans know that the Byrds jingle-jangle 12 string guitars and multi-layered harmonies were a main influence on his music. He recorded and frequently plays Byrd’s classics like “Rock and Roll Star” and “Feel a Whole Lot Better” in concert. Petty’s debt to the band is undeniable.
For Hillman’s new album, the mentee became the mentor. But first, there was some light-hearted conversation between the two music legends. Their brief negotiation sounded more like a pair of giddy teenagers planning a date. Hillman explained:
“I talked to Tom in November of last year. I said, ‘Are you sure you wanna do this?’ He says ‘Well, do you want me to do it?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, but do you want to make the commitment?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but do you want me to do it?’ After some more back and forth, I finally said ‘I’d love to work with you, are you kidding me.’”
The recording session commenced in January and the outcome was a late career gem of classic covers and Hillman originals that leaves you wanting more.
Hillman met Petty before they went into the studio. “I played him a couple of songs and he said ‘Is this going to be a folk album?’ I later turned to Herb and said I don’t think he liked those songs. We started out to do an acoustic album but then it morphed into an electric album. Some acoustic and some electric actually – a lot of that was Tom’s input. I love the record. I think Petty, ever so subtly, put his stamp on this.”
It’s a special collection of tunes, from throughout Hillman’s career.
“We re-made ‘Bells of Rhymney’ (for the third time) because I wanted David Crosby and Herb to sing together – they are two great tenors. And they are two of my oldest friends,” remarked Hillman.
There’s an impressive cover of the Everly Brothers “Walk Right Back,” a song not originally planned for the album.
“While we were in the studio setting up for another song, Herb and I were singing it for fun. Petty runs out of the booth and says ‘Let’s cut that right now.’ So, we cut it in one hour – done! And John Jorgenson played one of the all-time great guitar solos. I think sometimes when you’re not thinking about it and you just jump right into the water, great things can happen.”
There’s also the Gene Clark song “She Don’t Care About Time,” which was originally the B-side to Byrds classic “Turn, Turn, Turn.” “I love the song, I love the lyric. We didn’t steer too far away from the original Byrds arrangement,” noted Hillman.
Another highlight is “Here She Comes Again.” “It was a song Roger and I had written in 1979. It captures the essence of the early 60’s Byrds and Beatles.” The album concludes with a beautifully stripped-down version of Petty’s hit “Wildflowers.” Click on the video link above to have a listen.
The Byrds and Beyond
Hillman is celebrated for bringing the country-rock sound to the Byrds, especially after adding Gram Parsons with the release of the seminal Sweetheart of the Rodeo album in 1968.
“Everybody was a good musician and we were diverse. We had five different backgrounds all basically coming out of folk music and bluegrass. When ‘Tambourine Man’ took, we were like, wow, what’s going on here. I was just the bass player for the first year or so, then I was promoted to the front line and started writing and singing a bit.”
“Our manager Jim Dickson pounded this into out head. Go for substance, go for depth, make records you’ll be proud of in 40 years.”
“We went from covering Bob Dylan songs in the early days, and we developed as musicians, as a band, as a sound, to where we were doing things like “8 Miles High. I was very proud of that band.”
Hillman, who many consider the father of the country-rock movement, left the Byrds in late 1968. He had a successful career with bands like The Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band, formed with current touring pals Peterson and Jorgenson. They had two top ten country hits in the 1980s.
Note: This interview originally appeared in WhatsUpRhodeIsland, a leading news and lifestyle site based in Newport, Rhode Island.