Even with this encyclopedia volume of musical accomplishment, Hillman still has the supernatural ability to surprise. Take his new album, "Bidin' My Time," for instance. It's his first new studio album in close to a decade, it may wind up standing among the best albums in his estimable catalog and yet, "Bidin' My Time" might never have happened.
"In all honesty, this time last year I was going, 'I don't think I'll be making any more records,'" says Hillman. "I just felt I've had a great career, 54-plus years. It wasn't out of any bitterness, it was just that I'd sort of reached that impasse."
The first domino to fall was Tom Petty hiring longtime Hillman cohort Herb Pedersen to provide background vocals on last year's Mudcrutch tour. In the downtime that the road so often provides, Petty and Pedersen dreamed up the idea to get Hillman into a studio. Pedersen went so far as to set up a meeting with Concord Music and get the ball rolling.
"Somewhere along the way, Herb and Tom conjured up this idea; 'Let's produce Hillman,'" he says. "Tom was all for it. Herb said, '(Concord) wants to sign you.' I ended up on Rounder, and I'm sitting here with my mouth open going, 'I don't know what's going on here.'"
After getting assurances from Petty that he definitely wanted to be involved in producing the album, Hillman gave Petty assurances that he would consider his presence on the album a personal honor. With all that out of the way, Hillman informed Petty of the rather paltry recording budget he had to work with.
"He took it on as a challenge,'" says Hillman. "He said, 'We'll use my studio and my engineer.' His engineer is Ryan Ulyate, who's wonderful; I've never had my voice sound as well as he got it. Tom's got a studio in the San Fernando Valley. He calls it the Clubhouse, which is a nice, big room. We recorded the tracks there. Then, we did the rest of the stuff in his home studio. It was a joy."
The other important function that Petty performed for Hillman was to give invaluable advice about the veracity of the material. Hillman admits he was slightly too close to the situation to judge either his new original tracks or the existing songs he'd chosen to cover.
I said, 'Tom, you haven't heard any of the songs I want to cut,' and he said, 'I'm not worried,'" recalls Hillman. "And I said, 'Well, I'm worried. I don't know if they're any good.' He said, 'I'll tell you.' I told him, 'Look me in the eye, and if you don't hear something, we'll work on it, and if it doesn't work, out the door it goes.' A couple of them, he said, 'I don't hear that.' We talked it out, I tried it a different way, but I said, 'You're absolutely right.' The ones we decided on seemed to fit really well."
Although "Bidin' My Time" ostensibly started off as an acoustic folk album, it morphed into an electric set with the addition of Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and drummer Steve Ferrone - who Hillman cited as one of the best drummers he's ever worked with – as well as session master John Jorgenson and Petty himself on guitars, Pedersen and former Byrds mate David Crosby on vocals and a handful of other guests. With a clutch of covers, including an Everly Brothers track, Petty's song "Wildflowers,'" which Hillman and Pedersen sang at his MusicCares tribute concert last year, revisitations on old Byrds tunes, including a straight rendering of the Gene Clark classic "She Don't Care About Time" and a few new songs, "Bidin' My Time" also became something unexpected.
"I didn't think of it that way, but towards the end of the project, I said, 'This thing is sort of conceptualizing," says Hillman. "It covers my early roots in bluegrass, through the Byrds, through different aspect of my life. It was an interesting experience."
The recording of the Everly Brothers' song "Walk Right Back" was actually a fluke. It wasn't among the list of covers that Hillman brought to the session, but he and Pedersen began singing it as a lark while the studio was being set up for another song. "Tom ran out of the booth and said, 'We have to cut that right now!' says Hillman. "We sang it, John Jorgenson played this wonderful guitar solo, and we were done in an hour."
The writing of Hillman's originals spanned from almost 4 decades ago to just the previous 18 months. The album's title track was written for the Desert Rose Band in 1987 and languished on the shelf, and "Here She Comes Again," which also features Hillman's first recorded bass work in decades, was a co-write with Roger McGuinn that was only ever done live in the late '70s, while "Restless" and "Such is the World We Live In" were a little over a year old.
"'Bidin' My Time' somehow slipped through the cracks. The other one I always wanted to cut was 'Here She Comes Again,'" says Hillman. "Roger and I wrote that but we never recorded it; I had a live tape from some concert we did in 1979, and I was like 'Maybe someday.' Then here comes this opportunity. To me, it captures the early Byrds and The Beatles, to some degree. It's not dated in any sense. And Roger plays on that song. We were hoping to get him in the studio, but he lives in Florida. So, we sent him the files, and he overdubbed there, which was very nice."
One of the high points is a stunning version of Pete Seeger's "The Bells of Rhymney" from the first Byrds album, sung in gorgeous three part harmony with Pedersen and Crosby. That vocal combination had been on Hillman's mind for some time, and this session provided a rare opportunity.
"I always wanted to do something with those two guys, and that was the perfect moment," says Hillman. "'Turn Turn Turn' was the Byrds' signature song, really, but 'The Bells of Rhymney' on the first album in 1965 captured the essence of what the Byrds were and the sound of it. It was just a magical cut that's always stuck with me."
Hillman knows that people might identify "Bidin' My Time" as labor of love, but he insists it was never a labor. He didn't frontload any expectations into the process at the start and he doesn't burden it with any now that it's finished and out in the world.
"I'm not chasing a career. I'm not trying to get on the charts, there's no pressure here," Hillman says. "If this is it, so be it. It's a good one. I've never made a record where I go, 'Gee, that's the greatest thing in the world.' I always hear something no one else would hear and then go, 'I should have done that differently.' I'm really happy with this one."