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Hillman proves powerful, like a hurricane

By Joel Bernstein, June 1998

Chris Hillman is a living, breathing, musical history. He's been with so many groups and collaborations that listing them all would fill up an entire article. The three whose legacy should endure are The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Desert Rose Band.

Over the last 20 years, Hillman has also found time for a number of solo albums, with the latest, "Like A Hurricane" just released on Sugar Hill.

"It's just a bunch of songs I wrote," says Hillman of his new disc. "The one thing I didn't realize until it was done was that it touches on every style of music that I've played in the last 35 years."

"We started to make an acoustic album, and the tracks just weren't catching anything on fire. For the first time in 35 years, I had to recut everything. I brought in (veteran producer) Richie Podolor, and we redid most of it electrically and kept only two cuts from the original project."

The overall album sounds a lot like Desert Rose Band. "It should. That was my band," says Hillman, who in his other groups was overshadowed by more high-profile members.

However, one cut strongly evokes The Byrds. Jackie De Shannon's "When You Walk In The Room," made famous by The Searchers, illustrates one of the distortions of time. The Searchers, now commonly lumped in as just another British Invasion rock band, were actually the first successful practitioners of the Rickenbacker guitar sound later made famous by The Byrds.

Their influence is not lost on Hillman. "I give them credit. We brought in a bit from them. What maybe derailed (The Searchers) was material. Roger (then known as Jim) McGuinn took the 12-string in another direction and was more conscious of material. But we identified more with The Beatles than The Searchers. McGuinn watched 'A Hard Day's Night' and saw George Harrison playing a Rickenbacker. He picked up that sound and took it another step."

"I think it's all down to songs. What this business is all about is songs - good lyrics and melodies."

"I can still hear a Beatles record and it sounds wonderful. The old Rolling Stones sound great." And old Byrds records? "They still sound pretty damn good."

At 53 and like many of his generation - especially those who were really passionate about music - he is thoroughly disillusioned with today's business. "The music business has become such a distasteful, boring thing. The celebrity as omnipotent being is silly. The whole country has turned into a tabloid culture. I'm really lucky I get to make records for Sugar Hill and Rounder. I get to do what I want."

For Rounder, Hillman released the collaborative bluegrass album "Out Of The Woodwork" last year with Herb Pedersen, Tony Rice and Larry Rice. A sequel will be recorded this summer. "I look forward to that. It's back to square one," says Hillman, who played in California bluegrass bands before joining The Byrds.

In the early days of The Byrds, Hillman certainly didn't seem to be the member most likely to have an enduring career. He was a minor figure behind the singing and songwriting of McGuinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark. "I was the bass player. That's all I was looking to do at the time. I didn't start writing songs until "Younger Than Yesterday" (the Byrds fourth album)...I didn't really learn how to sing until the late Seventies."

McGuinn didn't like country music that much. Crosby hated it. I had written 'Time Between' and 'Girl With No Name,' two countryish songs. I brought in Clarence White to play on them. When (Gram) Parsons joined the band, I had a necessary ally" to push the group towards a countrier sound, exemplified by "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo."

"Roger was the lead singer and the signature sound. We were his wingmen and his support. People don't give enough credit to Gene Clark. He came up with the most incredible lyrics. Unfortunately, he was consumed by demons. He was unable to stay in the band, and we adjusted."

"It was Roger's band. He was a good catalyst. He liked to work with other people. He and I always worked well together."

Leaving the Byrds, Hillman and Parsons created The Flying Burrito Brothers in 1968. That group is still regarded as a seminal band. But although Hillman co-wrote most of the original songs and was in the group much longer than Parsons, it's Parsons who is given all the credit in history and mythology.

"I've heard this for 25 years. It used to bother me. It doesn't bother me anymore. My wife put it in perspective for me. 'Would you trade places with him?' Not in a million years! I know what I did. I wrote half of "Sin City" while he was sleeping."

"Gram Parsons was very talented. But he was indulgent and lacked discipline. He could have been a major force in the music business, but he killed himself with heroin...Gram wasted his talent. Now (The Burritos) sell more records than we did back then."

In the country field, Hillman had his greatest success with Desert Rose BandFrom 1987 to 1990, the group had 10 consecutive Top 15 singles, including two Number Ones. Suddenly it was over.

"Line dancing became popular. Garth Brooks came along. Randy Travis, Kathy Mattea, and Desert Rose Band were not getting on the radio as much. It's nice now to not be under the gun of pleasing radio. That's what happened at the end of Desert Rose. Tony Brown, who is a great producer, didn't understand what we were. When we tried to be what he thought we should be, we lost our edge."

The biggest change in being a solo artist rather than a group member is that "you don't have to compromise. You avoid a lot of dissension and a lot of animosity."

But Hillman says he has "a warm, loving relationship with McGuinn and Crosby. We've gotten over that hump. We realize we shared that moment in our life, and now we're grown up. When I had some health problems, David and Roger were the first ones there to help me. Crosby sang on this new record. Roger would have done it. He's in Florida, and I got behind on the scheduling."

While Hillman's music is as good as it ever was, his attitude towards it has changed. "We're older now. Your passion is tempered. You reach a niche. I don't want to go to a concert and have that abrasive stuff in my face. But I'm not ready to sit down with Kenny G either. I still love to play music, but it is not consuming me like it did 30 years ago."