A ‘hell of a great ride,’ and this country-rock pioneer survived it

From spurs and saddles on the family ranch during his childhood years, Chris Hillman’s interests eventually turned to guitars and mandolins. After making his first musical steps with bluegrass bands as an enthusiastic teenager, Hillman was asked to join The Byrds while this groundbreaking act was in the midst of preparing material for its debut release in 1965. The Byrds went on to make musical history by crafting a style of their own, despite being propelled by their mentors, The Beatles. Over the decades, Hillman, widely regarded as the pioneer of country-rock, has carried on with various projects. The veteran, who has just released a warm and affectionate new album, «The Other Side,» recently spent some holiday time in Greece with his American wife of Greek descent and their two teenage children. Kathimerini English Edition caught up with him for a chat about his plentiful life. You spent your early days as a bluegrass musician before joining the Byrds to head in more of a rock’n’roll direction. How did that come about? Yeah, that’s true, I’d actually started off in bluegrass music as a mandolin player. I felt that it was quite an opportunity when I was asked to join the Byrds as their bass player. I knew something was going to happen with this band. I liked what I heard. So, I put the mandolin away, picked up the electric bass, plugged it into an amplifier, and tried to figure out how to play it. Seductive quality What made you sense that there was something special going on with The Byrds [during the band’s formative phase]? Well, I heard this beautiful singing from the three of them – Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby. They had such a magic to their singing, and, even though, at the time it sounded like they were copying the Beatles, I just knew there was something there, a magical quality that seduced me. They had already written some great songs. If I hadn’t heard anything interesting there, I would have stayed on the mandolin and not joined. Had work on the band’s celebrated Bob Dylan covers already begun at this early stage? That came a little later. First we tried to emulate the Beatles. And then our manager had access to some of Bob Dylan’s material, because he knew Bob. And Bob was not playing electric then. He was still a folk singer, and he had written this song «Mr Tambourine Man,» which he didn’t use on an album. He’d done a demo of it, just him and the guitar. So, our manager brought this song to us and said «this is a great song.» None of us liked it. It didn’t sound like a rock ‘n’ roll song. It sounded like a country song. But our manager, Jim Dickson, was very persistent and talked us into it. So Roger McGuinn [The Byrds lead singer] took the song, arranged it, shortened it, put it into more of a danceable beat, or more of a Beatles-type «Mersybeat» style. Then we cut it, and it worked! So your version of the song preceded Dylan’s release of it? Yeah. I think we were instrumental in him actually plugging in and playing electric, too. I think that when «Mr Tambourine Man» took off, it might have been the motivating factor that made him go electric. He was supportive. We went on to do a lot more of his material throughout the whole career of The Byrds. He obviously liked what The Byrds were doing? He liked it. He liked most of what we did. He didn’t even recognize «Mr Tambourine Man» when the record first came out. Then he realized it was his song and ended up telling us: «You guys did it right. You did it the way it should have been done.» Getting back to the present, you’ve remained musically active. What keeps you going? Well, I sort of have this luxury where I can pick and choose when I want to work. So, I’m sort of retired. I’m 60 years old, and I’ve been doing this for 44 years. Even so, when I go out, I love playing music. It’s almost the passion I had when I was 17 or 18, because I really don’t have any kind of thing to prove. There’s no record company pressure to do a certain kind of song. The respected British music magazine «Mojo» recently [June 16] awarded you its «Mojo Roots Award.» Would you like to comment? Basically, it’s an award for introducing more traditional music into rock ‘n’ roll. I guess that’s what it is – I’m not sure! How was the ceremony in London? Did you run into any old friends? It was nice, yeah, I did see some old friends, but it was mostly younger people around me. Who did I see? Oh, there was Slash, the guitar player from Guns ‘N’ Roses; I guess he’s in a new band now [Velvet Revolver]. The crowd was quite a bit younger. There they were, all up on stage, and they’re smoking and swearing, and I’m thinking they’re kids, I guess – not really kids, probably late 30s, early 40s. I saw Bill Wyman, an old friend, and, I should say, the best bass player the Rolling Stones had, Robert Cray, Steve Earle. There were only a few people there that I knew. Oh, Ray Davies from the Kinks was there, too, but I never really knew him so I should have gone and introduced myself. And Jimmy Page was there. He looks good. You were in your early 20s when success came instantly for the Byrds. [The debut single «Mr Tambourine Man,» released in June 1965, reached number one]. Was it a shock? Well, we were very young and, yes, it was quite a shock. Now, you have to remember, I was just the bass player [at the time, before developing as one of the songwriters], meaning I was so shy. I was one of the younger members. But I’ll tell you as an observer: It was exciting, I’m sure far more exciting for Roger McGuinn to hear his voice on radio, even though he’d had an extensive track record playing and producing prior to the Byrds. But, yes, when we first heard our song on the radio, it was exciting. We were starving, had no money, and then you hear the song on the radio. Was money a factor for the band at the time? We weren’t thinking about the money to be made. It was for the love of it. If you love what you’re doing, in any job, you’ll never ever think «how much am I making?» If you cannot stand the work, you hate the work, you think «when do I get paid, when do I get the money?» But when you love something you go: «Wow, I get paid, too.» What about the early touring to masses after the single took off. How did that feel? We were pretty lucid in the beginning as a band, and it took us a while to become a band, because we hadn’t spent a couple of years playing in clubs like The Beatles. We didn’t have that experience. So we were put right out there on the stage and had to learn how to play as a band. We played all summer of ’65 in the States, all over; we worked really hard. And then we went to London in August of 1965, which was a mistake. Tough UK press Why? Because we were so tired. We needed to wait another year and then go over there. When the English press sees «America’s Answer To The Beatles,» they’re like «we’ll go for your throat.» They were waiting for anything to go wrong. The good part of it was that we met The Beatles, and they were very nice to us. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, too. The musicians welcomed us, and the public welcomed us, but the press was a little tough on us. Not all of our shows were good. But it was OK. It didn’t kill our career. We came back and had more hits and stuff. After starting off with a kind of folk-pop style, The Byrds went more country. What led to that? In ’66, ’67, we started to do some country-type music and incorporated it into The Byrds music. Then in ’68 we hired Gram Parsons, who was really a sideman, not a full member. It was down to Roger McGuinn and myself. Everyone else had left. Gram came in and was a young kid, real ambitious, motivated, and helped us go that one step further. I already had that country music background, so Gram helped. Was it your idea? Yeah, I had a good strong ally in Gram so we made the «Sweetheart of the Rodeo» record. It wasn’t my favorite Byrds album. What this album did, though, was to open up a lot of that kind of music to people who normally would not have listened to it. To this day, people rave about that record and I go: «Oh, it’s OK. There were some moments on it.» Why do you think people like it so much? I don’t know. I guess I’m too closely connected to it. It was a good record in that, oddly enough, it started lots of people out who later became very well known in the US in country music. I think, all in all, one thing The Byrds left as a legacy was the music. We never became millionaires, but we became millionaires to our contribution musically, because, from Tom Petty, to Bruce Springsteen, to the Pretenders, to REM, various groups, you’ll hear a Byrds influence, a Byrds sound. It was a pretty unique sound because we didn’t know what we were doing. We stumbled into that sound. There was no blueprint. Gram Parsons left the Byrds after «Sweetheart of the Rodeo» and soon after the two of you formed the Flying Burrito Brothers. Why did you split? I felt that, at the time, we were spinning our wheels. I needed stimulation if I was going to stay in music. For the first year of the Flying Burrito Brothers we wrote some of the best songs that I can remember. I still love them. The first album we did [«The Gilded Palace of Sin,» 1969] had some great songs. But we got caught in between. Rock radio wouldn’t play us because our work was too country. And country radio wouldn’t play us because they thought it was too rock. Oddly enough, the Flying Burrito Brothers are far more popular now than they were then. Gram Parsons is a huge cult figure, of course. We’d let go by the the third album. Gram fell victim to alcohol and drugs. The darker side The loss of both his parents at a young age must have been tough on him. Yeah, but here’s what he had. It wasn’t that he had a bad childhood. He had a bad childhood in that he was brought up wealthy. So he had money coming in every year. A lot of money. He wasn’t the starving artist. That could have been his undoing. Had he survived all that [Parsons died in 1973, at age 26] and then really worked, he would have been quite a formidable figure. He had talent but he wasted the talent. And he had an opportunity but he wasted the opportunity. His opportunity was being able to play in an established rock group like The Byrds. The Flying Burrito Brothers opened for the Rolling Stones at the infamous Altamont show in 1969 [one person was fatally stabbed]. What do you recall? A really bad day. It was as if the devil had come down that day. It was dark, gloomy, out in the middle of this field; people were taking drugs – totally out of control. As a participant and observer, it was very uncomfortable. So you weren’t there during the fatal incident? I did not stay for that problem that happened with the man getting murdered. Gram stayed. I knew something wasn’t right. A few hours later, I heard about the news in my hotel room. It’s not something I cherish in my memories. That’s when rock ‘n’ roll – in ’68, ’69 – was taking a darker turn. A few words about your new album? I didn’t know whether I’d get to make another record. I had such an enjoyable time making it. I was under no pressure. I really could do whatever I wanted. Basically, the album is very gospel and Christian in a way, but it’s not overtly in your face. I’m not trying to convert anybody. I wanted to do a CD that would be relaxing in a sense. Something that could relax a driver stuck in traffic, for example, and take him or her away somewhere. That sounds funny but that’s what I was aiming at. I’ve seen a lot of things, lost a lot of good friends. It’s hard for me to sit and listen to some loud rock band. I’m really happy with this record. There are things I would have have done differently. But that’s true of every record I’ve ever made, and I’ve made about 57, 58, I think. That’s normal, trying to improve. I’ll use an old cliche: «I think my best work is around the corner» – if I have the opportunity; and if I don’t, it was a hell of a great ride and I survived it, and I got to experience the best part of the early years of rock’n’roll.

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