One Of the Founding Fathers Of Folk & Country Rock Found Balance In Faith & Family
By: Jeff Walker, Entertainment Writer
While it’s not unusual for rock n’ roll stars to pen memoirs, seldom do they delve into a such detail as does Chris Hillman in ‘Time Between : My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond’. A well respected musician (guitar & mandolin), as well as a singer songwriter, Hillman has been part of the American music scene for 55 years, cutting his teeth as one of the founding members of The Byrds, a groundbreaking band inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
‘Time Between’ appropriately titled after one of Hillman’s earliest forays in songwriting, from The Byrds 1967 album ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ includes over 230 plus pages, from his birth in Southern California in 1944 until the books release in the 2020. Hillman recalls his formative years, growing up in a ranch home outside San Diego, where his love for cowboys and westerns began. His father a partner in a successful advertising agency, and his mother a godly woman provided an idyllic life for the Hillman family, to the extent Chris had his own horse.
Much like his songwriting style, Hillman paints vivid imagery, depicting the good, the bad, and the ugly coming of age in the 1950’s and 60’s. Hillman shares fond and often humorous stories of petty theft, junior high friendships, discovering the opposite sex, and the occasional snake in the kitchen.
His father’s suicide is perhaps the darkest moment during Hillman’s teenage years. Early on Hillman’s saving grace was country & western, bluegrass, and the burgeoning folk music scene. Never planning to be front and center, ‘Time Between’ is more of an evolutionary tale of how a somewhat reserved, gifted musician blossomed into one of rock n’ rolls most prized treasures.
Hillman started writing his memoir with nothing more than a singular goal. “I was never really planning to write a book for the masses. I had been working on it for five or six years, just sort of retracing the story of my life. It was a nice project for me, and kept me busy. If nothing else I thought it would be something I could hand down to my kids.”
Although he started writing ‘Time Between’ roughly seven years ago, it was never about a healing process or his father’s death. “Perhaps it was a bit cathartic, but I had forgiven my father many years ago. Actually I was at my brother’s house back in 1990 and he had old film clips of the family when we were younger, and I saw footage of my father and me playing on the beach. I was probably three or four at the time. That’s when I began to come to terms with the way he ended his life.”
Hillman says ‘Time Between’ is meant to be reflective, and life lessons can be discovered even thru tragedy. “I really had a blessed child life. Suicide is horrible on the family setting. It was especially hard on my mother. But I forgave him many years ago. I learned a lot in the 16 years my father was with me. I was not an angel, but he taught me to be responsible. Those early lessons in life carried over in my career. I learned never to cross the line, to treat people with respect.”
It was outside influence that lead Hillman to publish the book. “So Scott Bomar who is an editor got hold of it and said I should release it. Scott is a fellow musician, and he knew how the book should go. He said I didn’t need another writer, just to trim it down. So with my wife’s help we cut about 75 pages out, and the book was ready. It was Scott who got me over the finish line.”
Hillman welcomed the emergence of rock n’ roll, although as others embraced Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, in ‘Time Between’ we discover a teenage Hillman connected more with ballads from Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the Kingston Trio. As the 1960’s unfolded Hillman is drawn to surfing, surf music, jazz, and the British Invasion.
Working as a musician in 1964, a then 19 year old Hillman remembers how four lads from Liverpool changed American music after their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Having hit the pinnacle of success in the mid 1960’s, all the while living in greater Los Angeles Hillman chronicles his rise to stardom, and the brushes he had with stardom along the way.
With notoriety and hit songs, how quickly life changes. Hillman recalls less than two years later he and The Byrds would hang out with The Beatles, befriending the Rolling Stones along the way, forging a deeper relationship with Stones bassist Bill Wyman.
‘Time Between’ is ripe with story lines that resemble other rock n’ roll autobiographies. There is the formation of the band, the success of the band, the break down of the band, and the mismanagement of the band. Established in 1965 the original unit included Jim ‘Roger’ McQuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Michael Clarke, and Hillman. By 1967 Clark, Crosby, and Clarke exited the group, with Hillman bowing out in 1968.
In less than three years The Byrds had a half dozen hits, going all the way to number one with ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. The success of ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, ‘Eight Miles High’ and ‘So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ further cemented their success, making them pop and rock idols. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ became the first folk rock song to top the Top 40 Charts, a surprise for The Byrds and songwriter Bob Dylan.
“We didn’t put Dylan on the map. He was already making headway when his song, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ came our way. If anything his song helped put us on the map. I have to give credit to Roger. He took a wonderful song and re-arranged the tempo and made it into a hit for us. I remember Bob saying we turned his folksy tune into a song you could almost dance too.”
A youthful 76 years old, Hillman says The Byrds helped lay the foundation for musicians who followed. “I’m happy with our contribution to folk music, and helping bring it into the mainstream. I look at a lot of the artists that followed us, bands like REM, Tom Petty, and even Springsteen. All of them have a little element of folk music in their sounds, and I feel The Byrds had something to do with that.”
Rising to prominence in the mid to late 1960’s Hillman was witness to many epic events, rubbing elbows with the new younger Hollywood crowd. He and his band mates would entertain at private Hollywood parties, play the 1967 Monterrey Pop Festival discovering first hand the artistry of Jimi Hendrix. The Byrds performed at the tragedy filled 1969 Altamont Speedway concert with the Stones, the same year the Manson murders made headlines in La-La Land.
Residing in Laurel Canyon during his early fame, Hillman had his share of tragedy, escaping a fire that torched the home he was renting in the 1960’s. The same misfortune would beset Hillman in 2017 while living in Ventura. Celebrating his 73 birthday on December 4th, a fire broke out in Santa Paula, 20 miles away, eventually raging enough to cause the Hillman’s to evacuate, with Chris taking along important papers, photos, the family dog, and two prized instruments he received from Stephen Stills, and from the widow of his first mentor Bill Smith.
In ‘Time Between’ we realize the benevolence of fellow musicians, and how Hillman and The Byrds helped pave the way for Buffalo Springfield, and Crosby, Stills, & Nash, with Stephen Stills giving Chris a prized mandolin years down the road thanks to Hillman’s early support. Hillman provides a nice tidbit on how Mick Jagger offered professional etiquette to Gram Parsons.
Although it comes across like a humble narrative, ‘Time Between’ reads like a who’s who of the first generation of rock n’ roll. Riding on the British Invasion wave, and the emerging California country folk rock sound, Hillman made quick friends with members of the Beatles, the Stones, and CSN&Y, as well as Rich Furay, Parsons, JD Souther, Neil Young, and Bernie Leadon (founding member of the Eagles).
The revolving door membership in The Byrds would lead Hillman and Parsons to form the Flying Burrito Brothers, a short lived alternative rock band in 1970 that disbanded as quick as it began to take shape. Next up for Chris was joining Stephen Stills’ band Manassas.
With that ending, record company executives were hoping the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band would find the same magic as CS&N. Two albums and limited chart success lead to three original Byrds reuniting as the power trio McQuinn, Clark & Hillman, with ‘Don’t You Write Her Off’ barely reaching the Top 40.
By the 1980’s Hillman was ripe for a change, returning to his bluegrass and country music roots, launching the Desert Rose Band with ex Dillards banjo and guitar player Herb Pedersen, and noted musician John Jorgenson. In the course of nine years the Desert Rose Band charted 11 Top 40 country-music hits with ‘He’s Back and I’m Blue’ and ‘I Still Believe In You’ topping the country charts in 1987 and 1988 respectively.
While The Byrds laid the foundation for what would become Americana and southern and country rock, Hillman admits that the highlight of his career came when he turned his focus to Music City.
“All these years later along comes the Desert Rose Band. I didn’t want to start a band or even record. But when Herb and John came into the picture it just felt right. When ‘Love Re-United’ cracked the top ten I thought maybe I’ve arrived.” Hillman adds, “We weren’t a true country band, we were more country rock. So in some ways I was returning to original roots. We weren’t true Nashville, because we were all from California.”
Chris Hillman packs 70 plus well lived years into ‘Time Between’. His memoir including a foreword by Dwight Yoakum is honest and refreshing, and brings the rock n’ roll icon full circle. In a business fraught with excesses and indulgences, Hillman has been able to maintain balance in his life, much to the credit of a relationship with Jesus Christ, fellow Christian musicians, his wife, and his children, all who kept him grounded.
Hillman’s musical journey is not without its trials and tribulations. Aside from his father’s suicide in 1961, Hillman lost Parsons and fellow Byrds musician Clarence White within a few months of each other in 1973. Not long after the five original Byrds members enjoyed their Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Gene Clark passed due to a heart attack, with Michael Clarke bowing out in 1993.
Losing his mother and biggest fan in 1998 was further hampered when Hillman discovered he had Hepatitis-C. When his kidneys began to fail shortly thereafter he made peace with God, asking only that his wife and kids be taken care of. In his own words from ‘Time Between’ Hillman humbly stated, ‘God wasn’t finished with me yet. There was still more I was meant to do on this earth before my time was done’.
Able to escape many of the trappings fame affords especially at a young age, Hillman came to realize music was the vehicle the good Lord used to maintain balance his life. Over the past three decades there have been mini reunions with Crosby and McQuinn, as well as well documented jam sessions with celebrated country, bluegrass, and rock artists.
While there will never be true Byrds reunion, Hillman has and does welcome the times he’s played with Crosby and McQuinn. “I honestly enjoy playing music with them. Thankfully in The Byrds we had several guys who could sing, especially David. His voice is unreal.” Quoting from his book Hillmans states, ‘Legacy is a funny thing. Sometimes you have opportunities to revisit the music of the past, and it just feels right’.
He and Roger talk weekly, especially on Fridays when the two, and their wives enjoy virtual trivia, with the McQuinn’s at home in Florida and the Hillman’s in California. “It’s something I look forward to every week now.”
Hillman admits he’s always felt more comfortable being surrounded by fellow musicians and being part of a band. “They say ‘genius his hindsight’. God put me in a certain place in the right time, and the biggest thing I had to learn was to be confident. I never chased stardom. I didn’t particularly like show business, and was content being part of an ensemble group. I’m just a musician, and love to play music. I prize my anonymity.”
Over a five decade run Hillman met, hung out or jammed with the biggest names in popular music, from Otis Redding and Chuck Berry to the Mick Jagger and Neil Young. His earnest love for Americana grass roots music allowed him to perform with Steve Earle, Vern Gosdin, the Oak Ridge Boys, Sheryl Crow, and Marty Stuart. He performed a musical tribute at Roy Orbison’s funeral, and joined Dwight Yoakum as they saluted the late Buck Owens.
There are several poignant and witty back stories in ‘Time Between’ including trips to the Holy Land, and a priest who survived seminary on The Byrds music, as well as the time Chris baptized a former Manassas band mate the night before he passed away. Hillman relates his life’s story akin to climbing a mountain, one at which he is still ascending. He’s overcome challenges, learned to forgive his father, reigned in his anger, and taken control of his. All with God at the wheel.
To some Hillman’s name might not be as recognizable the rock legends he’s performed with, but his legacy, and his contribution to popular music are forever etched in rock n’ roll history. ‘Time Between’ speaks volumes, of a man content with being a journeyman musician that helped give birth to folk & country rock, but more importantly found solace and hope in his Christian faith.
Hillman admits God is at work in his life. The loss of his older sister Susan in 2018 was expected, and tempered by joining Marty Stuart & His Superlatives on tour. Whether you’re a rock n’ roll icon or an average joe we all face ups and downs in our life. Having a relationship with Jesus has made Hillman’s tour more bearable.
‘Time Between : My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond‘ is a comprehensive annals tracing his early beginnings in sun drenched southern California where he dreamed of being a cowboy, to fond memories of working with Tom Petty, months before Tom’s death. Hillman speaks fondly of recording his 2017 solo album ‘Bidin’ My Time’ with Petty as co-producer, and in the book there is a quote from Petty proclaiming, ‘Hillman as one of the best kept secrets in rock n’ roll’. Well said.
Over the past three decades Hillman’s work has centered around a variety of projects covering gospel, Christian, folk, bluegrass, country and rock music styles. While Hillman garnered many awards late in his career, the shy young kid content on playing mandolin at the back of the stage, emerged as one of the true pioneers of rock n’ roll. Little did he know the music of The Byrds would have such a lasting impact generations of artists to follow.
Another excerpt from the book sums up his 41 year marriage to wife Connie, and their family. ‘When I look at her (Connie), our son Nicky and his wife Annie, my daughter Catherine and her husband Nick, and our grandchildren, I know I’m a blessed man. I’m grateful for all those who have supported me over the years, and I know what I was put on earth to do. I will continue to use the gifts God has given me for as long as possible.’ For Hillman ‘Time Between’ is a work in progress. “It’s my life from birth until now. Hopefully I still have more to write about.”
With 232 pages including rare photos, ‘Time Between’ is straigt forward, and doesn’t pull any punches. “The book is easy to read. I didn’t sit down to write a tell all, or try to denigrate any of my peers. I’ve been blessed to have worked with the talented artists I’ve worked with. God has opened so many doors for me. When The Byrds ended, Stephen came along and offered me a job in Manassas. That lead to me working with JD and Rich. So I know I’ve been blessed all along. I hope that comes across in the book.” It does.
I implore readers to happily ‘turn, turn, turn every page of this heartwarming story. For more on Chris Hillman or to purchase a copy of his book, visit his website at https://chrishillman.com/
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