Chris Hillman: Former Byrd and Burrito Brother Recalls His Musical Journey in New Audiobook (The Interview)

Rock Cellar Magazine

Chris Hillman‘s autobiography, Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond, was one of the most celebrated music books of 2020. A recent audiobook version complements the memoir, which Hillman explained in a news release: 

“Recording my narration for the book was far more challenging than I could have ever imagined. For me it was completely different from going into a studio and recording music, and vocals, which I’ve been doing for nearly six decades,” said Hillman. “We tossed around the idea of adding a bit of music to embellish the title of each chapter. Each chapter was named after a song I had written, and or had recorded. This began to take on a whole new dimension in the presentation.”

With Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke, Hillman was a founding member of the Byrds, the pioneering band of the 1960s credited with creating folk rock and psychedelic rock. With the release of Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968, another genre was born: country rock. Hillman rejects the label.

“It’s all music,” Hillman tells Rock Cellar. “Everything fell under that umbrella of Americana music. And that’s what it is, it’s just music with elements of our culture.”

Hillman has also been a member of other well-loved bands such as the Flying Burrito Brothers, Souther-Hillman-Furay, Manassas and the Desert Rose Band. We spoke with Hillman shortly before he embarked on a long-delayed tour.

Rock Cellar: Each chapter of the new audiobook begins with an acoustic song excerpt. When you revisit songs, what do you change?

Chris Hillman: Sometimes on a revisit I go, “That’s not such a bad song.” And with some you go, “Oh my God.” The old songs. Not necessarily the ones I did as a short opening to each chapter but yeah, sometimes you look back on them and you go, “Gee, did I really write that?”

Rock Cellar: The Byrds have been credited with creating many musical genres. Was that intentional?

Chris Hillman: A lot of those terms were just thrown at us by journalists, starting with “folk rock.” Because we had success with Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Bob — he hadn’t plugged in at Newport yet — Bob was a folk singer at the time. So the Byrds have a successful song and folk rock is born. Unbeknownst to us, OK, so that’s fine. 

Then all of a sudden the next song is psychedelic rock or jazz rock — raga rock was one of my favorites — and then of course we got into country rock. I don’t know if that’s lazy journalism. It’s all music. I think at some point the Americana label, which either is good for festivals or of course some radio stations, encompassed all of those things, folk rock, country rock. Everything fell under that umbrella of Americana music. And that’s what it is, it’s just music with elements of our culture.

Click here to pick up Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond on hardcover from our Rock Cellar Store

Rock Cellar: It’s good to see you back touring again. Who is in your band? 

Chris Hillman: I only go as a trio. I’ve been working with John Jorgensen and Herb Pedersen, my gosh, over 30 years off and on from the Desert Rose Band days. We had always got along great in that band. So John and Herb, knowing me real well and knowing the material, are just the ideal people to work with. 

I can’t see going out with a full band. It’s cost-prohibitive, frankly. A drummer, electric bass, guitar, blah, blah, blah, and you also have four, five, six guys, a couple of roadies … you really have to think that way now. 

A lot of guys my age are going out in a different format, meaning they’re either going out acoustically or as I am going out, which is semi-acoustically. It’s the three of us. We plug in, in a sense, of electrifying our acoustic instruments. But we manage to get a big sound out of that. I think that my audience likes that. I think that most of my audience, people that come see me, grew up with me. They’re my age maybe, but there’s a lot of younger kids that love the Beatles and the Byrds. 

I think it’s working really well the way I’m doing it. Anybody that’s interested, you can always go to my website and see what’s currently happening as far as touring.

Rock Cellar: What can fans expect?

Chris Hillman: I read from the book intermittently through the show, but chronologically I start at the beginning. I come out and I talk about being born in 1944 and my first group and we start playing a couple of bluegrass songs, which is the first thing I ever did musically. And then we chronologically go from that to the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas, Souther-Hillman-Furay, McGuinn, Clark & Hillman and things like that. It’s just a whole musical history in that hour-and-a-half show.

We do two shows. We have an intermission, set one and set two, but I put this all together and rehearsed it with the guys. I couldn’t do it without them, I’ll be honest with you. Going up there and playing by yourself is very lonely and very one-dimensional. So having a couple more guys up there makes it a bigger deal, a bigger show.

Rock Cellar: Over the years you’ve teamed up with members of the Byrds in a variety of bands. What keeps drawing you back into that orbit?

Chris Hillman: I love Roger McGuinn dearly as a friend. I’ve known him since 1964 and always worked well with him. We wrote well together and then he came up with the idea of going out and celebrating the anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. That was two years ago. And I loved it because it was just what I needed to do. So going back out and working with Roger again after 25 years, it was like no time had passed. There’s a real history there. 

And then with McGuinn, Clark & Hillman in 1978, those were two guys from the Byrds and we didn’t call it the Byrds because we didn’t have all of the Byrds. It was just the three of us.

I liked that band actually, I thought it was a good band. I think the songs were really good. It was quite successful. There’s just a familiarity there and there’s a history that was pleasant that one goes back to sometimes. The people I worked with weren’t always great and in the book, I never denigrated anybody, that they were drug addicts or this and that.

I’d rather play up their talents. It makes me look small if I’m pointing my finger, saying, This guy was so stoned he couldn’t even stand on the stage. I didn’t do that, I didn’t see how it was relative.

Who cares? You want to talk about the music and how it moved you as a reader, how it moved me as the writer, and that I got to do something that I loved. I never thought I’d even get paid. The first time I got paid I got ten dollars, I said, God, you get paid to do this? I was a 17, 18-year-old kid. This is fun. I’ve been very, very blessed over the years.

It’s like being worried about not getting an award. I didn’t get into the music business or get into playing music to get awards. I barely knew what was going on there. The Grammys were not televised. We were up for a Grammy in ’65 with “Tambourine Man” but Tom Jones beat us out. 

Rock Cellar: Roger was the face of the Byrds from the beginning. Was that intentional? How did the rest of the band feel about that?

Chris Hillman: Oh, nobody was really upset about it. I wasn’t, I felt it was a privilege to be in that band. Once I got a good handle on the bass, I was really learning it as I went along the first few months, but no, I loved it. Roger was the lead singer and he had that definitive sound on the 12-string. And the way he sang. He probably did get a little more attention. It didn’t bother any of us. Maybe one guy was bothered, but he’s always getting in trouble anyway [laughs]. I guess you know that guy.

But I love him and we all get along. There’s three of us left. There’s three surviving members of the Byrds. We all get along just fine. Gettin’ along great. 

Rock Cellar: So no reunion announcement today?

Chris Hillman: Not without Gene and Mike, no, not without the other two fellas.  

Rock Cellar: It wasn’t until the Younger Than Yesterday album that you broke out as a songwriter. What happened?

Chris Hillman: I got a call from Hugh Masekela to play on a couple of sessions for him. They were jazz sessions for this gal from South Africa, Letta Mbulu. And here I am with David Crosby and he wanted David to play electric and me to play bass. It was all South African musicians. They were lovely people. I had so much fun. Letta complimented me in front of everybody about my bass playing and it was really great. 

I go home and start writing songs. Did I write a jazz song when I went home? No. I wrote a country song. Something unlocked something in my head and all of a sudden I start writing all that one week in time. I’ll never forget, we had a Byrds rehearsal set up and I came in and Roger was there and I showed him some of the songs and he said, “Wow.”

And the guys came in. Roger immediately said, “You’d better listen to what Chris has been writing.” Then he looks at me and says, “You wrote these by yourself?” I said yeah [laughs]. He was great. The other thing he said later on in an interview, he said, “Chris was a late bloomer but when he bloomed, he blossomed.” And I thought that was so nice that he said that.

Rock Cellar: The book is filled with hard lessons learned about managers, labels, and other band members. What advice would you give to musicians who are starting out?

Chris Hillman: I used to get that question quite a bit. “Mr. Hillman, you have any advice?” And I would say have fun with your music, keep playing, and I said get a four-year college degree. And they’d look at me like I was crazy. I said, “Listen, you need something to fall back on. Get a degree in something you like. And if not college, then learn how to be an electrician or a plumber so you will always have something to fall back on.”

Don’t stop playing music. Wherever you can play. They want to have you play at a party on a college campus, do it. And enjoy it and have fun with it. It’s a little different now than when I started. But that’s my advice. Embrace it, do it the very best you can, but have something to fall back on. It’s all I could tell ’em if they wanted to hear that.

Rock Cellar: As you weaved a country sound into the Byrds’ music on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, did you get any pushback from the record label or other band members?

Chris Hillman: No. Actually I’m amazed to this day that Columbia Records had no objection to us doing that. And it wasn’t like we were going to cross over and become a country act. We were just doing a Byrds album in Nashville and it was a country record. It wasn’t going to change the Byrds at all. It was still the Byrds when you hear it. You can hear the Byrds in that album. But that was just a one-off thing to do. We had a good time, it wasn’t the best-selling album at that time it came out. And it confused people.

It wasn’t my favorite record, as a matter of fact. Four or five years later it took on this whole new life. 

And then when we went out on the road to celebrate the 50th anniversary, we were selling out Town Hall in New York and places like that, it was great. And people really loved that record after 50 years.

Rock Cellar: Tom Petty was a big fan of yours. Have other musicians told you they were influenced by your music? 

Chris Hillman: I’ve heard lots of really wonderful things. “God, you guys got me into playing,” or “When I first heard ‘Tambourine Man’ that was it.” Tom always acknowledged our influence on him and the Heartbreakers and initially they did start out wanting to sound like the Byrds but he took it up 10, 12 rungs up the ladder, he really was an amazing musician. That’s where the Heartbreakers created a sound probably initially based on the Byrds but they went way, way, way beyond what we did.   

Rock Cellar: Let’s do a lightning round. A song of yours that more people should have heard.

Chris Hillman: [laughs] I always wanted “Have You Seen Her Face” to be an ad for a cosmetics firm. Because it’s perfect. And I had a friend who is an ad man and he said yeah, it is. And then he explained how the business ran and how it’s very hard to get that. I’ve gotten amazing compliments on that song. That was greatly influenced by Hugh Masekela’s band, the changes in “Have You Seen Her Face.” But I don’t know, I’m not measuring it against anything.  

Rock Cellar: A song you’d like to re-record.

Chris Hillman: There’s one I would like to redo that I added to my show. You wouldn’t know it but Roger and I wrote it, it’s called “Turn Your Radio On (Songbyrd’s Flight).” We did it on this last album we did back in the late ’70s, the McGuinn-Hillman album. It’s really a beautiful song and I’d love to recut that someday. 

Rock Cellar: What musician would you liked to have played with but didn’t get the chance?

Chris Hillman: I’ve always admired Barry Gibb. Now that probably sounds funny. I love the Bee Gees. Even through some of the silly stuff and the disco stuff but my God, they were good. And I saw them live and they were like wow. Talk about singers, I think Barry Gibb is an amazingly talented man. The hardship that family went through, my God. 

I knew Maurice and I met Robin, I never met Barry but we worked a lot in Miami at Criteria where they worked, they had their own room at Criteria Studios in North Miami. 

There’s a couple of people. Off the top of my head, I talked to Dave Mason the other day, I’m doing something with him on a podcast and Dave is a wonderful guy. I hadn’t talked to him in a long time. Very grounded, great musician. That’s who I like to talk to, people who are not taken by all of the trappings of being a star. 

In fact Tom Petty said in an interview, “I don’t think Chris ever liked show business. He was a musician’s musician.” And I went, “Boy, did he hit that right.” I didn’t. I didn’t care if I was in a limousine or any of that junk. It just did not affect me at all. 

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