Chris Hillman flew high with the Byrds in the mid-1960s; helped launch alternative country music with Gram Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers in the late ’60s; joined Stephen Stills in the early ’70s to blend blues, rock and country in Manassas; reunited with fellow Byrds Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark in the McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman trio in the late ’70s; and then rode high in country music in the late ’80s and early ’90s with the Desert Rose Band.
The latter summation of Hillman’s career touches some high points, but there’s much more to tell. In recent years he’s been working in a duo with Herb Pedersen, a lifelong friend and fellow Desert Rose Band member.
Hillman’s songwriter credits include the Byrds classics “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star” and “Have You Seen Her Face.” He also wrote Flying Burrito Brothers songs with Parsons and created much of the Desert Rose Band’s discography.
These days, Hillman’s acoustic duo with Pedersen is exactly where he wants to be. They’ve been performing together since the Desert Rose Band broke up in 1993. Their repertoire includes Byrds songs, material by bluegrass greats the Louvin Brothers and the Monroe Brothers and gospel songs.
Before their duo work, Hillman and Pedersen had a great run in the Desert Rose Band, a group founded 20 years after the Byrds’ 1965 breakthrough with the Bob Dylan-composed “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
“I didn’t want to get into another group at the time,” Hillman said about the beginning of the Desert Rose Band. “But it fell that way.”
Curb Records released the Desert Rose Band’s self-titled album debut in 1987. Its first single, a remake of Johnnie & Jack’s country hit “Ashes of Love,” reached the country Top 30. The second single, “He’s Back and I’m Blue,” went to No. 1.
The Desert Rose Band released 16 Top 10 country hits. Hillman decided to end the band, however, after he noticed the stylistic changes in country music, especially the rise of Garth Brooks. Most of all, though, he wanted to get off the road.
“I had been on the road for so long, since I was 18,” he said. “And I had two small children. I was missing birthdays. I said, ‘I think it’s time to put this out to pasture. Maybe we’ll revisit it.’ Which we did 10, 15 years later.”
Los Angeles native Hillman loved bluegrass early on and took up the mandolin at 15.
Still a teen, Hillman performed with bluegrass band the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and later the Golden State Boys, featuring Vern Gosdin, a future country star.
After the Beatles launched the British music invasion in early 1964, Hillman met his future bandmates in the Byrds, Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby. He switched to electric bass and drummer Michael Clarke completed the lineup. The group’s electrified rendition of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” became a No. 1 hit in mid-1965.
The distance between folk, country and bluegrass music to the hybrid style dubbed folk-rock wasn’t a stretch for any of the Byrds, Hillman said.
“We all had come out of folk music. We weren’t coming from that garage-band place, but we learned how to play electric instruments and didn’t really change too much, except for the amplification and having a drum set.”
The Byrds moved from recording songs by others to writing original material. For 1967’s “Younger Than Yesterday” album, Hillman co-wrote the hit “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star” with McGuinn. He’s also the sole composer and lead vocalist for one of the Byrds’ best, “Have You Seen Her Face.”
“When Gene (Clark) left I started singing more,” Hillman recalled. “Did I really grasp the art of singing yet? No. But David (Crosby) put such a beautiful harmony on ‘Have You Seen Her Face,’ it saved the song.”
The five original Byrds reunited for their 1991 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Members of the Byrds created so much music after and apart from the Byrds, including many solo projects.
“There were other things out there to conquer,” Hillman said. “We were very lucky. We had success beyond the Byrds.”