My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Chris Hillman – ‘Desert Rose’

desert roseChris Hillman’s second album for Sugar Hill (produced by Al Perkins) wasn’t entirely acoustic, but electric instruments are kept to a minimum. Featuring future Desert Rose Band cohorts Herb Pedersen on harmony vocals and rhythm guitar and Jay Dee Maness on steel, sets the template for the sound of the Desert Rose Band. A selection of mainly old country and bluegrass songs is delivered with sparking musicianship and Chris Hillman’s most accomplished vocals to date. Hillman might have been making music for the best part of 20 years, but this is where he really found his voice as a singer as well as musician and songwriter. In addition, his musical partnership with Herb Pedersen is one of the unsung pairings of country music, and this (or technically on the preceding Sugar Hill album Morning Sky) is where it started.

Chris’s version of the mid-tempo Mickey Newbury song ‘Why You Been So Long’ has a loping country rock feel. He turns to classic country with the Wilburn Brothers’ ‘Somebody’s Back In Town’, a lonesome number in which the protagonist’s loved one is going back to a returning ex, meaning that his own chance of winning her is gone. It’s not that well known a song, although Loretta Lynn cut it on her Fist City album, and Ricky Van Shelton later covered it, but it is an excellent one.

The delicately subdued Reno & Smiley ballad ‘Wall Around Your Heart’ is another outstanding song with a downbeat emotion. Even better is Chris’s version of the Louvin Brothers’ plaintive ‘I Can’t Keep You In Love With Me’, which shows off Herb’s harmonies at their best. Byron Berline’s fiddle is particularly effective on this track.

Jimmie Rodgers’ Rough And Rowdy Ways’ is cheerier, with a rambler happy with who he is. ‘Treasure Of Love’ is a George Jones song about the value of love over material things which Chris sings with great warmth and tenderness. Chris takes on the old Johnnie & Jack hit ‘Ashes Of Love, which he was to redo in similar style a couple of years later with the Desert Rose Band; the lyric is sad enough, but the performance is joyous.

The gospel classic ‘Turn Your Radio On’ has great harmonies from Herb and from ex Eagle Bernie Leadon. (At the time Chris was a recently professed Evangelical Christian, although he later converted to Greek Orthodoxy).

Amidst the classic songs, there are two Hillman originals, both about a relationship in which the couple face frequent separation. The title track is a melodic song about a couple facing hard times; the protagonist wonders if his “sweet desert rose” will still love him while he’s away looking for work in another town. This was a cowrite with Bill Wildes, a California-based horse trainer and songwriter whose life and character was reportedly the inspiration for the Eagles’ song ‘Desperado’. In the breezy ‘Running The Roadblocks’ a man is rushing home to a loved one, not caring how far over the speed limit he is. These are both pretty good songs, but perhaps not quite up to the standard of the rest.

This is a fantastic record which should appeal to fans of the Desert Rose Band, and to anyone whose tastes lean to more traditional country with bluegrass influences. It’s easy to find cheaply, and is well worth adding to your collection. Predecessor Morning Sky is rarer, and not quite so good, but worth picking up if you can find it.

Grade: A+

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