Christopher Hillman was born in rural California on December 4, 1944. His older sister got him interested in country and folk music when she was in college and he was a teenager, and he began learning guitar and mandolin. At 17 he joined his first band, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, playing mandolin, and the group recorded an album, Bluegrass Favorites (now a rare collector’s item), in 1963. Other members included future Eagle Bernie Leadon. When they broke up later that year (something which seems to have been an occupational hazard of California bands of the period), Chris joined the Golden State Boys, another bluegrass band which featured Vern Gosdin on lead vocals. Soon afterwards, the band changed its name to the Hillmen. The band’s eponymous album was released in 1969, some years after their disbanding, and has been reissued a few times since with some additional tracks.
The lack of bigtime success was beginning to frustrate the young musician, who was contemplating abandoning music in favour of attending college, when he got a big break thanks to Jim Dickson, who had produced the Hillmen’s recordings and tried to get them a record deal. He was invited to join a new folk-rock band called The Byrds, playing bass guitar – a new instrument for him. The Byrds’s first single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, was an international hit in 1965. Hillman was initially one of the less prominent members of the band, but he continued to develop as a songwriter and musician, and began to take a bigger share in the vocals on albums like Younger Than Yesterday, which had quite a strong country influence. In 1968 he and new member Gram Parsons, a fellow country fan, were instrumental in the creation of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, often regarded as the seminal country-rock album.
Chris and Gram departed the Byrds the following year, and together formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, a slightly shambolic but talented outfit who continued in the pioneering of country-rock. While the albums they recorded were not particularly commercially successful, being too country for rock and too rock for country, they have over time proved extremely influential, and some of the songs the pair wrote stand up as classics (for instance, ‘Sin City’).
The California country-rock-folk scene was somewhat incestuous and very quarrelsome, with frequent changes of band personnel. In 1971, Chris, who had fallen out with the unreliable Parsons (who went on to a solo career and launching that of Emmylou Harris, who Chris had actually discovered and introduced to Parsons), joined the eclectic Stephen Stills (formerly of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) in the band Manassas; there was then a shortlived Byrds reunion; and then a venture with singer-songwriter J. D. Souther and Buffalo Springfield’s Richie Furay to form the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Later in the 1970s Chris made his first attempt at a solo career with a couple of not very successful albums, before rejoining old Byrds bandmates Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark as McGuinn-Clark-Hillman.
The 1980s saw a change of emphasis, as Chris turned to his first musical loves: country and bluegrass, and really found himself as an artist. He recorded two excellent semi-acoustic records for Sugar Hill, Morning Sky and Desert Rose, with the help of his friend Herb Pedersen, who he had known for 20 years. The pair then formed the nucleus of the Desert Rose Band, a country-rock band with the emphasis on country which was to provide Chris Hillman’s greatest mainstream country success.
Their breezy sound was a big mainstream country hit between 1987 and 1991. Chris Hillman’s lead vocals were supported by Herb’s high harmonies, and the latter also contributed the odd lead vocal. The remainder of the lineup varied, but notably included lead guitarist John Jorgensen, steelie Jay Dee Maness, and Steve Hill, who became Hillman’s chief songwriting partner. The band won the CMA Horizon Award in 1989, and the Vocal Group of the Year in 1990.
After the Desert Rose Band called it a day in 1994, Hillman explored a number of mainly acoustic projects, sometimes solo, sometimes with friends. He and Pedersen have continued to work together frequently, and the pair have also recorded with bluegrass legends Tony and Larry Rice. There have also been live reunions of the Desert Rose Band.
In 2004 the Americana Music Association gave Hillman a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to so many genres of American music.
Over the next month we will be exploring highlights of Chris Hillman’s eclectic career, concentrating on the country elements, especially his period of mainstream success with the Desert Rose Band.