My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: The Desert Rose Band – ‘The Desert Rose Band’

desert rose bandThe Desert Rose Band was Chris Hillman’s biggest success in mainstream country music. The initial acoustic lineup, which crystallised on a tour with Dan Fogelburg, comprised Chris, Herb Pedersen, lead guitarist John Jorgensen, and bass player Bill Bryson. Drummer Steve Duncan and steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness were then added to the band, and a fresh yet mainstream sound emerged. They signed a deal with MCA/Curb and launched with their self-titled debut album in 1987, produced by Paul Worley. Their country-rock and traditional country influences combined to make an infectious and irresistible sound which was very radio-friendly.

A sturdy cover of ‘Ashes Of Love’, which Chris had recorded on his solo Desert Rose album, was the group’s first single, and peaked at #26. It was followed by the band’s first top 10 hit, ‘Love Reunited’, which was written by Chris with Steve Hill. The steel-laced song advises a couple not to separate but to work at their relationship. A second Hillman/Hill co-write here is ‘Glass Hearts’, a great up-tempo song about the conflicting emotions of a new relationship, with the fear of getting hurt if it doesn’t last.

Only love can set you free
I’ll open up so she can see
My glass heart will break
Cause it’s made of sand

‘One Step Forward’ almost made it to the top of the Billboard country chart, peaking at #2. A catchy and punchy number about the frustration of a relationship not going anywhere, it was one of three songs Hillman wrote for the record with Bill Wildes, with whom he had written ‘Desert Rose’ (although that song was never actually recorded by the band it gave its name to). The other Wildes co-writes here are both fine songs: the optimistic insistence that ‘Hard Times’ will pass, and the downbeat ‘Leave This Town’, which is about the disappointment of a failed relationship, with the protagonist complaining,

If she’s the one in trouble why’s it me that has to go?

Finally, the album’s fourth and last single topped the charts. ‘He’s Back And I’m Blue’, a sad ballad about being the rebound guy who is out of the picture when the ex returns.

Underlining the fact that the Desert Rose Band was a real group and not just a solo Hillman effort, Herb Pedersen sang lead on the country classic ‘Once More’. The wistful thoughts of the ‘One Who Got Away’ are (a Hillman co-write with Peter Knobler) are set to a sweet melody. The band revived Chris Hillman’s song ‘Time Between’, previously recorded by the Byrds, which is actually one of the less interesting songs.

Great harmonies, great musicianship and great songs make this a classic and irresistible record.

Grade: A

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Spotlight Artist: Chris Hillman and the Desert Rose Band

ChrisHillmanChristopher 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.