My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Steve Hill

Album Review: Chris Hillman – ‘Like A Hurricane’

likeahurricaneThis 1998 release, Hillman’s first solo effort since 1984’s Desert Rose, found him back on the Sugar Hill label and working once again with his former Desert Rose Band colleagues Herb Pedersen, who produced the album, and Jay Dee Maness, who played steel guitar. Jerry Douglas and David Crosby also appear among the musician credits. Hillman co-wrote eleven of the album’s twelve songs, ten of them with Steve Hill.

Like A Hurricane is a combination of country and rock, with a touch of folk and the occasional pop flourish thrown in. It’s not terribly different from Hillman’s work with the Desert Rose Band, although it is not as slickly produced. Had it appeared a few years earlier, it would probably have been considered a solidly mainstream release and not relegated to a roots-oriented indie label such as Sugar Hill.

In the hands of a lesser artist, an eclectic album like this would seem choppy and disjointed, but Hillman makes the transition from more acoustic and rootsy fare like “Angel’s Cry” and “Second Wind” to harder-edged rock numbers like “Run Again” and “Livin’ On The Edge”, seamlessly and effortlessly. At first glance, the Jackie DeShannon-penned “When You Walk Into The Room” seems out of place on this album. A 1964 pop hit for The Searchers and a #2 country hit for Pam Tillis in 1994, it is the only non-original song on the album, and although it appears to be an odd choice, Hillman puts his owns stamp on the song, and I enjoyed this version much more than I thought I would.

Not surprisingly, Like A Hurricane didn’t produce any charting singles, but it contains a number of well-crafted songs, such as “Second Wind” (my favorite), the title track, and the beautiful “Heaven’s Lullaby” which closes out the album. The folk-tinged “Carry Me Home” reminds me of something that Irish singer Maura O’Connell might have recorded, in no small part due to the dobro-playing of Jerry Douglas. I was slightly bored by some of the more rock-oriented songs like “Livin’ On The Edge” and “Run Again”, which will come as no surprise to my long-time readers.

Like most non-major label releases by artists over the age of 50, Like A Hurricane received little radio airplay and was likely overlooked by a large segment of the record-buying public. If, like me, you missed this ablum when it was first released, you may want to give it a try now. There is much here to enjoy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Rice, Rice, Hillman And Pedersen – ‘Out Of The Woodwork’

out of the woodworkIn 1996 Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen teamed up with brilliant bluegrass brothers Tony and Larry Rice to record a delightful acoustic record together, calling themselves an “anti-supergroup”. The four had first met as teenage musicians at a California bluegrass festival back in 1963. Their paths crossed a number of times over the next few decades, and in the mid 1990s came up with the idea of working together after the Rice Brothers played at the same festival as Herb’s then group, the Laurel Canyon Ramblers.

Vocals are split between Chris, Herb and Larry.

Larry Rice takes the lead vocal on the best track on the album, his own ‘Street Corner Stranger’. This haunting tale tells the somber story of an alcoholic who has lost everything good in his life thanks to his addiction, and is reduced to taking advice from a man who has fallen even further.

He also sings lead on Richard Thompson’s contemporary folk classic ‘Dimming Of The Day’, Norman Blake’s ‘Lord Won’t You Help Me’, and his own ‘Just Me And You’ – all fine performances and songs.

The wistful ‘Somewhere On The Road Tonight’, written and sung by Chris Hillman, has a protagonist dreaming of home. ‘So Begins The Task is a resigned take on learning to live without a former love. ‘Change Coming Down’, which he wrote with Steve Hill, picks up the tempo, but not the mood, with the protagonist bemoaning the departure of his loved one.

Soul classic ‘Do Right Woman’ is completely reinvented both musically and with the inversion of gender of the original, and works remarkably well, with Chris’s sympathetic lead vocal making it a very unexpected highlight. There are also revivals of the Desert Rose Band’s ‘Story Of Love’ and ‘Hard Times’, slowed down and more intimate and contemplative.

Herb sings ‘No One Else’, which he had also done on the Desert Rose Band’s True Love, and the philosophical Mac McAnally song ‘Only Passing Through’ with a coyly disguised ‘Mystery Singer’ (I think McAnally himself) on harmony.

Everything is tastefully arranged and beautifully played. In short, this is an excellent record which should appeal to all lovers of acoustic music.

Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen reunited for two further collaboration: a self-titled effort i n 1999 and Running Wild in 2001

Grade: A

Album Review – The Desert Rose Band – ‘Life Goes On’

220px-TheDesertRoseBandLifeGoesOn1993The Desert Rose Band’s final album Life Goes On hit stores in September 1993. Amidst lineup changes and other band-related discord it’s a miracle the CD even came out all.

Life Goes On spun two singles. Chris Hillman and Steve Hill wrote the lead “What About Love,” which was the only one to chart, peaking at #71. The track was typical fare for 1993 country radio complete with fiddle, drums, and ample steel. It’s actually not a bad song at all and likely would’ve charted higher had the band been a more solid unit with full support from their record label. Another excellent tune, “Night After Night” came next and failed to chart. I like this one, too, because of the beautiful steel guitar and drums in the production.

Compared to the band’s earlier work, Life Goes On is a very solid album. Gone are the horrid synth-heavy 80s arraignments and in their place are gorgeous pure country production choices that were nice to listen to and mostly in line with what was popular at the time.

Hillman had a hand in writing nine of the album’s ten tracks. Besides the singles he co-wrote, along with R. Alan Thornhill, the excellent mid-tempo “Walk On By,” mid-tempo shuffle “Love’s Refugees,” drum and mandolin-centric “That’s Not The Way,” mid-tempo steel heavy “Till It’s Over,” “A Little Rain,” pure blistering bluegrass, and steel-centric ballad “Throw Me A Lifeline.” Every one of the tracks, mostly co-written with Steve Hill, are excellent and among the strongest music The Desert Rose Band ever released. The only track Hillman didn’t have a hand in writing is Herb Petersen’s “Hold On,” an acoustic guitar led mid-tempo shuffle that’s another wonderful track.

My familiarity with The Desert Rose Band prior to our Chris Hillman spotlight was “One Step Forward” and “I Still Believe In You,” so I knew their music to have contained an 80s sheen, especially on the latter ballad. So it’s a very welcomed surprise that they made one decidedly country sounding album in their career although heartbreaking to know it came at the end, when radio and the fans had moved on to bigger and better during the 90s country boom. Life Goes On may just be their strongest album together and deserved to find a wider audience. It’s a shame the record label didn’t promote it better as it could’ve been a much, much bigger album if it was just given the change. I highly, highly recommend seeking out a copy if you haven’t done so already. You won’t regret it.

Grade: A+

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

true loveAfter just three albums, the band released a Greatest Hits compilations (A Dozen Roses). Alongside the hits were a couple of new songs, minor hit ‘Will This Be The Day’ and the less successful ‘Come A Little Closer’. Changes were on the way. Steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness left in 1990, replaced by former Buckaroo Tom Brumley, while Tony Brown took up the producer’s role for the groups’s fourth studio album. The result was a mellower, more low key album than their first three, but although its pleasures are more subtle than the joyful country rock of their commercial heyday, this is a fine album.

Neither of the two singles selected did well. The first of them ‘You Can Go Home’ (written by Hillman with Jack Tempchin, best known for writing the Eagles’ ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’), is actually an excellent song about the impossibility of going back again to a former life. ‘Twilight Is Gone’ (one of four songs written with Steve Hill) is also good, a reflective mid-tempo song about loneliness and regret over a failed relationship. It may have been too low key for radio play.

The title track (another of Hill’s co-writes) is a warmhearted celebration of love. The urgent ‘Glory And Power’ is about the central importance of love in one’s life, in the context of a man who finds it hard to communicate his feelings. ‘Shades Of Blue’ is a tasteful ballad.

The best of the other songs is the pretty ‘Undying Love’, the only non-Hillman tune (it was written by Peter Rowan), which is a duet with Alison Krauss. Krauss’s angelic tones work well responding to, and harmonising with Chris. She was not yet well known in country music circles, or perhaps this would have been a single.

The philosophical and optimistic ‘It Takes A Believer’, co-written with Michael Woody, is pleasantly melodic. Woody also co-wrote the more downbeat ‘Behind These Walls’.

Herb Pedersen sang lead on the brisk ‘No One Else’, which he wrote with Chris, and which is perhaps the most reminiscent of the band’s earlier work. ‘A Matter Of Time’ has a solid country rock groove although it isn’t that memorable lyrically.

The album lacked the bright tone and sparkle of the group’ s first three albums, and I can see why it slowed down their career. Tony Brown had a reputation as a hitmaking producer, but it may have been a mistake to call on him this time. But the album has a lot to offer the more thoughtful listener.

Grade: B+

Album Review – The Desert Rose Band – ‘Pages of Life’

PagesofLifeIn early 1990 The Desert Rose Band released their third album, Pages of Life, produced once again by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. The band’s third album, it was their most commercially successful, and their final charting release.

Chris Hillman and Steve Hill wrote the album’s three singles. Synth heavy ballad “Start All Over Again” peaked at #6, mid-tempo electric guitar and drum led “In Another Lifetime” peaked at #13 (their third single to peak outside the top 10), and steel laced “Story of Love” peaked at #10. All three of the singles are horribly dated by today’s standards, but the Byrds-era steel riffs on “Story Of Love” help it stand slightly above the pack.

At the time of its release, Pages of Life was distinguished for being a harder hitting album, even more so than the band’s two previous releases. Listening to it now, it isn’t terribly overly rock, although the drums are prominent. The album’s main shortcoming with regards to the arrangements is the synthesizers and use of late 80s production techniques that haven’t aged well at all in the last 24 years.

Beyond the three singles, Hillman co-write six more of the album’s tracks, three with Hill, and three more with other writers. Hillman and Hill co-wrote “God’s Plan,” another ballad heavy on synth that utilizes the band’s harmonies framed in a horrible 80s sheen that mixes grossly with the flourishes of steel guitar in the musical bed. “Time Passes Me By” is far more tasteful, with the steel allowed room to breathe, but it’s still not a home run. “Darkness on the Playground” is even better still, livelier, and has a nice sinister production to match its ‘social cause’ story about troubled youth.

Hillman co-wrote “Missing You” with Tom Russell and Richard Sellers. With glorious mandolin and the band’s tight harmonies, its easily one of the more country sounding tracks on Pages of Life, and a nice organic escape from the 80s sheen that suffocates most of the album. John Jorgenson co-wrote “Just A Memory” with Hillman and while track retains the awful 80s sheen, I don’t hate it, mostly because it also has a sunny vibe that keeps it somewhat engaging.

“Everybody’s Hero,” which Hillman co-wrote with Michael Woody, is another of the album’s better tracks. I like the drum work and overly uptempo vibe but Hillman’s lead vocal sounds a little listless given the energy of the backing track. Hillman’s final co-write is courtesy of “Desert Rose,” co-written with Bill Wildes. It sounds like something Emmylou Harris would record, and was originally done by Hillman on his solo album of the same name. It’s a fabulous number and I love how its decidedly country.

Overall Pages of Life is a shoddy album, thanks mostly to bad 80s style production that, as I aforementioned, hasn’t held up in the last 24 years. The songs themselves aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re made less enjoyable by the production.

Grade: B

Album Review: The Desert Rose Band – ‘Running’

desertrosebandLike The Desert Rose Band’s eponymous debut album, 1988’s Running is heavily-influenced by the Bakersfield sound. Paul Worley was back on board as producer, this time joined by Ed Seay. Chris Hillman was involved in writing most of the ablum’s songs, joined by his songwriting partner Steve Hill for seven of the album’s ten tracks. The previous album’s final single “He’s Back and I’m Blue” had become the band’s first chart-topper. Their chart success continued with the new album. The first single, the mid-tempo “Summer Wind”, just missed the top spot, peaking at #2. It was followed by another Hill-Hillman collaboration, “I Still Believe In You”, which did reach #1. Although it is a very good song, it hasn’t aged as well as the rest of the album. The heavy emphasis on the drum machine gives it a somewhat dated feel.

Interestingly, the album’s two best tracks were written by outside songwriters. “She Don’t Love Nobody”, which peaked at #3 in early 1989 is a John Hiatt composition. The song had previously been recorded by Nick Lowe, but it was adapted for country music with very little tinkering and is much more mainstream-sounding that much of Hiatt’s work. It is one of my very favorite Desert Rose Band recordings. The fourth and final single was “Hello Trouble”, an Orville Couch and Eddie McDuff number that had originally been recorded by Couch in 1962. A cover version appeared on a 1964 Buck Owens album. The Desert Rose Band’s version just missed the Top 10, peaking at #11. It deserved to chart higher.

The rest of the album’s tracks are very much in a country-rock vein, with plenty of steel guitar to appease purists, and not enough rock to alienate anyone. The band touches on some social issues with with a few tracks, but avoids doing so in a heavy-handed way. “For The Rich Man” examines some of the ways in which life is different for the haves and have nots; “Homeless”, which examines the plight of a former rodeo queen who is abandoned by her unemployed and alcoholic husband, comes a little closer to preaching —

“In this land of milk and honey we share with all who need
Except the ones outside our door, the ones we cannot see”

— but still manages to avoid sending the listener on a gratuitous guilt trip. The album closer “Our Songs”, meanwhile, is a semi-autobiographical look at some aging baby boomers, who came of age in the turbulent 1960s, and contrasts that era with the relatively more stable (and then contemporary) 1980s.

Along with the band’s debut album, Running is representative of The Desert Rose Band’s very best work and an interesting look back at how country and rock used to be melded together — with solid, well-written songs that avoided cliches and obnoxious, overloud production. Hardcore, traditional country it is not, but it is type of music that I would really like to see Nashville embrace again.

Grade: A

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

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.