My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: The Hillmen

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.

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Album Review: Vern Gosdin – ‘Till The End’

After releasing a pair of unsuccessful albums as a member of both The Gosdin Brothers and The Hillmen, Vern Gosdin took a sabbatical from the music business in the early 1970s, returning mid-decade with his solo debut, 1976’s Till The End, which was produced by Gary Paxton and released on Elektra Records. The album contains some remakes of his earlier work, including his debut single “Hangin’ On”, which included harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris. The remake outperformed the original 1967 Gosdin Brothers version on the charts, giving Vern his first Top 20 single. Perhaps encouraged by this success, Elektra opted to release another track that included Harris, “Yesterday’s Gone”, which cracked the Top 10, peaking at #9.

Although uncredited, future country Janie Fricke supplied the harmony vocals on several of the album’s remaining tracks, including “Till The End”, which was another Gosdin Brothers remake that Vern wrote, “Mother Country Music”, and “It Started All Over Again”. All of these were released as singles, peaking at #7, #17, and #23 respectively.

Gosdin is largely remembered today as one of the standard bearers of traditional country music, and though Till The End is rootsy by 1970s standards, it is still very much a product of its time, with pop flourishes such as lush string arrangements which sound somewhat dated today. “The Chokin’ Kind” (a Harlan Howard tune), “Answers To My Questions” and “We Make Beautiful Music Together” are all firmly in the 1970s pop-country mold. He covers Roberta Flack’s 1972 pop hit, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, with Janie Fricke once again providing background vocals. The song has never been one of my favorites, but I have to admit that Gosdin and Fricke do a very nice job on it, even if the result isn’t even remotely country.

I have a tendency to prefer album cuts over singles, but in this particular case I think the label made the right call when choosing the singles. “Yesterday’s Gone”, “Till The End”, “Mother Country Music” and “It Started All Over Again” are all timeless classics. “Hangin’ On” is decent, but it’s one of the tracks that hasn’t aged particularly well. I would have liked to have heard Vern redo this song with more up-to-date production.

I’m more familiar with Vern’s 80s work from his years with Columbia and tend to have a soft spot for the music he made during that era, but Till The End was a fine debut from one of country music’s finest and underrated vocalists. Though it was out of print for a long time, it has recently been reissued on CD along with the two albums that followed it, 1978’s Never My Love and 1979’s You’ve Got Somebody. All three albums are available on a single disc and can be purchased from Amazon.

Grade: A-

Spotlight Artist: Vern Gosdin

The April Spotlight Artist is one of the truly great vocalists in the history of the genre, Vern Gosdin. There are very few male recording artists who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Geoge Jones, Ray Price and Gene Watson. It takes the ability to convey the depths of despair, the heights of jubilation and the serenity of an abiding faith – that’s all that is required to be known as “The Voice” and Vern was one of the few to fit the bill.

Born in Woodland, Alabama, Vern (1934-2009) and his brother Rex (1938-1983) first surfaced in the American conscious during the 1960s in various capacities in the Southern California music scene. Despite inclusion in the Byrds’ inner circle of musicians and friends, the Gosdin Brothers bluegrass/country/rock hybrid never achieved great success.

The Gosdin brothers grew up with their seven siblings on a farm. Since money was never in great supply, they, like many other poor rural children, turned to music to escape the drudgery of everyday life. Energized by their discovery of the Louvin Brothers, Rex and Vern (and a third brother) started singing together, mastering the art of vocal harmony, and performing regularly on local radio station WVOK as teenagers. In 1953 Vern moved to Atlanta and in 1956 he moved again to Chicago where he ran a country music nightclub. Meanwhile Rex had moved to California.

Vern moved to Los Angeles in 1961, where he joined up with Rex and they expanded their musical horizons as they found their way into a bluegrass group led by Chris Hillman called the Golden State Boys. The group later changed its name to the Hillmen. Their association with master musician Hillman led to their acceptance into the Los Angeles music scene from which the Byrds and such later stars as Poco, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles emerged. During this period, the Gosdin Brothers picked up gigs when available, performed on recording sessions, and recorded a few songs as a duo. The duo expanded their musical repertoire, moving into an area somewhere between the folk-rock of the pre-Gram Parson Byrds and the Country-Rock that would emerge in the early 1970s.

In 1966 Vern and Rex contributed vocal harmonies to Gene Clark’s album Gene Clark and the Gosdin Brothers. In 1967 a single, “Hangin’ On,” cracked the charts, leading to the release of the duo’s only album, Sounds of Goodbye on Capitol in 1968. The title song, written by up and coming songwriter Eddie Rabbit was a hot commodity-so much so that three different acts recorded and released the song as a single, ensuring that no one would have a big hit with the record, although Opry veteran George Morgan came closest as his version was a big hit in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Tommy Cash’s record also made the national charts with the song. The Gosdin Brothers version did not chart nationally, but it did well on the left coast.

Since country music was a singles-driven genre, the failure of “The Sounds of Goodbye,” the most radio-friendly cut on the album, spelled finis to their recording career on Capitol. This was truly a pity as the album contains many great harmonies and otherwise worthwhile moments including original material in “For Us To Find” and “The Victim.” While the Gosdin Brothers sounded good collectively, Vern’s sparkling vocals were the highlight of the album. Discouraged, the Gosdin Brothers split up with Vern largely dropping out of the entertainment business for a while when he returned to Atlanta, where he ran a glass and mirror shop. Rex continued to perform.

Never Give Up – The Voice Returns

Vern Gosdin never entirely stopped performing. In 1976, he returned to recording for the Elektra label, charting his first solo chart hit, a solo version of “Hangin’ On” and enjoying Top 10 hits with “Yesterday’s Gone” (both featuring harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, a friend from his California days) and “Till The End.” By this time he was forty-two years old. He left his sons to run the glass and mirror business and rejoined brother Rex for touring. Unfortunately, Rex died in May 1983 at the age of 45, some two weeks before his own solo recording of “That Old Time Feelin'” entered the charts.

Elektra’s country division folded in 1980 and Gosdin landed on smaller labels AMI (which folded) and Compleat where he enjoyed continued success. After landing with Compleat, Gosdin joined forces with songwriter Max D. Barnes (whose son Max T. Barnes also was a successful songwriter) to write some truly classic honky-tonk laments. In 1983 Gosdin had two top five hits (“If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong” and “Way Down Deep”) and in 1984 he had his first #1 single with “I Can Tell by the Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” and had two additional top 10 hits.

After 1984, his career hit a temporary lull, but the “New Traditionalist” movement lured Columbia into signing him in 1987 where he justified Columbia’s faith in signing him with a top 10 hit in the tormented “Do You Believe Me Now.” In 1988 Gosdin returned to the top of the charts with his Ernest Tubb tribute “Set ‘Em Up Joe.” The next year “Chiseled In Stone,” co-written with Barnes, won the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year and cemented his reputation as one of the all-time great song stylists. His 1989 album, Alone, chronicled the breakup of his own marriage.

As a solo artist, Vern Gosdin charted 41 country chart hits, with 19 top ten records and 3 chart toppers.

Vern was hospitalized in 1995 with a stroke and subsequently dropped by Columbia. He continued to record sporadically after that, most notably the 2004 album Back In The Swing of Things and the four CD set 40 Years of The Voice issued just months prior to his death in April 2009. In 2005, Gosdin was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Perhaps the Country Music Hall of Fame will see fit to do likewise.

“The Voice” is now silenced but he left behind an incredible legacy of recorded performances. Join us now as we explore the music of April’s Spotlight Artist, the incomparable Vern Gosdin.