SEPTEMBER 18, 2020
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Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and country rock pioneer, Chris Hillman has never stopped making music, but these last few years have seen the music, the milestones, the special events and the live performances happening at an exceptional pace. In 2017 he released the acclaimed Bidin’ My Time, his first solo album in 12 years, produced by Tom Petty and executive-produced by Herb Pedersen. In 2018, the 50th Anniversary of The Byrds’ groundbreaking Sweetheart of the Rodeo album was celebrated with a special tour featuring Hillman and fellow Byrds alum Roger McGuinn, joined by country legends Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives.
From the Troubadour in Los Angeles to the famed Ryman in Nashville and many cities in between, there have been sold-out concerts and a variety of tour line-ups. Currently, Fall 2020 dates are being announced, for Chris Hillman’s Time Between: An Evening of Stories and Songs, featuring Herb Pedersen and John Jorgenson.
The 2018 Sweetheart of the Rodeo anniversary kicked off a multi-city tour at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, where the album was originally recorded. In 1968, the Sweetheart album literally launched the country rock movement and is widely considered to be one of the most influential albums in this genre. In fact, in 2003, the album was ranked #120 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums.” Described as “two hours of splendid American music that transcended time, place and genre,” the tour more than lived up to its stature and earned outstanding concert reviews. Hillman and McGuinn delivered a rich narrative for the album by telling the stories that brought the project to life. Favorites from their long careers were also part of the set-list. Along with Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, it was the perfect combination of stellar vocals and outstanding instrumentation that re-created the sounds on the Sweetheart album. The troupe (all having connections to Tom Petty) also paid tribute to the late rock star with performances of his “American Girl,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” and “Wildflowers,” the latter of which was recorded by Hillman for Bidin’ My Time.
Tom Petty’s admiration for the Byrds was well known, proclaiming they were the “original blueprint for the Heartbreakers.” Petty documented his inspiration in a tribute he penned about the group for Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Artists,” writing “The Byrds are immortal because they flew so high. They’re still way, way up there. They left a huge mark.” In 2016, that long-standing appreciation and a little synchronicity became the foundation for the Bidin’ My Time project (Rounder Records). Hillman wasn’t even planning to make a new album, but all that changed when Pedersen, long-time friend and band mate, went on the road with Tom Petty. Petty and Pedersen had the idea of producing Chris and the project began a few months later. Originally planned as an acoustic album, it grew into much more. Collaborators and admirers from Hillman’s long career appear throughout the record. In addition to Petty and Pedersen, Bidin’ My Time features Byrds bandmates David Crosby and Roger McGuinn; the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell, and Steve Ferrone; Desert Rose Band’s John Jorgenson and Jay Dee Maness; upright bassist Mark Fain; singer/guitarist Josh Jove and the Punch Brothers’ fiddler, Gabe Witcher.
A testimony to Hillman’s capacity as a songwriter, many of the tracks on Bidin’ My Time span the decades from songs he co-wrote in the 60s to more current material. Original songs include Byrds nod, “Here She Comes Again,” co-written by Hillman and McGuinn (until now it had only been recorded on a live album in Australia), “Such is the World We Live In,” “Restless,” “Given All That I Can See” and “New Old John Robertson” (re-working the song that was first featured on The Notorious Byrd Brothers in 1968). In addition to Petty’s “Wildflowers,” the album also features Pete Seeger’s and Welsh poet Idris Davies’ “The Bells of Rhymney” (first recorded by the Byrds for their debut album), The Everly Brothers’ “Walk Right Back,” “When I Get a Little Money” (written by family friend Nathan Barrows) and “She Don’t Care About Time,” written by Byrds co-founder, the late Gene Clark. Praised as “an understated masterpiece,” the richly layered Bidin’ My Time successfully comprises all of the influences that contributed to Hillman’s music – folk, rock and roll, bluegrass and country. Collectively, the album reflects the storytelling and virtuosity that first inspired Hillman and still remains at the heart of his music.
The songs of Bidin’ My Time were first performed live in October of 2017 at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, for the album’s release concert. The event was historical because the Byrds played one of their first concerts there in the 60s It was also a poignant evening because Bidin’ My Time was one of the last projects completed by Tom Petty. With his unexpected death, the homecoming show became a heartfelt tribute to him, as well. The bittersweet aspects of the show notwithstanding, the Los Angeles Times praised the magic of the performances on stage that night, saying “Hillman’s sweet tenor voice is as fluid and expressive as ever and it blends hauntingly with the piercing purity of Pedersen’s voice, making it no surprise that they’ve returned to one another’s company so often for more than half a century…..When Jorgenson joined in on multiple numbers, the three-part harmonies induced goosebumps all around.” Following the Troubadour, Hillman and Pedersen, joined by Jorgenson, hit the road and earned more accolades for the Bidin’ My Time tour that continued into 2018.
Following the “Sweetheart” tour, in January of 2019, Hillman became the focus of another benchmark event when the Museum of Ventura County honored his six-decade career with a vivid retrospective. Titled Chris Hillman: Time Between, the exhibit spanned the Sixties to the present and showcased Hillman’s legacy through stories, memorabilia, instruments and stage attire. A special evening also featured Hillman performing songs and narrating his life in music.
It’s not surprising that a six-decade career of this magnitude could also evolve into a memoir and Hillman has written one, to be released in the near future. “Mine’s about music,” says Hillman. “It’s about having that passion for music starting in 1963 when I got paid for the first time, $15. Every year I thought, ‘Well I’m going to go enroll in college,’ and a door would open and I’d go through that door. It was an interesting journey and hopefully people will find it interesting enough to read.”
That journey for Hillman really began in California in the 1950s when he was first exposed to the folk music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, among others. His first instrument was an acoustic guitar, but he soon became enamored with the mandolin after being inspired by the bluegrass sounds and harmonies enhanced by the instrument.
Hillman took lessons and bought his first mandolin when he was 15. In 1962, (fresh out of high school) he made his first recording as a mandolin player and singer in the bluegrass band, The Scottsville Barkers. Next came The Golden State Boys bluegrass group with brothers Vern and Rex Gosdin and Don Parmley. Once again, Chris joined on as their mandolin player. The Golden State Boys performed in numerous country and western clubs in Los Angeles County and were seen every week on the local television show, “Cal’s Corral.” They recorded one album, The Hillmen.
The rest is history, with Chris going on to be a founding member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas, the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, McGuinn-Clark-Hillman and the Desert Rose Band. Throughout the decades, Hillman has had great success as a songwriter. He has also recorded solo albums as well as a series of releases with Herb Pedersen. Between 1997 and 1999 Hillman and Pedersen also collaborated with bluegrass royalty, Larry and Tony Rice, to record three albums as “Rice, Rice, Hillman and Pedersen.”
Returning full circle to the present, Bidin’ My Time remains in the Top 20 on the Americana Radio Charts, testimony to an album that has been described as a summation of Hillman’s versatile career. At the same time, there is also a resurgence of appreciation for the album he recorded 50 years ago, supported by the superb live performances in celebration of Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
From his enduring history to his newest musical achievements, Chris Hillman’s repertoire translates impeccably to the concert stage, enhanced by his vocals and his gifts as a musician. Regardless of the tour configuration, Hillman shares the stage with the best of his peers and a fine example of this is the current Time Between: An Evening of Stories and Songs acoustic tour. With Hillman on mandolin and guitar, Herb Pedersen playing rhythm guitar and banjo and John Jorgenson on guitars and mandolin, their singing and harmonies make for a magical night of music. In addition to the Tour, Chris’ memoir, Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond, will be released by BMG in September of 2020. As the momentum continues, Chris Hillman is enjoying each chapter of the experience. “I’ve had a great life,” says Hillman. “And it’s not over – we’re not done.” With that affirmation, it is safe to say, more of the best is yet to come.