BY NANCY STETSON
Chris Hillman with Herb Pedersen and John Jorgenson
When: 8 p.m. Friday, April 28
Where: Centers for the Performing Arts Bonita Springs
OVER THE COURSE OF HIS musical career, Chris Hillman has enjoyed enough success to satisfy several lifetimes.
At 19, he became an original member of The Byrds, whose lineup included David Crosby and Roger McGuinn. They savored international fame, hitting the charts with songs such as “Eight Miles High,” “Turn! Turn! Turn,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star,” which Mr. Hillman co-wrote with Mr. McGuinn. The Byrds were pioneers in folk rock and country rock.
Four year later, Mr. Hillman joined what became The Flying Burrito Brothers, writing songs including “Sin City” with Gram Parsons.
Then he became part of Stephen Stills’ band, Manassas, co-writing “It Doesn’t Matter” with Mr. Stills, among other songs. With John David Souther and Richie Furay he formed Souther Hillman Furay, releasing two albums in 1974 and ’75. Then he joined forces with two fellow bandmates from The Byrds, Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark, to form the trio McGuinn, Clark and Hillman. They released three albums and had two Top 10 singles.
From 1987-1993, he performed as lead guitarist, singer and mandolin player for The Desert Rose Band. They had 16 Top 10 country chart hits.
“I’ve been very blessed, lucky, any way you want to term it,” Mr. Hillman says. “I really enjoyed music, loved music. It was a passion as a young man, but it was a different world in the ’60s.”
He kept thinking he’d do music for a year, and then go to college to major in English literature and history. “But something would always happen,” he says. “Every year, a door would open and I’d go through it and something would happen musically.”
In hindsight, he adds, he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. “I was in these great groups. I was not seeking to be a rock star. I liked to play. I was more of a team player.”
He views the years from 1963-1985 as his apprentice years. By 1985, however, “I was running the band, writing the songs and playing lead. I have no regrets. If it stopped tomorrow, I had a great life.”
Now 72 years old, Mr. Hillman is still making music. Mr. Pedersen and Mr. Jorgenson join him in concert Friday evening, April 28, at the Center for Performing Arts Bonita Springs.
“We have a very close bond,” Mr. Hillman says about the three musicians, noting that they’ve been making music together for more than 25 years.
Mr. Hillman and Mr. Pedersen put out an album titled “At Edwards Barn,” which includes “Eight Miles High” and “Have You Seen Her Face.” On it, Mr. Hillman, playing mandolin, celebrates his bluegrass roots.
As a teen before joining The Byrds, he played coffeehouses with The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers.
“I had to bluff my way into that job (with The Byrds),” he recalls. “‘Can you play the bass?’ ‘Sure, sure.’ I had never touched one.”
The chemistry with the band was “really, really good for a few years” — but not like the bond he has with Mr. Pedersen and Mr. Jorgenson.
“That’s part of a successful musical band,” he says, “the respect for each other. It’s not always perfect, but you have to strive for that, and the music will come right alongside it.”
He and Mr. McGuinn co-wrote “So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star,” inspired by The Monkees, a group created by TV producers for a sit-com. The song, he says, was a comment about how contrived the whole process was of bringing together four strangers and trying to pretend they were a band like The Beatles. “They trivialized the whole thing with music.”
“Here we are, jaded old men in our 20s, ‘And with your hair swung right/and your pants too tight,’” he quotes from “So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star.”
The Byrds, inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 by Don Henley, made music that still holds up today. Part of that is due to the good advice they received.
“Our first manager gave us such wisdom,” Mr. Hillman says. “He said, ‘You guys go for substance and depth, make records you’re going to be proud of in 40 years. Don’t go for the easy hit record, the easy dollar. Do something you’ll be proud of.’”
Mr. Crosby and Mr. McGuinn were about three years older, and “pretty world-wise in a sense. Roger had been all over as an accompanist — he worked with The Limeliters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Judy Collins. He had written in the Brill Building, he’d written for Bobby Darin,” he says. “And David, too, had been all over the country as a folk singer.
“Their intellects were quite advanced for their age. We were listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis and Ravi Shankar before anybody knew about Ravi.”
What unlocked his own songwriting was working with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. When he came home from that session, he recalls, he just started writing songs.
“It somehow unlocked the door,” he says. “I wrote a song a few days later, ‘Have You Seen Her Face.’”
The Byrds came along just as the bohemian age was closing down, he says. “It was a different time creatively, musically, with books, film, all of the above.
“We would get these interesting people coming to see us. Lenny Bruce came to see us in the studio, and his gang of people. We looked up and saw him behind the mixing board. It was ’64. We had one foot in that time period of the beatnik, bohemians.”
Beat poet Allen Gingsberg loved The Byrds, he says, recalling meeting him at a Greenwich Village party.
He remembers playing a private party for Jane Fonda when she was married to French film director Roger Vadim.
“We’re in Malibu and I’m playing, and I feel someone pulling on my pants leg,” he says. “It’s Henry Fonda, and he says, ‘Can you turn that thing down?’ ‘Yes sir, yes sir.’
“Of course we didn’t.”
Mr. Hillman’s mother bought him his first guitar for $10.
“But when I was 14 or 15, I heard the mandolin, bluegrass, old-timey music,” he says. “I loved it. I don’t know what it was, but I got into it, and been struggling with it for 55 years … In the old days, you didn’t have DVDs that taught you to play, or YouTube. All the guys my age would slow down records (to learn songs note-by-note.) But I didn’t have the patience.”
He’d learn 80-90 percent of the notes and then make up the rest.
When he teaches the mandolin, he tells students, “Play it your own way.”
He doesn’t remember the first bluegrass song he ever heard, but guesses it was likely something by the New Lost City Ramblers with Mike Seeger on mandolin.
“He was a solo god,” Mr. Hillman says about Mr. Seeger. “I love the mandolin. It’s so adaptable to any kind of music. You can play jazz on it.”
He owns “at least five or six” of them, one, “a beautiful old Gibson” so valuable he won’t take it on the road.
As a teen, he played “hillbilly bars,” playing bluegrass with three guys who were 10 years older than him. He had a fake ID. “I was 18 and had an ID that said I was 21. No one believed that.”
But yet, they let him play in their clubs.
“I remember playing the night John Kennedy was killed,” he says. “There were four people in the bar that night.”
As an older musician with decades of experience behind him, he finds himself playing differently these days.
“Every young guy, any guitar player, instrumentalist, soloist, when you’re young you’re playing everything in the world, thousands of notes per measure.
“And when you get older — I guess this applies to life too — you understate things and deal with more subtleties … I approach my playing differently: I play it simply and put more into each note, rather than 40 notes in the same time frame. It applies to any creative part of life; you change your approach. You approach life differently.”
He’s writing a memoir, with pencil and legal pad, though he modestly wonders, “Does the world really want another aging ex-rock star memoir?”
But, he says, he “wrote down the whole journey through the music, the passion I had for it, the people I worked for.”
He’s calling it “Time Between,” after one of the first songs he wrote with the The Byrds.
He recently recorded another album, “Bidin’ My Time,” set for release Sept. 22 and co-produced by Tom Petty and Mr. Pedersen, who play on some of the songs.
“It just fell into my lap,” he says. “I’m not chasing a career. I wanted to make a really good record. I wanted one last hurrah.
“It’s still a lot of fun to get up and play. If people buy your ticket and if you can still sing and play at a certain level of musicianship, then why the heck not?” ¦