A Legendary Byrd Soars to PHX MIM for the Desert Rose Band Reunion
An Interview with Chris Hillman

By Mariah Fleming

Chris Hillman - Photo by Jay Dussard

Singer-songwriter Chris Hillman, who formed the award winning Desert Rose Band in 1985, began carving out his place in popular music history in the early 1960's as a member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Those bands created some of the most popular, groundbreaking music of the 1960's. And the Desert Rose Band continues to do the same. During the 1980's and 1990's, the Desert Rose Band scored a number of top ten and number one Hot Country Billboard hits, two Grammy nominations, three Country Music Association Awards and much more. They're bringing their blend of country rock, bluegrass and honky-tonk to the intimate MIM music theatre at 7:30 pm. on July 5th, 2013 in a reunion show that's not to be missed. Get your tickets now at MIM.org.

The Desert Rose Band consists of longtime collaborators and friends John Jorgensen, Herb Pederson and Bill Bryson. Chris Hillman talked to us on Friday June 21st, exactly 48 years after the June 21st, 1965 release of the Byrds mega hit, "Mr. Tambourine Man." We talked about his music history, Gram Parsons, how his song "Sin City" co-written with Parson's, came about (the song is in the Smithsonian collection) his early years, some of the artists he's worked with, his songwriting, his family, his favorite mandolin, and his take on the music business and our world in general today. It was a delightful conversation with a man who is a true legend, a class act and a very nice human being. Enjoy.

Q. Thank you so much for talking to me today. I sent ahead an outline of questions for you to look at before we talk. I hope I didn't ask you too many questions, Chris!
A. No, not at all! I read your questions and they're great. I don't usually get interviewers who take time to go into the kind of depth you did. It's really nice!

Q.Wow. For once I'm speechless. Thank you! Coming from you, considering the zillions of times you've been interviewed, I am really humbled. I'll use the questions as an outline but go off the cuff, so if you need to reel me in, please do.
A. Don't worry (laughs) I tend to go off on tangents myself.

Q. OK. Let's get going. You don't regularly tour with The Desert Rose Band, so it's a treat to have you at MIM. Why don’t you tour together more often?
The Desert Rose acoustic stuff is few and far between, really. I wish we could do more of it. Every year, 80% of my touring is with Herb Pederson who will be with us at the MIM. Herb and I go out as a duet.

Q. The MIM has a 300-seat concert theatre that is acoustically superb, and I can't wait to hear you. What can we expect to hear from the Desert Rose Band when you appear here at MIM?
A. It'll be John Jorgensen, Herb Pederson, Bill Bryson and me. And John Jorgensen is the MIM Artist in Residence, so he comes in on a monthly basis, I believe, to do shows. Myself, John, Herb and Bill are the original core of the Desert Rose Band. We did actually play the MIM last year for Lowell. (Editor's note: Lowell Pickett, Artistic Director of MIM) We'll be doing songs from the Desert Rose era in an acoustic format. John and I switch off on mandolin and guitar, Herb plays rhythm guitar, Bill plays standup bass and we all sing. We add a couple of songs from the Byrds and some Flying Burrito Bros just to mix up the show. It makes for a really nice quartet. It works really well. And there you have it

Q. What was the genesis of the Desert Rose Band?
A. To give you a quick history, originally Herb and I had worked with Dan Fogelberg on his album called "High County Snows" back in the 80's…the early 80's. So we both worked on that record. Herb probably more so. And then Dan wanted to go out and promote it and he asked me to put a little quartet together. I'd been playing in an acoustic quartet, and I thought, well, Herb already knows all this stuff. So Herb and Bill Bryson and I had been working together already, and then I met John. I just was floored, he was phenomenal, and he was in his early 20's then.

Q. Did you meet him through Dan Fogelberg's circle of friends or did you know him before that?
A. Actually, I knew him a short while before the Dan Fogelberg offer of work came along. I had heard about him, but I actually met him at a NAM show.

John Jorgensen, Herb Pederson and Chris Hillman

Q. The big music retailer thing they have out in Anaheim every year.
A. Exactly. I was walking around and I hear mandolins and there was David Grisman and young John Jorgensen looking like he was about 15 but he was probably 23 or 24 years old. That's where I met him. He was phenomenal, a fabulous musician. That was 3 or 4 months before the Fogelberg work came along.

Q. What happened during your tour with Fogelberg?
A. Well, off we went for three weeks backing Dan up on the songs for "High Country Snows". And we did a little show of our own as an opening act. When we came back from that tour, John was pushing to try it as an electric band. The people I'm working with at MIM on July 5th were really the core - the four guys who were the original Desert Rose. We'd added Jay Dee Maness on steel guitar and Steve Duncan on drums, but I really didn't want to do an electric band. And sometimes when you're not looking or obsessing for something it comes right to you. And things just happened and it fell into place. And in my life probably the best band I was in of all the bands.

Q. If you were to put one of your mandolins on exhibit at the MIM, is there a specific mandolin you'd choose to exhibit?
A. Well if I was going to do that and I could, I would probably exhibit my 1924 "Lloyd Loar" Gibson Mandolin that I don't take on the road to play b/c it's just too valuable. It has a really beautiful sound…equivalent to a Stradivarius Violin, not in the million-dollar range but equivalent in craftsmanship. A lot of guys have them and play them on the road, but they travel on a touring bus. When I travel I fly and use cars and stuff. So, I’m really not comfortable taking it out, but it is a beautiful instrument.

Q. Your mom bought you your first guitar and supported your zeal to be a musician. I know you've told the story a million times, but it's pretty unusual for young artists get such support from their parents. Can you tell it again?
A. Well, my brother had actually taken guitar lessons in the early 50's, when he was 11 or 12. He took lessons from this lady. I remember her. He was learning how to read music but it was standards and stuff like that and he didn't want to do that so he gave that up.

Q. When did you get interested in the guitar?
A. I didn't want to learn guitar when rock and roll came along in 1955 or '56. But when folk music caught me I wanted to learn guitar. We lived about 40 miles from the Mexican border where I grew up, so we went down to Tijuana, and in those days Mexico and very nice and safe really…and we'd go down and we'd shop. So my mom said, "I’ll help you get a guitar. And if you stick with it for a year I'll help you get a better one." Which meant I'd work for it. And in 1960 we bought a $10 nylon string Mexican guitar. $10 was a lot of money then. It was actually a pretty good guitar; it was enough for me to learn chords on. And that's what I did. And my mother was very supportive, as was my father. And a year later, I'd stuck with it, so I bought another guitar.

Q. What kind of guitar?
A. I bought a Goya, which was a well-known guitar at the time, but then I kept getting different instruments. When I heard the mandolin in bluegrass I wanted to learn it. I ended up going up by train, a 7-hour trip, to Berkeley to take lessons from this fella, Scott Hambly, who's a wonderful mandolin player. He set me straight and taught me the foundation, the basics of the mandolin, and then off I went and learned off records. Most of the people my age learned off records. We didn't have the learning tools that young people have now. In those days you'd listen to an album, and they had tablature…but I didn't have the patience to sit there and learn the tablature notes solo, note by note. But I listened to records and figured it out.

Q. Was your family a musical family in general?
A. My mother, I think, at one time played piano. I remember her sitting down at this old pump organ in the house and she'd play something. There wasn’t anyone in my family who was really musical, but they loved music.

Q. What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
A. Well, I grew up listening to big band - Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra…really good stuff. My folks had really good taste in music. They would go out and dance on the weekends.

Q. You were talking about not having the songwriting and recording tools available when you were coming up that are available now, and it reminded me of my recent interview with Bela Fleck. He didn't read music per say, but he reads tablature, he writes symphonies and stuff…and he uses the computer to compose songs. Have you ever done any of that?
A. No, my songwriting…you know what I use Mariah? (laughs) I use a cassette player. They don't even make them anymore! And I never wanted to have a home studio or anything. And yes, my iMac is equipped with a little thing so I can record stuff on it; I just don't get into the tech thing that much. Everything I write, I put the lyric down, the melody, and either put on tape, on the computer or the cassette player.

Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman and Sneaky Pete Kleinow

Q. I’m smiling because I so like what you are saying!
A. (Hillman laughs) Well, I'm not a big tech guy. I just didn't care about it. Like cell phones, I don't carry a cell phone. I keep one in the car. Well, when I'm on the road I take it; I've got to be honest about that. But I don't have a smart phone or anything. I have the old stupid one that I've had forever.

Q. You've been writing songs most of your life. One of your songs that you composed with Gram Parsons still resonates deeply with me today: 1969's "Sin City" from "The Gilded Palace of Sin." A lot of it could apply to things happening in our world today. It's such a powerful song about that era. The Smithsonian honored the song by including it in their "History of Country Music" collection. Did the Smithsonian give you any idea of why they chose that? It's such a powerful song on so many levels.
A. Thank you. I don't know if it had anything to do with the lyrics but it was a real honor to when they included that, I mean there "Sin City" was with Hank Williams and various people.

Q. How did the song come about?
A. Gram and I were sharing a place at the time, and we probably wrote the song in 30 minutes. It just was there. We had the material. It is an interesting song. I actually started writing it and then I woke Gram up and said 'Come on in here and get a cup of coffee. I've got something!' and we jumped on that thing. It was really tongue in cheek. Each verse is a little vignette. And to me, in hindsight, we were writing about the idyllic 60's that were turning so dark in the late 60's…the assassinations, Viet Nam…we had horrible things happening.

Q. Yeah, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy gone within two months of each other…
A. Exactly. After we'd written that song the Burritos played at Altamont. Two years before that we played at Monterey, which was a beautiful, sweet, loving three day pop fest; the best one ever. That's what that first verse is about. 'This old town's filled with sandals and if you've got some money to burn.' and 'Take it home right away you've got three years to pay and Satan is waiting.' With that we were addressing consumerism and we were kids in our 20's! One thing I loved about Gram is that he has the same love of the old bluegrass and old Baptist hymns and that kind of terminology we kind of built it on. But you're absolutely right, it is relevant today more so than ever. Take the second verse: about lack of spirituality, where God really has gone out of our daily lives. They used to say 'God is Dead' in the 60's.

Q. Wasn't there an "Is God Dead" cover on Time or Newsweek or something?
A. Yeah. The other part of "Sin City," and this part is Gram's writing, it's: "We've got our recruits and our green mohair suits." It's a funny take on the corporate world. And "Please show your ID at the door." Now that's an interesting line. It was about government intrusion. Nothing going on then and look what's going on now. And the last verse, of course, is about RFK. Gram wasn’t in the Byrds yet, in 1968, when we worked at this big fundraiser at the LA Sports Arena downtown. I don’t think it's there anymore. Anyway it was a big benefit to raise money for RFK's primary campaign. There were all these Hollywood people and comedians, mainstream showbiz, and a couple of pop acts for the kids. And that's how it was written: "Sonny and Cher and The Byrds." It was a huge benefit and within 3 months he was shot. So that was the last verse of "Sin City."

Q. You were talking about how this song applies to so much that's going on today. And I just watched the 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Awards. What do you think of awards shows these days?
A. I don't watch it anymore.

Q. Much of it seemed like the spectacle and glitz that's endemic in 21st Century music business overkill. Do you think today's artists are in touch with the tremendous healing power of music?
A. I don't know if they're conscious. I guess. When the Byrds were inducted in 1991 it wasn't televised. It was a very special night. Not televising it lets people be more relaxed and intimate with each other. Once they televised it, it lost something unique. I have watched some of the country awards shows and, oh my God, I’m going "Where is the music?!" And I’m not coming from some bitter place that I’m not involved. I don’t want to be involved. I just look at these grandiose events and think it's 21st century overkill. Where's that special intimacy?

Original Byrds - Vanity Fair - Nov 2000

Q. You've collaborated with a lot of songwriters in your career. When you collaborate with someone like Steve Hill, is your process different than when you write alone? And here's that old question: typically what comes first, the music or the lyrics?
A. Oh, it could be either. It just depends. I love writing with Steve Hill. We’ve known each other for many years. We're good friends. And we're honest with each other. If something's not good, we say so, and there might be something one of us thinks isn't good and the other says: "Wait a minute! Don't throw that away! You've got something there!" or vice versa. That kind of friendship and honesty is wonderful.

Q. When you were writing with Gram Parsons, was the process different than what it became later in your career?
A. Well, I wouldn't say it was really different. I loved Gram. We had two good years together and then he made some bad decisions. We all make bad decisions. God knows I've made some, but when you cross the line, that's when you get in trouble. I had to fire him from the Burritos.

Q. The '60's generation of music lost so many great talents.
A. Oh, yeah, it's sad. I remember seeing Jimi Hendrix when he was working in Little Richard's band. Seeing him playing onstage in his uniform…Hendrix had such talent.

Q. It must have been hard to see Gram Parsons slide into drugs.
A. It was hard. We lost so many great people so early.

Q. What kept you away from that world?
A. I've got things I’m not proud of doing. I look back and I made some big mistakes. But you know what I think. I believe the first twelve years of a person's life has an impact on the rest of his life. And my folks, they loved us, but they held us accountable. We knew they loved us, and they were both such great parents. But you learn not to cross a line, I mean, you have to have that sense of who you are.

Q. So your childhood years were very positive ones?
A. Well, I had a great tragedy at age 16. My father died. And my mom picked up from that, went to work, raised us on her own, and we worked together to keep things going. I went to work too. And we got through it.

Q. I've read that you want to travel to, among other places, Mongolia, where they are known for their 'throat singing' and to Bhutan, where they believe in "Gross National Happiness." Are you interested in throat singing?
A. Yeah, I don't know much about it at all though. I don't know if, at my age, I could travel so much. I'd love to go to Bhutan. It's a kingdom and it's in a pristine place. And they only allow a certain number of tourists a year. My wife and I have been to the Middle East and we are going back. Travel is great, even though it's a lot more difficult these days for everybody.

Q. Speaking of Bhutan, the UN has implemented a resolution “…recognizing that the gross domestic product does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people and that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal.” Is music how you pursue your happiness?
A. Well, it's one of the ways. My true happiness is my wife and family. That's why I stopped touring for a while in the 90's. I was missing my kids growing up. My wife, Connie is the angel of my life. My wife and my family…that's what it's really all about. I've been blessed in so many ways. My whole life has been blessed.

June 25, 2013

Contact the author of this article at Editor@MusicAndMoreAZ.com.