Interview

Q&A: Chris Hillman On Working With Tom Petty, Reappraising The Byrds, & Touring In His 70s

Chris Hillman bought his first smartphone just a few months ago. “I didn’t want one,” he admits. “I had a flip-top phone and that was fine. But there’s a new baby in the house. My daughter had a girl, so I got the smartphone for the camera.” Soon his trepidation turned to astonishment at the technology he can hold in his hand. “They’re really good. Now that I’ve gotten to know what this thing is and what all it can do, I think it’s amazing.” His device is loaded with photographs of three generations of Hillmans, along with a few music apps his daughter set up for him, but today he’s using his phone as a phone: a device that lets him talk about his first solo album in 10 years.

Bidin’ My Time is a sharp and ruminative collection of new and old tunes by a musician whose influence far outstrips his fame. Hillman may not be quite as recognizable as David Crosby or Roger McGuinn, and he may lack the legend that surrounds Gene Clark or Gram Parsons, but he was a central figure in the LA folk scene of the 1960s and 1970s and helped pioneer folk-rock and country-rock as a member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Produced by longtime fan Tom Petty and featuring most of the Heartbreakers, the new album is concerned with the past but not bothered by legacy. He revisits a few familiar tunes, including “New Old John Robertson” and “She Don’t Care About Time,” both of which were written and recorded more than half a century ago. Even the new songs sound convincingly old, as though Hillman is just trying these sounds on to see if they still fit. For the most part they do: Bidin’ My Time shimmers with a rosy nostalgia and portrays aging as a process of accruing both experience and dignity.

Hillman has a long career to ponder. While he’s associated with folk and country, he actually got his start in bluegrass. As a teenager he was obsessed with the mandolin and made frequent train trips up and down California to take lessons at Berkeley. He established himself as a nimble instrumentalist in the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers (featuring future members of the Eagles) and the Golden State Boys (featuring future country star Vern Gosdin), and in 1964 he was recruited to join a fledgling rock act called the Byrds — not as a mandolinist, but as a bass player. He’d never touched the instrument before, but quickly developed a distinctive style that merged his bluegrass chops with a folksy melodicism. He became a crucial member of that group as well as Gram Parsons’ offshoot, the Flying Burrito Brothers.

When those bands broke up and the West Coast scene died down, “I went back to playing bluegrass and acoustic stuff,” says Hillman. “It was the greatest thing in the world. I went back to square one, right back to where I started.” In the 1970s he played with Stephen Stills, J.D. Souther, and Richie Furay, and in the 1980s he made an unlikely transition into mainstream country music, one of several artists spearheading the neo-traditionalist movement. “In 1984, right when I was least expecting it, I found myself in the Desert Rose Band. It just fell into my lap, but it was very successful. As successful as the Byrds? No. But in the limited area of country music, it was amazing. I never expected that to happen.”

His career has been defined by things falling into his lap, including Bidin’ My Time. He comes across as an endlessly adaptable artist, one who can bend his playing and singing to nearly any genre, whether it’s a new thing called folk rock or an old thing called country music. “Everything is changing, which is OK,” he says through his new phone.

STEREOGUM: I’ll start with a general question: I know this is your first solo album in more than a decade. Why now?

HILLMAN: I thought I was done recording. I had no intention of ever making another record and that was OK. I had a great career. I did a lot of records. I still go out and work shows with Herb Pedersen as a duet. I was really minimizing as I was just drifting out of a 55-year career and I was happy to do that. But along comes this record deal out of nowhere. Basically Herb had been working for Tom Petty when he went out last spring with Mudcrutch, which was his first band, pre-Heartbreakers. He hired Herb to do background vocals, and they were out on the road last year. Together Tom and Herb conjure up this idea to seduce me to do an album. I was totally in the dark. I didn’t know what’s going on. I said, OK. Whatever. I had songs I hadn’t recorded just sitting around. I called up Petty and I said, “Tom, you sure you want to do this?” He said he wanted to work with me and said we could use his studio. “But you haven’t heard any of my songs or any of my ideas!” He wasn’t worried about it. I’m still going, OK, whatever. I’ve got this very nonchalant reaction to all of it.

STEREOGUM: What were you ideas at that time? What were you thinking about?

HILLMAN: When we went in in January, initially it was going to be an acoustic album. It started out that way and it was going very, very smoothly. Tom liked the songs and some of the outside ones I brought in. Then we started to evolve with the project, where we were adding drums and had Steve Ferrone from the Heartbreakers over to have a few things. Then we played the live tracks. So there you have it. Out of nowhere, when I was least looking for it, this opportunity came and fell in my lap. I loved working with Tom. It was fantastic. He’s a great record producer and he’s a great guy. You know, I’m not chasing a career. I’m not trying to get on the charts. I don’t know what charts are out there anymore. If I was to say to you in all honesty that this is the last record I’ll ever do, it very well might be. But I feel like we did a good record. I’ve never come off a project without second-guessing that I should have done things differently. That’ll always be there. It’s a normal reaction, but for all intents and purposes, this record came out really well. Tom and Herb talked me into it, and I’m grateful.

STEREOGUM: It almost sounds like they consider themselves fans and just want to hear more of your music.

HILLMAN: I was very honored to work with them. The best thing I think about this was there was really no pressure. It was really like a labor of love, to use an old cliché. It really was. I had nothing hanging over me. It was a lot of freedom in there to stay within the parameters of what I do. I couldn’t go and do a Sam & Dave song or something like that. I wouldn’t be able to do that. But we could take a song like “The Bells Of Rhymney,” which I had recorded once for the Byrds in 1965 and again with Herb on a live album. And I thought, I’d love to sing that song with Herb and David Crosby. Two fantastic harmony singers. We started it out acoustically, very light and gentle, then we filled it with Steve Ferrone’s drums and Benmont Tench’s organ. It really blossomed. Having the Heartbreakers work on the album was fantastic. They’re great musicians and they knew where to go. I didn’t have to tell them. They knew exactly what to play.

STEREOGUM: Crosby sings on that song. McGuinn shows up on “Here She Comes Again.” It almost has the makings of a Byrds reunion.

HILLMAN: Sort of, but not. We’re all very lucky guys. We have our own careers. David is doing really well post-CSN, right? Roger is very happy doing what he does. He works all the time. It was really kind of them to be a part of this. I really appreciate them. Always have. There definitely is a Byrds feel. And I recut “She Don’t Care About Time.” I didn’t do anything different in the arrangement from the original cut, although maybe ours is maybe a little fresher and newer. It’s such a beautiful poem — a great poetic presentation by Gene Clark. Here he is writing this fantasy about a woman that he dreams about. That’s straight Byrds 101.

STEREOGUM: And “New Old John Robertson” is based on a Byrds tune as well. “Old John Robertson” is a lovely character sketch.

HILLMAN: When I got the deal with Rounder, when I got a commitment, I started looking around and I was never quite happy with “Old John Robertson,” which was on Younger Than Yesterday in ’67, I think. I liked that really wonderful string quartet in the middle of the song. It’s about a man I remember in my hometown. He was a director of silent films, and the last movie he did before he retired was a Shirley Temple talkie in the ’30s. I didn’t know that at the time. I would see him walking along the street with his wife. He wore a Stetson hat and had a big handlebar mustache. He looked like a marshal from the Old West. He always wore jodhpurs and boots. He knew all the kids’ names. He was an incredible horseman and started this riding club for kids. He just had this warm, genuine kindness to him, so it was nice to revisit that song and think about him again.

I like the simplicity of this new version, the minimalism of it, beginning with Herb playing the banjo and me singing. Then the band comes in. Without the string quartet, we go to a bridge. When we cut that song in ’67, we were trying all these different things à la Sgt. Pepper. We were trying all kinds of stuff. Some of it was really interesting. A lot of it we tossed out, but I still think adding that string quartet at that particular moment worked quite well. But then sometimes you’re not always right redoing it because your first instincts usually are good. I’m thinking of “Have You Seen Her Face,” another song we did on Younger Than Yesterday. When we originally cut it, I wasn’t a very good singer, but David Crosby came in and put this amazing harmony over the top of it and really made the song work. It was one of the better songs we did. I recut it years later when I could sing it better and then put it in a different key, but it’s six of one, a half dozen of the others.

I don’t know if we’re only pleasing ourselves, you know what I’m saying? Of course, regardless of what your line of work is, you want approval. At any age, whether you’re 40 years old or whether you’re 84, you want approval for something that you’ve done, right? We all want that. When somebody asks me, “What are your goals for this record?” I always say, “Well, I just make something that people like.” Of course I’d like people to buy the record, but I would be happy if people like the record and it makes them happy to hear it. Were there any other goals? No. Am I going to get on the charts? No. Am I going to start a band? No, no, no, no, no. I can’t imagine taking a band out on the road. I couldn’t afford it. A lot of guys my age are turning towards an acoustic format when they go out on the road. It’s just economics.

STEREOGUM: I hear that from a lot of artists across generations. It’s hard times for bands.

HILLMAN: It is. I’m 72 years old. Putting a band together would be me driving in a van. Well, that’s what young kids do in their 20s. God bless them. Good for them. They’re having a great time and there are some wonderful rock bands out there doing that. But no, I can’t do that anymore. Here’s my priority list. If you can still sell tickets, that’s the first one. That’s the most important. If you can still sing and play some semblance of what you did when you were a young man, that’s another priority.

STEREOGUM: Getting back to what you said earlier, about living with these songs. It sounds like you view these songs as something that you can go back to and play around with, that they’re malleable.

HILLMAN: It’s a great luxury to go back and play around with something you’ve created decades ago. But I don’t think you can go back and change them so radically. You have to stay within what the song was originally. If you add a little subtlety to it, that’s fine. I’ve gone to see somebody play a show, and they get up there and play a song, but you can barely recognize it. You can get too far away from why the song was successful.

The Byrds had a manager named Jim Dickson, and he wasn’t the greatest manager, but he did impart some wisdom on us. At one point he said, “You guys, go for depth and substance when you write and when you find songs. Make records you’ll be proud of in 50 years.” Those were some of the greatest words I’ve ever heard, meaning: Don’t go for an instant hit, don’t go for something that’s going to be forgotten in a few years. Most of the Byrds catalog stands up today, I’m proud to say. I’m very lucky to have been a part of that band. The most important thing I’ve ever done was play in the Byrds, because it was such a unique band. As you know, the Byrds… we weren’t a rock band when we started. We all came out of folk music. We didn’t really know anything until we plugged in those amplifiers the first time and started figuring out things and created a really unique sound really around Roger’s 12-string guitar. We built on that.

STEREOGUM: That sounds seems broadly influential. A lot of people from a lot of different genres have borrowed from the Byrds, from R.E.M. and the Dream Syndicate to Old Crow Medicine Show and the Punch Brothers.

HILLMAN: Well, I hear a Byrds influence in a lot of things. I’ve heard it obviously in Bruce Springsteen, even the Pretenders. That’s worth far more than a fat bank account, really. Every musician starts out imitating, right? Then you innovate. I was learning the mandolin when they had tablature that you could read and learn every note of a bluegrass song. But I was so impatient. I was such an impatient kid that I’d get seventy or eighty percent of the tablature and then I’d stop and just play around with that. Whatever music I was listening to came out through the Byrds. It’s like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page and all those guys who revered the old blues players. That’s who they learned from, and they took it a step further and played it their way. They learn from the masters in their style of music, just as I learn from the masters in my style of music. Mine just happened to be bluegrass.

Bidin’ My Time is out 9/22 via Rounder, and you can pre-order it here. Chris Hillman tour dates below.

9/21 Sellersville, PA @ Sellersville Theatre
9/22 New York, NY @ City Winery
9/23 Fall River, MA @ Narrows Center for the Arts
9/24 Boston, MA @ City Winery
9/26 Alexandria, VA @ The Birchmere
9/29 Duluth, GA @ The Red Clay Theatre
10/1 Nashville, TN @ City Winery
10/4 Newport, KY @ Southgate House Revival
10/5 Kent, OH @ Kent Stage
10/6 Chicago, IL @ Old Town School of Folk Music
10/7 Edwardsville, IL The Wildey Theatre
10/12 Bakersfield, CA @ Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace
10/13 Berkeley, CA @ Freight & Salvage
10/16 West Hollywood, CA The Troubadour
10/26 Park City, UT @ The Egyptian Theatre
10/27 Park City, UT @ The Egyptian Theatre
10/28 Park City, UT @ The Egyptian Theatre
11/8 Baton Rouge, LA Red Dragon Listening Room
11/9 The Woodlands, TX Dosey Doe Barn
11/10 Austin, TX @ Texas Union Theater
1/27/18 Thousand Oaks, Ca. Scherr Theatre