by Chris Hillman
It’s not too much hyperbole to state that without Chris Hillman, our modern culture would sound and look far different. Although he bristles at the mention, he, as much as anyone, is responsible for “country-rock” with his tenure in the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and on and on. This memoir, subtitled “My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond” is truly captivating, and Hillman is both humble as to his talents and honest to his faults.
His recounting of his life as a child in California sounds blessed, despite weathering numerous house fires, illness and his father’s suicide. He became a fan of bluegrass music early on, starting on mandolin, and performed in string bands before he was 20 years old. And then he walked into a club to hear Roger McGuinn playing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” folk-style on a 12 string guitar, and as they say, the rest is history. They formed The Byrds, took a few early Dylan songs and recast them into a wholly unique new sound, and created a new genre, mixing folk, rock, jazz (“Eight Miles High”), country and more into a stew that was the beginning of a path that echoes today.
There is no telling Hillman’s story without telling Gram Parsons as well. Parsons was a Byrd for one truly pivotal record, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, leaving the group, publicly at least, due to objections playing in apartheid South Africa, but, as Hillman recounts, Gram had latched onto Keith Richards and the Stones, and didn’t want to leave. Still, Hillman formed the Flying Burrito Brothers with Parsons, recorded the landmark Gilded Palace of Sin in 1969, all the while trying to keep the self-destructive Parsons on track. Hillman’s observances into Gram’s character is illuminating, as he was one of the few, other than Emmylou Harris that ever got close to Parsons.
Chris Hillman’s life is a fascinating glimpse into cultural history as told here. To learn the origins of that early Byrds sound, and his later work in the Desert Rose Band, Manassas with Stephen Stills and more show a truly dedicated, creative soul that has risen above most everything life can toss in your way (and Gram Parsons!) and has come out the other side, relying on his deep faith to anchor him. Hillman was one of the foremost architects of an entire new path for music, and his accounts of those times is without equal.