Chris Hillman never thought he’d write a book. He’d lived it. He knew what happened. The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer has always been more about the future, what’s coming next, what he’s doing right now. To him, there are always new roads, and he wants to take them.
“But I’d read so many inaccurate things about the Byrds, and especially the Burritos, I wanted to set the record straight,” says Hillman, who spent seven years working on Time Between, Determined to write his own book, he adds, “I wrote it as a conversation with you – or really anybody interested in the music, the journey and how I got here.”
It’s a quiet career in many ways, but also one of the most storied.
The Byrds. The Flying Burrito Brothers. Manassas. McGuinn Clark Hillman. Souther Hillman Furay. The Desert Rose Band. All iconic. All song-driven with high levels of musicianship. Even with Gram Parsons, who overlapped the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and The Burritos’ Gilded Palace of Sin, rock music’s show pony aspect was eschewed for quality.
And as much as Hillman is a band guy, his solo work on Sugar Hill that led to the Desert Rose Band and 2017’s Tom Petty-produced Bidin’ My Time stands shoulder-to-shoulder with defining the folk-rock revolution, psychedelia and galvanizing country rock. Heck, there’s even an unpacking of his bluegrass days as a teen mandolin player part in the Golden State Boys with Vern and Rex Gosdin from Alabama and Don Parmley from Kentucky.
But just as much as there’s the music – and there’s copious amounts of it – there’s also a strong sense of growing up in California in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Both bucolic and, after a point, harrowing, it’s an almost Joan Didionesque capture a moment, a time, a place and an experience. A strong believer that life shapes the man, Hillman says, “Dwight (Yoakam) nailed it in his forward: Ozzy and Harriet (Nelson, of “Leave It To Beaver”) meets James Elroy, because there was that dark seedy aspect to California.
“When my father died, we had nothing – and we didn’t know. Then we found out we were destitute, so we (moved to LA from San Diego) were in a little one-bedroom apartment, my mother sister and I. You don’t think about those things in the moment, you just do what needs to be done.”
What must be done – sometimes leaving home on a motorcycle, mandolin on your back; sometimes writing bad checks at the corner store with your friend Gene Clark before the Byrds took off; sometimes waiting for the woman who’s hand he only held when he was a rock star; sometimes firing a creative foil because “when you’re asked to leave Keith Richards house” – is what Hillman did. Yet in the re-telling, he eschewed the usual distorted narrative many artist bios fall into.
“There was one book (about the Byrds) where the guy wrote the book without ever talking to any of us… and he portrayed me as a jealous, bitter man. But he’d never been around any of us.
“So when I sat down to write, part of it was clearing up all the inaccuracies. I felt like this was something I could control – and I know I could’ve written tall tales, but I wanted to wrote the truth as it was. I didn’t offer up any heinous life decisions.”
A big fan of Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, it served as his compass as he settled in each day for a minimum of 90 minutes writing time. “I love how she didn’t denigrate anyone, because these books shouldn’t be about settling scores.
“I told the editor when we did the deal, ‘I’m not going to do one of those rock star books where this one ODs and that one kills his mother.’ He understood, and accepted the way I wanted to do this book.”
Acknowledging on the phone from his Ventura County home, “I allowed Gram to get away with things I shouldn’t have. He was the epitome of a Tennessee Williams story, right out of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” and “Sometimes I like back and wish I’d stayed in the Byrds a bit longer ‘cause it was a great band,” Hillman’s more interested in the way one musical sojourn would help frame the next.
With his English teacher daughter serving as his first editor (“I had two million exclamation points…”), and his wife Connie as his second editor (“Okay, you’re in the studio. Why don’t you embellish on that?”), he realized his goal of writing his story without a co-writer.
In the process, he also created a document that demystifies the connections between jangle-pop, country-rock and California. Not through deep analytics, but merely telling his story. Chris Hillman was actually there, making the music and defining the scene.
He gets uneasy with some of the big questions about his role in it. Sidesteps the what-ifs with a “Maybe if I’d’ve looked at things that way, been a little more aggressive, I might’ve been the next whatever. But I don’t care. Some people scramble to have their name first, but the things that I did, I just did them.”
Still, his impact is powerful enough, he spent 2019 doing a sold-out 50th Anniversary Tour with Roger McGuinn, plus Marty Stuart & the Fabulous Superlatives for Sweetheart of the Rodeo, audiences filled with curious college students and 20-somethings, as well as Americana denizens, country fans and people who lived through it the first time.
Just as powerfully, Bidin’ My Time not only received critical acclaim, it inspired Petty. While no one expected the rock icon to pass away, the Florida-born music fan had a vision for the bluegrasser-turned-bassist-turned frontman. As Hillman recalls, “The last conversation we I had, I told him, ‘I really appreciate you doing this (record).’ And he said to me, ‘I’m not through with you yet. I want to do an electric thing with you and see what that’s all about.’”