Chris Hillman, Rock Royalty but Mandolin Loyalty
By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
August 3, 2008 - 9:00 pm
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
Chris Hillman picked up his throaty sounding Red Diamond F5 and chunked out a few mandolin chords and licks before walking to the microphone to start yet another show.
Mandolins have traveled with him on a unique American musical journey since the early 1960s.
Hillman is a major rock star as a founding member of the Byrds. He's a seminal figure in the birth of country rock (with emphasis on the country) as a member of the shuffled-lineup Byrds that recorded the landmark 1968 album, "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," and he followed that as a leader in the ground breaking Flying Burrito Brothers. Just for good measure, Hillman, Herb Pedersen and John Jorgenson formed a molten-hot combo, The Desert Rose Band, which had major hits on the country charts in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Along the way his talents appeared on a veritable mountain of recordings, acoustic and electric, with various musical legends. He's also issued numerous solo albums.
But ask most people what he plays, and they'll say acoustic guitar, or electric guitar or electric bass.
So why on July 11, 2008, is Chris Hillman standing on an outdoor concert stage at a park in Olathe, Kan., playing the mandolin while Pederson plays rhythm guitar?
"I like it," Hillman said.
Actually, the mandolin and bluegrass were among his first loves and an instrument he's never totally left behind.
An older sister came home from college in the 1950s with folk music albums that drew his attention to acoustic music. He lived on a small farm in what was then a semi-rural area of San Diego County, California.
His instrument was acoustic guitar until he heard some of the folkies playing mandolin.
"Something hit a nerve," Hillman said.
He worked, scrimped and saved in 1960 until he had $55 to buy his first mandolin, a Kay.
Hillman took two days worth of mandolin lessons from Scott Hambly of the San Francisco area, who he'd met because he was hanging out as a teenager at the Ash Grove folk club in Los Angeles and rubbing shoulders with people named White and Rice. Hambly had a guest stint with the Kentucky Colonels while Roland White served in the Army.
"I was a surfer, but I was not listening to the Beach Boys," Hillman said. "The guys that I ran with, we were listening to the Stanley Brothers and other bluegrass players."
He soon acquired better instruments, too. First he bought a 1922 Gibson F2 for $125. Then he forked out $200 for a more deluxe F4 of similar vintage.
Along about the same time, acts such as Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and Jim and Jesse were getting week-long bookings at the Ash Grove. Hillman was a regular attendee.
"I loved Monroe," Hillman said. "I saw him play with Del McCoury, Kenny Baker and Brad (Bill) Keith."
Hillman's first recordings were as a mandolin player and singer in bluegrass, a 1962 album by The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and a 1963 recording of the Hillmen with Don Parmley, Vern Gosdin and Rex Gosdin, which was released later after the Byrds gained fame.
Then came his mandolin distraction.
In 1964, he was invited to play electric bass and attend a practice for a band that became the Byrds. He found a bunch of folkies sitting around who didn't know how to plug in instruments any better than he did.
"The reason the Byrds were interesting," Hillman said, "is we didn't know what we were doing."
What developed were rhythms, harmonies and classic performances that left lasting colors on a profound decade of American change.
"There's only one thing I regret from when I joined the Byrds in '64," Hillman said. "I put the mandolin down. I lost a lot of time. I'm still trying to figure out things that I was starting to figure out in '64."
But always he's always circled back to the mandolin.
Besides country rock, "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" gave a big nod to bluegrass. It's Hillman who plays mandolin on that album.
In the early 1970s one version of the Flying Burrito Brothers also brought members of the Country Gazette onstage for set, and Hillman played the mandolin alongside notables such as Alan Munde and Byron Berline.
Also, if you peruse detailed discographies for Hillman on the Internet, you see he starts to show up in the 1970s and into present time as a player, singer and producer on numerous albums, some by stars and some by obscure acts. Many times, he plays the mandolin on a few cuts or even for an entire album.
His late Burrito era also brought him one of his finest mandolin moments.
He'd been playing a 1950s Gibson mandolin onstage that simply didn't have the beloved sound. Stephen Stills heard one of those shows. They knew each other from LA days, and it was Hillman who had gotten the Buffalo Springfield their first prime club job at the Whiskey A Go-Go that led to stardom.
In 1972, Hillman and the Burritos were in a studio in Florida to play for some cuts on a solo album Stills was recording.
During a break, "Stephen said to somebody, go get that thing I got for Chris. He hands me this rectangular case, and I open it up, and there it is in perfect condition - a Lloyd Loar F5 mandolin. Then Stephen said, "I hated the sound of that mandolin you were playing in Colorado."
So began Hillman's Loar era.
He also soon joined Still's new recording and touring band, Manassas.
The first time I heard Chris Hillman play onstage was with that band in 1973. It was very loud and very electric. Except, during a few acoustic songs in mid-show, there stood Hillman playing the Loar.
You couldn't hear it very well but I was cheering anyway for the bluegrass visual.
What followed for Hillman's career were more bands, solo albums, reissues and guest spots that featured Hillman's musical influences from the Byrds, country-rock, the Bakersfield sound and Christian faith songs.
But often on those recordings, he also played the mandolin. Many non-bluegrass music fans have heard the instrument because of his playing.
The mandolin also fits perfectly with the current acoustic shows he performs as a duo with Pedersen, who plays wonderful rhythm guitar. Their singing and harmonies are righteous.
So that's why Hillman, 64, is chopping, cross picking and taking very sweet, melodic solos on songs such as "Turn Turn Turn," "Eight Miles High," "If I Could Only Win Your Love" and "Mr. Tamborine Man."
His simple and direct mandolin style cuts to the heart of a song.
Hillman doesn't consider himself a "great" musician or an accomplished mandolin player. He says in no way can he keep up with the many hot mandolin players that have taken the music to a higher level.
"I hear some of these kids, they're unbelievably gifted," Hillman said.
He also suffered a broken wrist a few years ago and thought his career was over. But a unique surgery put him back on stage. His flatpicking guitar and mandolin leads are plenty strong today.
I'd suspect that nostalgia and curiosity drew some of this crowd to Olathe to see longtime heroes.
But what this audience got were honest, organic, songs presented in an acoustic style that sounds as fresh and interesting musically as ever.
"When you get older, you play less notes and more melody," Hillman said. "But every generation hands the mantle to the next, and that's as it should be."
Other Hillman tidbits:
His Loar: A March 31, 1924 F5, with a Verzi. Stills paid George Gruhn $2,500 for it in 1972. He loves the tone and has retired it from the road, unless he can keep a close eye on it.
"It's a good instrument, I'll never sell it."
Current stage ax: A 2006 Red Diamond F5. "It's loud and it plays easy. But I also have great affection for Bill Collings' mandolins." For guitar, a small-bodied Santa Cruz.
Reads the Cafe: "I like it, I go there a lot. I've bought and sold some mandolins on the classifieds."
Best non-mandolin moment in Olathe: Herb Pederson singing "Wait A Minute," a song Pedersen wrote that the Seldom Scene recorded in the 1970s, and which Alan Jackson recently cut.