Chris Hillman is now recognised as one of the founding fathers of country rock, and subsequently americana, and has a mantlepiece of awards, including his induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Byrds and the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, to prove it. However, it wasn’t until the ‘80s with the success of The Desert Rose Band that Hillman started to receive the proper level of credit he deserved. While he may have been in some of the most influential bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the fact that these bands included artists of the calibre of Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gram Parsons, and Stephen Stills meant that the critics at the time tended to underplay Hillman’s contributions to those legendary bands. Hillman himself has said he was always the junior partner in The Byrds. After Manassas disintegrated, Hillman was sucked into the vortex of the music business trying to repeat the commercial success of Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the Eagles. First, he was matched with songwriter David Souther and Poco’s Richie Furey in the Southern Hillman Furey Band in what at the time was seen as a country rock supergroup, and then the quasi-reformation of the Byrds, without David Crosby, in McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, as well as recording two solo albums for David Geffen’s Asylum Records. While there was some worthwhile music on these collaborations and solo albums, nothing really chimed with the critics and increasingly the record-buying public, so much so that Hillman was without a record deal at the start of the ‘80s.
However, while this time may represent the nadir of Hillman’s career, it was also the point where he was able to rebuild his career and extend his reputation beyond his ’60s and early ‘70s critical success. This Top 10 is an attempt to compile a Chris Hillman best of from 1982-2017, a period when he really consolidated his personal reputation, and brought together all his musical influences from bluegrass, Bakersfield country, country rock, and ‘60s pop. Hillman showed himself to be a great collaborator, particularly with his friend Herb Pedersen, and his songwriting finally got the attention it deserved. It was a time when Hillman forged his own legacy that was in addition to his achievements with the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, and Stephen Still’s Manassas.
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Number 10: Chris Hillman ‘Ripple’ (1982)
Sugar Hill Records was releasing some of the best bluegrass and roots music at the end of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and Chris Hillman was working with them to release an archive recording featuring his album with The Hillman that was originally recorded before his stint with the Byrds. This led to Hillman revisiting his bluegrass roots on ‘Morning Sky’ where he was produced by Byrds manager Jim Dickson and backed by Bernie Leadon, Al Perkins, and Herb Pedersen on an album of covers by Dylan, Kristofferson, Fogelberg, and Garcia and Hunter’s ‘Ripple’ amongst others. The album shouldn’t have worked, an ageing ‘60s rock star records a set of covers of recent and largely familiar songs in a bluegrass and country acoustic setting. Hillman clearly didn’t have the pressure of a major label demanding a hit, but rather an independent label that was content to let him play what he wanted, and he did, including mandolin rather than a bass guitar. Hillman manages to reinterpret this Grateful Dead classic as the bluegrass and roots music standard it was always fated to become with beautiful playing and vocals.
Number 9: Chris Hillman ‘When You Walk In The Room’ (1998)
Tony and Larry Rice still had their own careers while they were members of Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen, so in 1998 Chris Hillman had the opportunity to release a solo album on Sugar Hill Records, ‘Like A Hurricane’. While the album featured the now usual pool of players, Herb Pedersen restricted his services to producing a couple of tracks, Hillman was more eclectic referencing more facets of his sound including the more pop side of his bluegrass country rock mix. Fellow Byrd David Crosby is featured on ‘I’m Still Alive’ but it is the Searchers ‘When You Walk In The Room’ that best captures Hillman’s jingly jangle pop side with the twelve-string guitar of Jim Monahan replacing Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker when McGuinn couldn’t make the trip to California. This song had been in the Byrds’ early live repertoire but they had never recorded it.
Number 8: ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ (2005)
In 2005 Chris Hillman released the Herb Pedersen produced ‘The Other Side’ which was inspired by the country gospel sounds of the ‘40s. Hillman revisited tracks from the Byrds and the Desert Rose Band on what he thought could be the last studio album of his career. However it was his co-write with Stephen Stills from 1972’s ‘Manassas’ ,‘It Doesn’t Matter’ , that shows how established his acoustic sound and style is, and how it fits his advancing years. Hillman’s vocals now have more grit and bring a new dimension to his overall sound.
Number 7: Chris Hillman ‘Such Is The World That We Live In’ (2010)
By the 2010s Chris Hillman thought he had retired and wouldn’t be releasing any more studio albums. However, Herb Pedersen had other ideas when he persuaded Tom Petty to produce a Hillman solo album. Given the influence that Hillman’s music has had on Petty ‘Bidin’ My Time’ was also something of a career overview including covers of Byrds and Everly Brothers tunes, together with a cover of Petty’s ‘Wallflower’. While Petty clearly enjoyed himself, the record wasn’t a simple nostalgia trip, as whatever the historical references, it stayed true to Hillman’s acoustic country bluegrass sound of his later career. It also included a couple of new Hillman songs and ‘Such Is The World We Live’ ensues Chris Hillman, singer-songwriter as well as a musical icon, ends his career on anything but a nostalgic note.
Number 6: The Desert Rose Band ‘Time Between’ (1987)
I 1985 Hillman put together a new band to support his continued touring that took its name from his then-latest solo album, The Desert Rose Band. The band included Herb Pedersen, and string master John Jorgenson, with steel player Jay Dee Maness, drummer Steve Duncan and bassist Bill Bryson. Curb Records picked the band up due to the success of their live shows, and their debut self-titled album, ‘The Desert Rose Band’, delivered an ‘80s version of the country rock Hillman had pioneered in the ‘60s and was surprisingly successful on the country charts. Included was Hillman’s new take on the first song he wrote that was included on the Byrds’ ‘Younger Than Yesterday’, ‘Time Between’ featured Clarence White on electric guitar and hinted at the country rock to come. The version by the Desert Rose Band was a highlight of their debut album and stood shoulder to shoulder with the original version.
Number 5: Chris Hillman ‘Running The Roadblocks’ (1984)
Hillman upped the traditional country element on his fourth solo album ‘Desert Rose’ with a bit more electricity and drums, with Al Perkins in the producer’s chair, and members of Elvis’s TCB Band Emmylou’s Hot Band in the studio. Again this was largely an album of covers, but it did include two Hillman originals, and the covers included The Louvin Brothers, George Jones, Reno & Smiley, The Wilburn Brothers, and Jimmie Rodgers. ‘Running The Roadblocks’ was written by Hillman and Crawdaddy Editor Peter Knobler and is a rocking country tune that features James Burton’s guitar and Buckaroo Jay Dee Maness on steel guitar. ‘Desert Rose’ had most of the ingredients that would help Hillman hit commercial paydirt to go with the newfound critical acclaim, and ‘Running The Roadblocks’ is just great country rock.
Number 4: Rice Rice Hillman & Pedersen ‘Story Of Love’ (1997)
In 1997 Hillman and Pedersen reconnected with musicians from their early ‘60s past who were now bluegrass royalty, Tony Rice and his brother Larry. Hillman took the lead vocal on half of the songs on 1997’s ‘Out Of The Woodwork’. Despite the musical skills of the musicians involved this was not a bluegrass jamming contest, rather there is expert playing supporting arrangements of songs from Hillman and Larry Rice, and covers of Norman Black, Richard Thompson, Stephen Stills, and Aretha Franklin’s ‘Do Right Man’, all with sublime vocals. ‘Story Of Love’ is a single and a track from the Desert Rose Band’s most successful album, ‘Pages Of Life’, and was written by Hillman and his regular co-writer Steve Hill. As they say, you can’t keep a good song down, and here you can hear a masterful acoustic version.
Number3: Chris & Herb ‘Bakersfield Bound’ (1996)
The changing tastes of country music audiences led to Hillman disbanding the Desert Rose Band in 1994, and it was the longest-lasting of all the bands Hillman had been a member of. After a short career break, Hillman joined up again with Herb Pedersen to record an album of covers of the country music that had influenced them growing up in California, particularly that of Buck Owens. The Desert Rose Band’s Jay Dee Maness played steel guitar and famed west coast bassist Lee Sklar kept the beat with drummer Willie Ornelas on the Sugar Hill released album. The album may largely contain covers but they were superbly played, and it did include two Hillman Songs. The title track ‘Bakersfield Bound’ is Chris Hillman and Steve Hill’s homage to the Okie migration of the ‘30s and ‘40s, that Chris and Herb deliver in the spirit of the country and bluegrass brother acts such as the Louvin Brothers. This may not be where ‘90s country music was at, but it is a truly timeless track.
Number 2: Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen ‘Desert Rose’ (2010)
Chris Hillman is a masterful live performer, and he and Herb Pedersen may not be blood brothers but they certainly have an incredible musical bond. The live ‘Live At Edwards Barn’ includes songs from the whole of Hillman’s career and includes appropriate covers by Buck Owens, the Stanley Brothers, and the Louvin Brothers. ‘Desert Rose’ is the title track from Hillman’s 1984 solo album and was a portent of what the Desert Rose Band would sound like. Here it is in an acoustic version that demonstrates the strength of the song and the power of Chris Hillman’s latter-day sound. There is a good case to be made that despite Hillmans ground-breaking early career triumphs, as a performer and songwriter he continued to improve throughout his career.
Number 1: The Desert Rose Band ‘Running’ (1988)
Eight of the ten songs on the Desert Rose Band’s ‘Running’ were written by Hillman, and the title track ‘Running’ is clear evidence of his maturity as a songwriter dealing as it deals with the emotional and psychological impact of his father’s suicide. If you had to pick one song that best represented Chris Hillman as an overall singer-songwriter and artist then this would probably be the one. It is also fitting that the Desert Rose Band are also at number one in our Top 10 of Chris Hillman tracks from the ’80s onwards as they were the perfect representation of Chris Hillman’s country rock vision that were a commercial and critical success.