If committing Country Rock was ever to be designated a crime, Chris Hillman would go down in history as one of the great serial offenders. Having been an original member of the Byrds he went on to form The Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons before joining Steve Stills’ Manassas in the early 70s. Then it was the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, with J.D. Souther and Rick Furay, a couple of solo albums, ‘Slippin’ Away’(1976) and ‘Clear Sailin’’(1977) and studio sessions for the likes of Poco and Dillard & Clark before re-uniting with ex Byrds, Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark. And we’re not even out of the 70s yet!
In the early 1980s, Hillman teamed up with country and bluegrass player and former member of The Dillards, Herb Pedersen, to record a couple of highly acclaimed bluegrass albums for Nashville’s Sugar Hill Records, ‘Morning Sky’ (1982) and ‘Desert Rose’(1984). It was following the second of these albums that The Desert Rose Band was formed. In addition to Hillman and Pedersen, they brought in multi-instrumentalist and guitar ace John Jorgenson and pedal steel player JayDee Maness, who had been with the International Submarine Band, alongside Gram Parsons, and had worked on The Byrds’ ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ album. The rhythm section was well-known bluegrass bassist Bill Bryson and Steve Duncan, who had been the drummer with Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band, among others.
The Desert Rose Band is recognised as Hillman’s most commercially successful outfit after The Byrds. The band hit the ground running, with their eponymously titled debut album yielding four top 30 Country singles, including their first number one country hit ‘He’s Back and I’m Blue’, written for them by Robert Anderson and Michael Woody. The album itself peaked at number twenty-four in the Billboard Top 100 Country charts.
Over the eight years of the band’s existence, they would release a total of six albums and seventeen singles and, between 1987 and 1993 were rarely out of the American country charts. They would have two number one country singles and eight that made the Top Ten. Their most successful album would be their third release, 1990s ‘Pages of Life’, which reached number seventeen in the US country charts and would also make it into the top two hundred of the Billboard albums chart. The Desert Rose Band were a record-making machine (in the best possible way) and are rarely given the full appreciation or recognition they deserve.
The significant thing about The Desert Rose Band is that they really picked up where The Flying Burrito Brothers stopped. They were much truer to Gram Parson’s vision of “Cosmic American Music” than most other contemporary country-rock outfits. If you look at the country-rock that was around at the time; the majority of it was coming out of California, (as did The Desert Rose Band themselves)but most of it was rooted in the Laurel Canyon sound rather than having roots in country and folk/bluegrass music. If you listen to a band like the Eagles, they’re playing predominantly soft rock with a lot of harmonies and incorporating nods to subject matters that give an illusion of country music reference, but they’re building on pop and rock rather than roots music. When you listen to The Desert Rose Band you can hear the clear links to the Bakersfield sound that is the real country music of western America; it’s immediately obvious that The Desert Rose Band are close cousins to outfits like Buck Owens and his Buckaroos (the Buck Owens song ‘Hello Trouble’ would appear on the band’s second album, ‘Running’ and would become a popular feature of their live shows). A lot of this was in their choice of material. They were drawing from established country and folk material or from writers who composed in a roots style, the “three chords and the truth” approach to simple story-telling. When they wrote their own material they were also using traditional approaches to the music. Then there was the musical style of the band and the instrumentation they used. The front line of the band – Jorgenson, Hillman and Pedersen, were three guitar players. Jorgenson would be playing lead electric guitar, usually a six-string but occasionally a twelve. Pedersen would play a six-string acoustic guitar as a rhythm instrument, mostly strumming rather than picking out riffs or fills. Hillman would switch around a little more, often playing an acoustic six-string but, occasionally, using an electric guitar and playing more complex rhythm patterns. They also all had the ability to mix it up a bit. Jorgenson can play anything with strings and quite a lot of other instruments as well. Pedersen is a decent banjo player, alongside his guitar abilities and Hillman, of course, started out as a bass player and can also double on mandolin. Then there’s the fact that they made a conscious decision to include a pedal steel player in the band, much as Gram Parsons had with the Burritos, rather than putting pedal steel licks on in the studio, as a lot of country rock outfits did. This meant that the pedal steel was an integral part of their sound, not a highlight to be added on during recordings but an instrument that was equally important to their live sound and was included on everything they played. It was never just window dressing. Vocally they also adopted a more traditional country/folk approach. Hillman was the main lead singer (though Jorgenson and Pedersen would both take lead vocals on occasion) and has a strong, tenor voice that’s well suited to lead vocal work. Pedersen also has a tenor voice but is a “high tenor”, well suited to taking the high harmony line above Hillman. If you listen to them sing two-part harmony the sound is reminiscent of duos like the Everly Brothers or the Louvins. This is the core of their vocal style, with additional backing vocals added in by Jorgenson and the rhythm section. Add in their on-stage appearance – wearing outfits designed by famous “Western” tailors, Nudie Cohen and Manuel Cuevas, much as the Burritos had before them – and their statement of intent was plain to see. This was a roots band incorporating rock influences, most definitely not the other way round!
JayDee Maness quit the band in 1990, replaced by Tom Brumley who, coincidentally, Maness had replaced in The Buckaroos (Maness would return to work with Hillman and Pedersen on their post band duo albums). John Jorgenson and Steve Duncan both left the band in 1991, though both would play on the band’s fourth album, ‘True Love’, released that year. That album was a commercial flop and they were dropped by MCA, their record label, precipitating Jorgenson and Duncan’s departure. The band stayed together for one more album, 1993s ‘Life Goes On’, with guitar recording duties split between Jorgenson, who returned to play on two tracks, and session guitarist Jeff Ross. When it came to touring the album Jim Monahan would be the guitarist with Tim Grogan coming in to take the seat behind the drums, but it was the end of the band who had been such a tight unit in their early years and, on the 1st of March 1994, one week after what became their last gig, in Indio, California, Chris Hillman brought the curtain down on a band that had been so successful to this point.
As a sad postscript, on June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed The Desert Rose Band among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.
Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen went into artistic hibernation after the disbanding of The Desert Rose Band but, two years later, they were back recording as a duo and then hooked up with brothers Tony and Larry Rice to form bluegrass supergroup, Rice, Rice, Hillman and Pedersen. Hillman and Pedersen both continue to write and perform, often still working together.
John Jorgenson formed The Hellecasters with fellow T-style guitarists, Will Ray and Jerry Donahue. He also joined Elton John’s touring band around the same time and would remain with them for six years. Most recently he has been working with his own John Jorgenson Quintet, a gipsy jazz ensemble.
JayDee Maness went on to join the Vince Gill Band, who he worked with until 2004 but his main focus in more recent years has been his work on film and TV soundtracks.
Steve Duncan joined John Jorgenson in The Hellecasters before turning his attention to TV band work.
Bill Bryson, a master of the upright bass, returned to his first love of Bluegrass music, playing with bands like The Bluegrass Cardinals and The Brombies. He passed away in 2017 at the age of 71.