Chris Hillman’s new book chronicles childhood trauma, musical adventures
By Bliss Bowen
Chris Hillman is one of the key founders of country-rock and folk-rock (and, many would argue, Americana). He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 as an original member of the Byrds; his rock star cred’s further burnished by post-Byrds flights with the Flying Burrito Brothers and Manassas, and more countrified ventures such as the Desert Rose Band and singer-songwriter trio Souther-Hillman-Furay. Yet Hillman has generally been overshadowed by more flamboyant bandmates such as David Crosby, Gram Parsons and Stephen Stills.
The tenacious survivor unevenly strives to make peace with that dynamic throughout his new memoir, “Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond,” which features several players and scenes from Pasadena’s 1960s-’70s-era music community. That includes a bass-throwing display of Hillman’s “DEFCON-2”-level temper backstage at the Rose Bowl, when he confronted the Byrds’ shady manager and quit the band.
From the prologue, in which Hillman recounts how he and wife Connie grabbed their dog and belongings before evacuating their Ventura home just ahead of 2017’s Thomas Fire, it’s clear his storied life contains even more dramatic chapters than have been publicized.
The book sidesteps lurid tattle, though it’s distractingly peppered with famous names. Moving early chapters detail a sunny California childhood in Rancho Santa Fe, where his doomed father counted Hollywood stars such as Victor Mature as neighbors and confidantes. An adolescent Hillman worked odd jobs to afford early passions: a horse, surfing, motorcycles and, most consequentially, guitar and mandolin, after he was introduced to folk and bluegrass via his sister’s records. That instilled methodic discipline that, after their father’s suicide, led to a life-changing stint with the Golden State Boys. It also illuminates later relationships with Crosby and Parsons, as well as Hillman’s conservative mindset and gradual religious awakening.
It’s a long-held truism in some bluegrass and country circles that without Hillman’s disciplined focus the more charismatic Parsons would not have achieved renown as the father of Cosmic American Music. It’s a purposeless debate; there’s no binary choice. Parsons overdosed in Joshua Tree in 1973, so instead of aging alongside Hillman (who barely survived a 1998 bout with hepatitis C), he’s remembered as a perpetually young, hippie-glam rocker. It does not nullify Parsons’ creative legacy to honor Hillman’s equal role in composing classics such as “Wheels” and “Sin City.” The sometimes-cantankerous Hillman sounds both bruised and biting when he writes, “I believe there were only three people who really knew, loved and understood Gram Parsons: me, Emmylou Harris and Rev. Jet Thomas” and “none of us could save him.”
His lyrical dissection of “Sin City” is telling. Written during a prolific period when he and Parsons “could practically finish one another’s thoughts while writing or singing,” its stanzas were informed by Parsons’ addictions, the Byrds’ manager, Bobby Kennedy (“A friend came around, tried to clean up this town”), Vietnam, “California’s seismic shifts” and 1968’s political tumult. It emblemizes Hillman’s deeper story, tempered with gratitude and concern, of a culture of live music, and the symbiotic relationship between artists and momentous times still reverberating in our lives and politics in 2020.
To learn more, visit chrishillman.com.