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Chris Hillman of the Byrds

The legendary musician talks about his time with the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and playing the same song for 50 years

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Hello, friends, and welcome to “The Annotated Road Taken,” Episode 9. This week we are honored to be talking with Chris Hillman, legendary member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and all around country-rock godfather.

If you have any interest in the Western pop music canon, then you’ve heard Chris Hillman’s music. As a founding member of the Byrds and an increasingly important part of their first six albums, he defined the sound of folk rock and the ’60s counterculture at large. He jammed with Bob Dylan in 1965. He played the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. He played the ill-fated Altamont Speedway Free Festival in 1969. But, just as interestingly, he has persevered through cultural ups and downs, through ’70s supergroups, and through ’80s country chart success, all while maintaining his unique perspective and place within a musical world he helped to shape.

For me, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ 1969 debut album, The Gilded Palace of Sin, is a sacred text. It’s an influence so deeply held and subsumed that no matter what I do musically, it’s never too far away; a guiding light whose luminescence I can feel at every turn. I can’t even begin to describe how many times I’ve listened to “Do Right Woman,” stone-cold sober, and been moved to tears. More than that, though, I am fascinated by his entire career, which has featured both the highest heights and an admirable perseverance to figure out whatever the best next move would be. In short, to sit down and talk with Chris Hillman, one of the driving forces of a musical style which will forever fascinate me, was an unbelievable experience.

Thankfully, Mr. Hillman was both accommodating and impressively forthcoming with his insights. We get into touring with Bo Diddley in 1965, what it was like to fire Gram Parsons from the Burritos, and watching the sun rise over Stonehenge with the Rolling Stones.

Let’s get into it!

Note: Because there are so many Chrises involved in this conversation, here is your The Annotated Road Taken Episode 9 Chris legend:

  • Mr. Hillman = Chris Hillman. In the style of The New York Times, this conveys the proper amount of respect for a legend.
  • Baio = Chris Baio. Vampire Weekend bassist with iconic hip movements.
  • CT = Ya boy.

13:55 “What was it like to be in a band with two Chrises?”

Whenever someone meets Baio and me as part of the Vampire Weekend unit, almost without fail, they react with some variant of “Oh, two Chrises! That’s easy!” Which, to be fair, is a perfectly fine and valid response, but it began to wear thin quite quickly. Various attempts to differentiate us led to an early “Christopher” vs. “Chris” phase before finally settling on the more natural (and currently titular) CT and Baio. I thought I might find some common ground with Mr. Hillman on this issue, as the early Flying Burrito Brothers lineup also featured two Chrises, himself and bassist Chris Ethridge. But alas, they didn’t seem to have the same problem. Here is a TV performance (although it is definitely pre-taped, as Ethridge and drummer Michael Clarke have cheekily switched instruments) of one of bassist Chris’s finest contributions to the band: “Hot Burrito #1.”

15:20 “I think the first tour, we went back east …”

Here, Mr. Hillman gives us a taste of the staggering level of detail with which he remembers his almost six-decade-long career. He recounts with ease the oddly specific name of the New York City club that featured the Burritos on their first tour (Steve Paul’s The Scene) in 1969. Contrast that with myself, who would have a hard time stating assuredly the name of the venue I played in Cologne last week (much less the one in Milwaukee this past June). In any case, The Scene was a venue that encouraged “Uninhibited Dancing & Listening” and one contemperanous review of the Burritos pegged “their sound [as] exciting and real, not quite as rough-hewn as a lot of country music, but still very good.” Sounds fun!

16:50 “Let’s just go from the Byrds …”

OK, Mr. Hillman!! I have no larger point to make other than to express the extreme surreality and huge honor of having a real-life Byrd say this to me. Whatever your entry point to pop music of the ’60s is, the Byrds will be an important and inarguable tentpole. I can’t believe I got to sit down and talk with the guy on the right here.

18:37 “Our first roadie was Bryan MacLean, who became a member of Love …”

While discussing the Byrds’ first tour in the Midwest, in a time before Holiday Inns and rock clubs in every city, Mr. Hillman tells us about the band’s first ever roadie, Bryan MacLean. He went on to become a founding member of another influential ’60s rock band, Love, and to write their best known song, “Alone Again Or.”

21:12 “It’s a very good record; it’s a little too slick for me …”

Here Mr. Hillman is talking about the Byrds’ debut single and seminal hit song “Mr. Tambourine Man” and the decision to record the instrumental backing track with mainly professional studio musicians from the cohort loosely known as “The Wrecking Crew.” At this point, very early in the Byrds’ career, they had not played a lot of shows, and they had not jelled into the great road-formed live act they would become. In fact, an early demo of the song shows just how different the band’s original take on the Bob Dylan composition had been. Regardless of the personnel on the recording, this song would not only launch the Byrds’ career but also would inspire the mid-’60s folk-rock explosion. The iconic, jangly sound still retains its power even decades later.

22:40 “That was a great tour …”

This “great tour” was the American Bandstand–adjacent Dick Clark’s 1965 Caravan of Stars—Winter Tour. Featuring the Byrds as well as Paul Revere & the Raiders, Bo Diddley, We Five, and others, this early package (a show featuring a lot of currently popular groups) tour traveled fairly deep (Pikeville, Kentucky!) into the American Midwest and Southeast. Apparently, the Byrds begged off being in the main tour bus for the show and instead secured their own Cortez Motor Home in which to travel, and they put that separation to good use by jamming and formulating the basis for a later hit called “Eight Miles High.”

26:10 “First [European] tour was just England …”

The Byrds’ success quickly led the press to position them as “America’s Answer” to the then-ongoing Beatles-led British Invasion: “The Byrds vs. the Stones: Who’s Boss?” asked Tiger Beat magazine in October 1965. Mr. Hillman here discusses the Byrds’ first trip to the U.K., put together by their (and ex-Beatles) press agent Derek Taylor, which consisted of a grueling few weeks of shows, an appearance on Top of the Pops, as well as at least one house party with Brian Jones and John Lennon. Everyone will be thrilled to hear that the Beatles were “very kind and wonderful guys” to Mr. Hillman!

38:47 “First show we did was the end of the tour across Canada …”

As immortalized in the documentary Festival Express, the Transcontinental Pop Festival was a traveling concert, wherein the artists were carried between performances across Canada on a passenger train. The Flying Burrito Brothers’ participation in these shows marked the first prominent performances after Mr. Hillman had to fire his erstwhile partner in the band, Gram Parsons, for “trading in career aspirations for hedonistic pursuits.” Mr. Hillman here describes that to prepare for these shows, there was an uncertain and almost chance-based process by which he and bandmate (and future founding Eagle) Bernie Leadon divided up lead vocal responsibilities. In this clip, through some eye contact and wry smiles, you can almost see them trying to work out in real time who should be singing where.

40:14 “So Emmylou Harris learned ‘Sin City’ listening to Gram’s harmony part …”

One of my favorite songs of all time, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Sin City” has inspired a lot of cover versions over the years, but probably none quite as affecting as the one on Emmylou Harris’s 1975 album Elite Hotel. Emmylou had recorded and performed live with Gram Parsons in his post-Burritos band, called the Grievous Angels, until his untimely, accidental death in the fall of 1973. Here, Mr. Hillman tells us that through the quirky mixing choice of stereo panning the vocals hard left (Gram) and right (Mr. Hillman) on the Burritos album version of “Sin City,” Emmylou had heard Gram’s harmony part as the main melody and learned to sing it as such. I don’t think that has ever negatively affected her performance of the song, which remains as beautiful as ever to this day.

42:58 “We had some good ones in Manassas …”

When Mr. Hillman sensed that his time in the Flying Burrito Brothers had come to an end, he quickly signed on with the new group Manassas, fronted by Stephen Stills. who was on a brief hiatus from his own legendary band Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Manassas had its roots in the country rock of the Burritos, but also veered into some more psychedelic and jammier territory also popular at the time. Mr. Hillman remembers the band’s short-lived run as a positive one, and you can see why on this German TV performance from 1972 or in this show in San Francisco a year later (featuring a rare beard from Mr. Hillman).

45:12 “Did people know what a burrito was at that point?”

An important non-musical question: Did the American public know what a burrito was during the Flying Burrito Brothers’ late-’60s run? Keep in mind, this was a full half-decade before the founding of Chili’s and almost 25 years before Chipotle got its start. According to this live track from the Fillmore East, the answer is a resounding no. As the Burritos themselves explained to the confused audience, “They’re Mexican sandwiches. We’re the flying bean sandwiches.”

49:36 “I was in that band the longest I’d ever been in any band …”

After some years of solo records and various country-rock combos, Mr. Hillman found some unexpected but well deserved success in the country world of the mid-to-late-’80s with the Desert Rose Band. With the all band members freed from the pull of distractions of the touring lifestyle, Mr. Hillman found this to be one of the more rewarding, professional, and pleasant experiences on tour. Here they are getting awesomely shreddy as well as a full performance on the venerable Austin City Limits.

54:34 “Here I am back on the road with Roger who I hadn’t really worked with since the late ’70s …”

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Byrds’ album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which was derided upon its release only to grow to achieve classic status, Mr. Hillman and his fellow Byrd Roger McGuinn did a U.S.-wide tour presenting the album in full. Calling it “one of his best” tours, Mr. Hillman describes almost a family reunion–like atmosphere, with two friends reminiscing on their personal and collective ups and downs over the years. Here is a lovingly collected full recreation of the show as well as Sweetheart standout “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”

54:53 “When you’re playing a song that’s been out for 50 years …”

Here Baio asks a question that every touring musician must eventually deal with: How do you conceptualize and approach performing the same song over and over again, tour after tour, year after year? There are infinite answers to this, and the lack of a specific conclusion speaks to the depth of the issue. Everytime Vampire Weekend performs, say, “Oxford Comma,” I have a different reaction: Sometimes I remain in the mindful moment of the show, sometimes I remember recording the drum parts in a makeshift studio in 2006, and sometimes I even think about what a certain audience member’s relationship to the song is and how that differs from my own. It’s an odd enough exercise with only 13 years of history. I can only imagine what it must be like for someone like Mr. Hillman to perform early Byrds material with his old bandmates some 50 years on. It would be an honor, and honestly hope I get to find out!

1:00:28 “He was honest, loved music and a joy to work with …”

Mr. Hillman’s latest solo album, Bidin’ My Time, was one of the last projects that Tom Petty worked on before his untimely death in 2017. Petty was an avowed acolyte of the Byrds, and his use of jangly, 12-string guitars on many Heartbreakers classics had become something of a shared sonic signature. Mr. Hillman was on tour when Petty sadly passed but, as Roger McGuinn assured him, Tom would have wanted the music and shows to continue. And in his honor they did, including a poignant performance at the Los Angeles club the Troubadour, a site of triumphs for both legendary artists.

1:03:46 “I did write this memoir a few years ago …”

Apparently, Mr. Hillman has written a memoir and it is currently being prepared for release in the (hopefully) near future. If this conversation is at all a preview of the stories, emotions, and lessons he has taken from his incredible career, I for one am extremely prepared to smash that pre-order button whenever I get the chance. Keep your eyes peeled!