Christopher "Chris" Hillman is an American musician. He was one of the original members of The Byrds, which in 1965 included Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby and Michael Clarke. With frequent collaborator Gram Parsons, Hillman was a key figure in the development of country rock, defining the genre through his work with The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas and the country-rock group Desert Rose Band.
Hillman, the third of four children, spent his early years at his family's ranch home in rural northern San Diego County, approximately 110 miles (180 km) from Los Angeles. He has credited his older sister with exciting his interest in country and folk music when she returned from college during the late 1950s with folk music records by The New Lost City Ramblers and others.
Hillman soon began watching many of the country-music shows on local television in southern California at the time such as Town Hall Party, The Spade Cooley Show and Cal's Corral. Hillman's mother encouraged his musical interests and bought him his first guitar; shortly thereafter he developed an interest in bluegrass, particularly the mandolin. At age 15 Hillman went to Los Angeles to see the Kentucky Colonels bluegrass band at the Ash Grove, and later convinced his family to allow him to travel by train to Berkeley for lessons from mandolinist Scott Hambly. When he was 16, Hillman's father committed suicide.
He became known in San Diego's folk music community as a solid player; this won him an invitation to join his first band, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers. The band lasted barely two years, recording only one album (Blue Grass Favorites, which was distributed in supermarkets); however, it has a posthumous reputation as the spawning ground for a number of musicians who went on to play in the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds, Hearts & Flowers, and the Country Gazette.
When the band broke up in late 1963 Hillman received an invitation to join the Golden State Boys, regarded as the top bluegrass band in southern California and featuring future country star Vern Gosdin, his brother Rex and banjoist Don Parmley (later of the Bluegrass Cardinals). Shortly thereafter the band changed its name to The Hillmen; soon Hillman was appearing regularly on television and using a fictitious ID, "Chris Hardin", to allow the underage musician into the country bars where many of his gigs were played.
At this point a frustrated Hillman considered quitting music and enrolling at UCLA when he received an offer from The Hillmen's former manager and producer, Jim Dickson, to join Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke in a new band, The Byrds.
Internal strife dogged the Byrds, and by the beginning of 1968 the band was down to two original members (Hillman and McGuinn), with Hillman's cousin Kevin Kelley on drums. They then hired Gram Parsons to replace Crosby. Hillman and Parsons changed the Byrds' musical direction, helping to usher in a new genre known as country rock when they recorded the album Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
Hillman teamed with Gram Parsons again (this time as vocalist, guitarist and songwriter) to form the Flying Burrito Brothers. Further honing their pioneering country-rock hybrid sound by combining the energy, instrumentation and attitude of rock and roll with the issues and themes of country music, the Burritos recorded the landmark The Gilded Palace of Sin followed by 1970's Burrito Deluxe. Parsons was out of the lineup by June 1970 (replaced by guitarist Rick Roberts) when the band toured Canada as part of the Festival Express tour, with Hillman reverting to bass guitar. Hillman stayed with the band for two more records, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Last of the Red Hot Burritos.
Before the Flying Burrito Brothers disbanded, Hillman joined Stephen Stills' band Manassas; he remained with Manassas until 1973, when he briefly rejoined the original lineup of the Byrds for a reunion album on Asylum Records. In 1973, Hillman teamed with singer-songwriter Richie Furay (who co-founded Buffalo Springfield and Poco) and songwriter J. D. Souther (who co-wrote much of the Eagles' early repertoire) in the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. The trio never quite gelled, and broke up in 1975 after two albums and internal squabbles.
Hillman released two solo albums, Slippin' Away and Clear Sailin', which included several songs co-written with Crawdaddy magazine editor Peter Knobler. One of their songs, "Step on Out," was recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys on their 1985 album and became the title cut.
By the early 1980s Hillman had returned to his bluegrass and country roots, recording two acclaimed (mainly acoustic) albums for Sugar Hill Records with singer/guitarist/banjo player Herb Pedersen (a former member of The Dillards). Soon after, Hillman and Pedersen formed the Desert Rose Band; this proved to be Hillman's most commercially successful post-Byrds project. Their first LP, an eponymously titled 1987 outing, generated two Top Ten country hits in "Love Reunited" (written with Steve Hill), "One Step Forward" and the number-one single "He's Back and I'm Blue." From 1987 until late 1993 the band recorded seven albums and had a string of 16 country-music hits (the majority of which were in the country Top Ten) and a number of Academy of Country Music awards before disbanding in 1994.
Chris Hillman, Herb Pederson, JayDee Maness, John Jorgenson, Bill Bryson, and Steve Duncan performed their first reunion concert on August 27, 2008 at the Belly Up in Solana Beach, CA. Before this date Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen were as a duo joined by John Jorgenson on May 2, 2008 for a small DRB set at the Station Inn in Nashville. This six-man lineup is the best known, and includes all of the original members present on the hit albums from the 1980s.
At the peak of the Desert Rose Band's success, Hillman began appearing infrequently with McGuinn. Soon the pair joined Crosby in a reformed Byrds, playing a handful of club dates. In 1990 they appeared at a tribute to Roy Orbison, performing "Mr. Tambourine Man" with the song's composer Bob Dylan. That same year the Byrds cut four new songs for inclusion in a career-spanning box set, and in 1991 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1996 Hillman reunited with Desert Rose Band alumnus Herb Pederson for the CD Bakersfield Bound. Like a Hurricane (1998) and three bluegrass-flavored releases on Rounder Records with Pedersen, Larry Rice, and Tony Ricefollowed.
Hillman has continued to write, perform and tour, with dates in 2017 with Herb Pedersen and John Jorgenson. He has released his latest album, Bidin' my time (2017), co-produced with Tom Petty, featuring guests including Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and members of The Heartbreakers. This has been describe as "a kind of summing up of Hillman's long and varied career, incorporating the folk, bluegrass, country and rock styles he's touched on over the years.
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