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Hillman Country — ‘60s Rocker Still Going Strong

Good to be King

By King Harris

Those of us who came of age in the turbulent 1960s (like me) were constantly looking for some kind of harmony in a world fraught with all kinds of discord.

I found it by simply turning on the radio. In the spring of 1965, I experienced an unfamiliar sound, a folk song with a rock ‘n’ roll beat. Some band had taken the Bob Dylan ballad “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man,” electrified it with amplified guitars, a protruding bass and a solid snare, and then layered it with soaring and ethereal vocals.

The ensemble that committed this musical transgression, to folk purists certainly, was a group called the Byrds, whose effort shot to the top of the charts and has since been labeled the record that started the folk-rock movement. Former Byrd base player Chris Hillman, who recently recorded an album produced by Tom Petty and Herb Pedersen, is still playing the music he loves, in the studio and live on stage.

The 72-year-old musician is once again making a personal appearance at the Edwards Barn in Nipomo this Saturday night in a benefit concert for the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, once told me it made sense at the time.

“Most of us, Roger [Jim] McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, and myself,” Hillman said, “had roots in folk music, everyone from The Weavers to The Kingston Trio. I was also influenced by country-hillbilly and bluegrass, playing the mandolin.

“When they asked me to join, they were looking for a bass guitar player. I never touched a bass before but I of course didn’t tell them that. At the same time, I assumed they were proficient with electric guitars, but the band was basically acoustic save for Roger’s electric Rickenbacker, quite distinguishable on a danceable version of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ cut with L.A. studio musicians, because we were still working building up our sound.”

By the time the band recorded what Hillman calls their signature tune, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” a few months later, the Bryds were flying high, having created a uniquely eclectic sound, featuring two, major, defining elements, that being McGuinn’s jangling and melodic Rickenbacker 12-string electric guitar and the group’s complex vocal characteristics heard on hits like, “It Won’t Be Wrong,” “Eight Miles High,” and “My Back Pages.”

Hillman’s contribution to the group as a singer-songwriter wasn’t fully realized until the group’s fourth album, “Younger than Yesterday,” was released in 1967. “The cobwebs came off,” Hillman said, “after I played some jazzy musical sessions with South African composer, Hugh Masakela, whose rhythm and trumpet playing we used on one of the first songs I wrote with Roger called “Rock ‘N’ Roll Star,” a classic number which fairly accurately described the Byrds themselves at full throttle.

Hillman, who today lives in Ventura, won’t disagree that his life with the Byrds at their pinnacle didn’t resemble their influential anthem. “It was true. Girls were really chasing us. It was exactly like the Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night,” he claims. “We were really living it.”

Hillman composed another rocker for the album, “Have You Seen Her Face,” followed by two songs that revealed his country roots, setting the stage for the group’s next country-oriented album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” which opened doors for such country rock bands as the Eagles; and that of his own personal musical direction, which after leaving the Bryds, included involvement in The Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas, and Souther-Hillman-Fura-Band, among others. It was not until the surprising success of the country band, Desert Rose, where things finally jelled. “We had a good 8-year run, and were accepted by Nashville for what we did, not for who we had been.”

Hillman, who was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, continues to perform and says his best work lies ahead, an enthusiastic affirmation you can clearly detect in his voice. “I’ve had a great career which is still going strong. Now I mentor and teach, giving back with everything I learned. I really believe this is the best time in my life.”

One of the most engaging rock ‘n’ roll personas I’ve ever met, the passionate Hillman will share his flights of fancy at Edwards Barn starting at 5 p.m. Saturday, April 22.

Saturday also marks the observance of the 10th Annual Record Store Day, celebrated all over the country. According to Mike White, owner of Boo Boo Records on Monterey Street in San Luis Obispo, “Basically it’s an event to commemorate and honor and remember the role that record stores play at a time when it was spiraling. It has been the number one component of the renaissance of vinyl. It’s highlighted when the artists and record companies put together a super limited run of vinyl for an artist like a McCartney. They’ll only make a thousand of them so they’re rare and their runoffs are limited, which is why we have a lot of fans standing in line waiting for the store to open. We also have bands playing throughout the day, and live t-shirt screenings. It’s become our biggest day of the year.” For more info, go to: www.Recordstoreday.com.

By King Harris

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