Monday, March 26, 2018


Unlike esteemed colleague Darius, I have no such qualms about steps over stairs, enjoying the smorgasbord of songs available. Many refer to the concept of going forward only then to go back a greater distance. (Indeed, as I scribble I wonder as to whether any reference the opposite journey?) This is one of my favourites, which might conceivably also reference the career of it's author, the mercurial Chris Hillman.

Hillman has had a long and still unfinished career, starting off in bluegrass as a Scottsville Squirrel Barker, before being head-hunted to join the Hillmen, which featured later country star, Vern Gosdin. His instrument of choice was then mandolin, and early namechecks have him as Chris Hardin, a fiction to conceal his being to young to be in the sort of venues they made their living in. So far two steps forward, until, in 1965, a massive leap ahead into the Byrds. Now toting bass guitar, albeit probably not playing on their worldwide breakthrough smash, he was undoubtedly major league.

(Indulge me for the contrivance of a reprise of this song, used merely for the caption which calls it Mr Spaceman Quickstep. And, ha, by the Birds!)
After six albums with them, gradually introducing the country influences he had ingrained in him, magnified by the short sojourn of Gram Parsons, there came his, arguably first step back, although aficionados like me might cite the opposite. In the hiatus around a projected tour of South Africa, first Parsons and then, swiftly, Hillman peeled off into The Flying Burrito Brothers, a full blown headfirst immersion in the country music tropes the Byrds were now starting to more fully embrace. As main co-writer with Parsons, the Burritos had a golden period of doing no wrong, if earning little money or acclaim at the time.

(My somewhat contrived link here is in the lyric, as, assuming the lift is broken, how else are you going to get to the 31st floor?) Hillman was now also firmly ensconced as a reliable two-part harmony vocalist. Unfortunately the lifestyle of Parsons was getting a tad chaotic, and he had to go, Hillman now effectively band leader. The band carried on for a couple of more albums, Hillman de facto leader and main vocalist, recruiting first Rick Roberts and then, more or less, the whole of bluegrass band, Country Gazette. Then, following terrific live album, Last Of the Red Hot Burrito's, Hillman jumped ship. (And, as is always the way, it wasn't the last of them,  and a version of the band limps on, probably to this day....)

I am similarly uncertain if Hillman's next guise was a step forward or back. Recruited as right hand man to Stephen Stills in the latter's Manassas band, I am sure he welcomed the regular pay checks. 

(I guess my use of the above track, Down the Road, gives away my opinion.......) In 1973 he again moved on and, via a brief reprise of the original Byrds line-up, took a definite step back. As was compulsory, the name of his new grouping was the imaginatively titled Souther Hillman Furay band. Despite the auspices and expectations, the band never really took off and were almost clunky in their attempts to out-Eagle that nascent band.

 (On the Line can suggest he was now back where he started?) A couple of solo records and the lure of the old band again became strong, with a trio of he, (Roger) McGuinn and (Gene) Clark, ex-Byrds all, and then just he and McGuinn touring and putting out a record as the membership further tumbled. Overall still heading backward, I feel.

After further solo records, which introduced the now longstanding musical kinship with ex-Dillard Herb Pederson, before 1987 saw the definite several steps forward Desert Rose Band. Definitely now country more than country rock, let alone rock, with seven albums and a slew of singles all hitting country pay dirt. The band lasted until 1994, but has stood a reunion in 2008. Most of the intervening and subsequent years have seen Hillman take a largely quieter background role, popping up infrequently as a solo artist, in tandem with Pederson, or guesting on the albums of others. However there was still an acronym ready and waiting in the wings, the fully bluegrass Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pederson, who had some brief success.

(Again, this song title enables you to draw your own conclusions as to where on the road he now was. Actually I feel this has weathered perhaps better than the earlier DRB, on account of the clunky rhythm section production, so 80s/90s, on the latter.)

Nearly up to date, to all intents and purposes it seemed Hillman had retired. He has said as such himself. But it seemed, and I apologise, he was only Biding (his) Time, as a surprise invitation came from Tom Petty to do a record for him, duly released last year and pretty damn good it was too, a definite step forward from wherever he had been lurking. Sadly the death of Petty may have put future work out of range, but we shall see.

You can read more about Hillman's glory days in the Burrito's, if such, in this excellent book, co-written by Hillman, with John Einarson. In many ways Hillman might fill the description, apropos George Harrison's role in the Beatles, as the "quiet" Byrd. Never as much a self-publicist as others in the band he has quietly got on with letting his writing, his singing and his musicianship talk for him. Long may he step.

Way more than twelve steps here

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