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POP : Desert Rose Flowers Despite the Climate

November 29, 1990|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

In the rock world a band's tour is often mounted and marketed as special and distinct event, but for country musicians, the road is more of a Mo bius strip. Country acts tend to think not so much in terms of a tour with a beginning and end but of the road as being a constant fact of life.

"In country music, you can tour all the time ," says the Desert Rose Band's Chris Hillman, and he's certainly in a position to know. It has taken five years of hard work to put his band where it is now.

Neither starchy Nashville nor stolid New Traditionalists, the Desert Rose Band actually dares to have its own sound, just like country giants did before the days of constrictively formatted radio. It has taken a lot of persistence to yield their five No. 1 country singles. (A greatest-hits package with three new songs is due out in January.)

Besides doing heavy touring, the group has cozied up to Nashville a bit by recording there, has aggressively courted the media and has tailored its image to establish a more distinct identity. The publicity photos now feature only the band's front line--singer-guitarist Hillman, singer-guitarist Herb Pedersen and lead guitarist-singer John Jorgenson--although steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness, bassist Bill Bryson and drummer Steve Duncan are full members of the band.

Although the band's image may be malleable, its music is uncompromising, and the lyrics don't shy from taking stands on social issues or the want for hope and compassion. "Our Songs" from its "Running" album could practically stand as a group statement of purpose with its lyrics about music that is "from the heart" and "keeps our thoughts alive" while singing of "trials and troubles in three-part harmony."

The Desert Rose Band does indeed boast of rich country harmonies, along with sterling musicianship led by the singing steel of Maness (a 12-time Academy of Country Music award winner) and O.C.-bred Jorgenson's blend of dazzling runs and riffs laced with the jingle-jangle chiming guitar sound that defined Hillman's first band, the Byrds.

Speaking by phone from his home in Ventura Monday, Hillman said: "What sets us apart is we don't sound like anybody else on the radio right now, though I'm starting to hear people mimicking our instrumentation. We have our own unique little sound. Of course, there are a lot of elements in the music. A number of people have said we sound like the Byrds or the Flying Burrito Brothers, but if we didn't, it would be a little bit odd, because that's where I come from."

It's also, in part, where he's going. He and fellow founding Byrds Roger McGuinn and David Crosby reunited for a few concerts over the last couple of years, and they came together again in August to record four new songs for a four-CD retrospective just issued on Columbia.

The group is to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January. Although plans for a more lasting Byrds reunion have been sidetracked for a while with Crosby's recent motorcycle accident, Hillman said, "I really feel like I'm in two bands now, and it feels great. Cutting those four new tracks was a wonderful, easy time, and it came out so good.

"Desert Rose, of course, is my priority. It's my baby. With the Byrds it's really Roger who's the leader and the lead singer, and that's fine. I feel that I'm up there to make him sound better, and that's a role I really enjoy. And someday I'm sure we'll make an album and go on the road or something."

In the meantime, Hillman and the Desert Rose Band are finally going to be off the road for a time. Their Crazy Horse appearances on Monday and Tuesday will be the last scheduled until late June of next year.

The time, Hillman said, will be used to "recharge their batteries" and write the best material they can for their next album.

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