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MUSIC / Ventura County

Hillman's Life in Rock Has Taken Him Far Beyond the Byrds

June 12, 1997|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Along with a couple of his musical pals, local Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Chris Hillman will play selections from his vast body of work Tuesday night at the cozy Cafe Voltaire in Ventura. Hillman, who first played locally with the Byrds at Santa Barbara High School in 1964, has lived in the area for nearly 20 years, and accepts the occasional gig close to his Ojai home.

The curly-haired fiftysomething guitarist, mandolin player, singer and songwriter has been on stage so long, well, he used to have straight hair. Hillman has been in such bands as the Hillmen, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band. And he has done numerous solo projects.

It was the Byrds that hit it big in the early '60s by electrifying a Bob Dylan song, "Mr. Tambourine Man," thereby helping to invent folk rock, and eventually leading to a trip to the Hall of Fame. His last group, which disbanded several years ago, was the Desert Rose Band. Hillman discussed his most recent projects from a Hollywood studio where he was hard at work on a new album.

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Who is in the current band?

Just me, Jim Monahan--not the politician--and Bill Bryson on stand-up bass. It's just the three of us doing an acoustic thing. We'll do a lot of old stuff, some Byrds songs.

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How often do you play?

Not so much anymore. I don't even have an agent anymore. I love to play but I hate to travel. I was on the road for 30 years until we retired the Desert Rose Band in 1993. Since then, I've stayed home and never regretted it. Being on the road is not conducive to a good normal life.

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What's it like for you to play in a small place like Cafe Voltaire?

It's really nice because it takes me back to the beginning--I don't want to say how long that's been. [Owner] Todd [Winokur] is really a nice guy and I love the intimacy of his place. I've played every size venue and that place makes it easy for me at this stage of the game.

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What do you think of the local music scene?

I think it's real healthy. There's a lot of good stuff out there although I'm not up on the electric stuff. Alan [Thornhill] has the Rincon Ramblers going, and I hear Southern Cross is very good.

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When did you know you wanted to be a musician?

When I was in high school in 1961, I was totally into folk music--not the Kingston Trio, but the Weavers. From them, I got into bluegrass, which kind of helped me dodge a lot of stuff my contemporaries were into. I always thought I'd just go back to college, but I never did. But even if it stops tomorrow--I had a great time.

*What was it like being a rock star in the '60s?

It was wonderful. Rock 'n' roll was a cottage industry run by music people experienced in the music business. In those days, they would nurture a band and give them two or three albums to develop a style. These days, you have to go platinum immediately or else they drop you. Today if they signed Van Morrison, they'd probably drop him. Having a record deal then was real special, now you make your own product and market it yourself.

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But now it's affordable to do it yourself.

That's right, and every guy in the supermarket is making a CD. These days people have the attention span of a mosquito. What we have here is the death of culture, and nothing is special anymore. There's a lot of talented people out there and I hope there's still a place for them to turn their hobby into a career.

*

The Byrds and the Dillards, 1964 at Santa Barbara High School. What do you remember about that one?

Actually, I don't remember that one at all. I do remember we toured with the Dillards for a month, flying around in an old DC-3.

*

Why do you think Byrds songs still sound good today?

We had someone [manager Jim Dickson] who drilled it into our heads about material. We didn't always hit home runs, but the ones that went over the fence still stand up. "Turn, Turn, Turn" still stands up. "Mr. Tambourine Man" still stands up. The other day I heard "Eight Miles High" on classic radio and I thought, "Gee, that sounds pretty good." We recorded that on an eight-track in 1966. That was back when radio and television were both good.

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Where does the Desert Rose Band fit into the cosmology of country music?

I think the Desert Rose Band tried to stretch the boundaries of country music, but still understood the tradition of it. We could do a straight George Jones song then do sort of a Tom Petty thing. We had a good five-year run, but then our shelf life expired when they quit playing us on the radio. We decided we'd quit before we ended up on the bad fair stages and doing lounges in Las Vegas. Everybody wanted to do something different, and we did. Everyone's having fun and we're still all good friends.

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How did being inducted into the Hall of Fame change things for you?

I loved that experience. I'd like to keep certain things as a good memory, and all five Byrds sat down and we all got along that night. Unfortunately, two years later Gene Clarke and Michael Clark died. I think Neil Young was right--they should've never televised those things. It just becomes another shoddy awards show.

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Will there ever be another Byrds reunion?

No. It's over. Time to lay her down.

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How many Chris Hillman albums are there?

You mean all together? Even as we speak, I'm working on my 54th album. It'll come out in January 1998. Man, that sounds like a long time. Time to put me out to pasture.

BE THERE

Chris Hillman & Friends at Cafe Voltaire, 34 N. Palm St., Ventura. 7:30 p.m. Tues. $5 advance, $7 at the door. Call (805) 641-1743.

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