Some people take perverse pleasure in feeling aggrieved. If Chris Hillman were one of them, he could be among the most satisfied sourpusses in the music business.
Hillman lost his career as a high-profile touring musician in 1994, after his classy Desert Rose Band got purged from country radio. Desert Rose wilted in the lingering creative drought that settled over Nashville in the early '90s, making survival in the country music mainstream almost impossible for anybody with a deep sense of tradition and a commitment to a strong personal songwriting vision.
Even those who are spiritually on Hillman's side--the recent brigade of young, country-influenced rock musicians who don't give in to blandness--give him reason to feel put out. They have anointed Gram Parsons as their movement's sainted martyr, ignoring Hillman's role as Parsons' full partner and songwriting collaborator in the Flying Burrito Brothers.
When Hillman decided after Desert Rose to again become a rock 'n' roll star and take up lucrative offers to reunite the Byrds, he says, he found an ally in David Crosby, but they couldn't budge holdout Roger McGuinn, the third surviving original member of the Hall of Fame folk-rock band.
All of this has had Hillman mainly sitting at home for the past 3 1/2 years, able to count his public performances during that time on his fingers.
But, at 53, he would rather point to all the advantages he has had than grouse about bad breaks, balked ambitions, lack of historical recognition and the absence of the crowd's approving roar.
"I don't miss any of that," he said over the phone last week from Ojai, where he lives with his wife and two children.
"I enjoy my life right now more than I ever have. I enjoy being a father. I've got my health. Everything's going great. I hate to use the word 'semiretired,' but I am not pursuing a full-time career. I still enjoy doing [music], but I've put in almost 35 years, and I think I've earned the right to do it on my own terms."
The nice thing, Hillman said, is that executives from good, independent labels respect his work and give him opportunities to make music on his own terms. For a non-careerist, Hillman is keeping up a more-than-respectable recording pace of an album a year.
In 1996, Hillman and Herb Pedersen, his longtime harmony-singing sidekick, paid tribute to the twanging California country sound with "Bakersfield Bound," an easygoing duo album of mostly Buck Owens-associated material.
This year, Rounder Records issued "Out of the Woodwork," which teamed Hillman and Pedersen with brothers Tony and Larry Rice, two old friends from their early-'60s days on the Southern California bluegrass scene. It's a winning collection of old, new and borrowed songs graced with rich harmonies and low-key bluegrass arrangements.
Hillman didn't tour for either album, but he does play occasional concerts. Tonight at the Coach House, he'll be backed by Desert Rose Band alumni Bill Bryson on stand-up bass and John Monahan on guitar, as well as percussionist Bob Nichols.
The show will feature highlights from the Byrds, Burritos and Desert Rose, along with a sampling of new songs from an album due next year on Sugar Hill Records. For that one, his first solo release since the early 1980s, Hillman plans to return to the road, albeit for short, low-budget spurts of touring.
Hillman also will be heard on two high-profile tribute albums. He and Jennifer Warnes have finished a duet of "Straight From the Heart" for an album of songs by Little Feat's Lowell George. And, for a bow to Parsons being supervised by Emmylou Harris, he and Steve Earle will collaborate on a Flying Burrito Brothers song, "High Fashion Queen."
Hillman is glad to contribute to a musical appreciation of Parsons, who in 1973 died a drug-hastened death, leaving a beautiful corpse--until it was famously spirited away by his friends and, in keeping with Parsons' wishes, cremated in the desert at Joshua Tree. But he can do without the more cultic manifestations of Parsons-worship.
"It's like the Doors. The mystique is blown into this ethereal place. The guy's gone, and all this stuff is created around him."
It's not uncommon for Parsons-Hillman classics such as the oft-covered ballad "Sin City" to be attributed solely to Parsons' genius. (Hillman says the song's memorable refrain, "On the 31st floor, a gold-plated door / Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain," was a tongue-in-cheek poke at a Byrds manager who robbed them.)
"It was a 50-50 deal, lyrically and melodically," Hillman said. "Gram and I were sharing a house in the San Fernando Valley in 1969. That's when we wrote all those songs on the first album ['The Gilded Palace of Sin']. Sometimes it really bothers me that Gram gets all the credit. Then, well, my beautiful wife says, 'You wanna trade places with him?' It's OK. I know what I did."