Chris Hillman has pure harmony in his blood. In his new autobiography, Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond (BMG), the veteran bassist/vocalist and country rock pioneer recounts the many ups and down of his six-decades-long career, a good bit of it spent uplifting the melodic fortunes of seminal groups like the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Desert Rose Band before taking flight as a solo artist. The one constant throughline for his remarkable artistic arc is quite simple: the man knows how to harmonize.
“I was always drawn to two-, three-, and four-part harmony. Where did I get that? Bluegrass,” Hillman confirms. After harmonizing with the likes of Vern and Rex Gosdin in the Hillmen and Bernie Leadon in the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, Hillman “wanted to try other things,” which ultimately led to his joining the Byrds as a teenager in October 1964. “The Byrds came along at the perfect time,” Hillman observes. “Of course, I was enamored with the Beatles like everyone else my age. But I’m so blessed I got to be in the Byrds. We didn’t always hit them out of the park, but most of our material has stood the test of time.” (This understatement lands approximately, oh, eight miles high.)
The Byrds initially made their chart-topping bones with electrified, 12-string-Rickenbacker-enhanced covers of some key, folk-centric Bob Dylan tracks—“Mr. Tambourine Man,” “All I Really Want to Do,” and “My Back Pages” (Hillman’s favorite) among them. Thing is, when the band first heard an acetate of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” in August 1964, they found he recorded it in 2/4. “Yeah, it was a mid-tempo, bluegrass-type song,” Hillman recalls, but The Byrds transmogrified it into a signature No. 1 hit in 1965. “Bob loved it! After he heard our version, he said, ‘Man, this is great. You can dance to it!’ Maybe we helped push him into plugging in, I don’t know. But I do think we were, no pun intended, instrumental in getting Bob to go electric. I think he really wanted to do that to expand his sound.” (On numerous occasions, Dylan has cited both the Beatles and the Byrds as helping to influence his then-controversial decision to go electric in the summer of 1965.)
Once the Byrds were effectively grounded, Hillman kept the harmony train a-rolling with Leadon and fellow country-folk icon Gram Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers, most especially through the Everly Brothers-meet-cowboys-on-acid vibes permeating their seminal February 1969 debut album, The Gilded Palace of Sin. “I love the first Burritos album. I wish we had recorded it better, but it’s water down the stream now,” Hillman admits. “That album holds up as a good piece of music—and I’ll tell you why. It’s because of the material. Sonically, we had a phenomenal engineer, Henry Lewy, who was really a jazz guy. But for some weird reason, he mixed our vocals—which were basically a duet between Gram and me—as one voice on one side, and one on the other.”
Lewy’s hard-panned vocals decision would have interesting side effects on other key singers of the era. For example, Hillman recounts when Parsons acolyte and collaborator Emmylou Harris first endeavored to tackle the classic Gilded track “Sin City,” she thought Parsons’ tenor part was the lead, and Hillman’s lead vocal was the melody. Before sitting in with his band a few years ago, Harris told Hillman, “You know, I don’t think I learned to sing this right.”
One clear lesson Hillman learned from decades spent in the recording studio is how to capture the right performance in the moment. “That’s the best thing an engineer or producer can do,” he believes. “You want the finished product to sound as organic and as real as possible. You want it to be so comfortable that you can totally put yourself into it, whether you’re playing the solo, singing, or whatever you’re doing. The music and the sound will come out naturally. The more relaxed I am singing and playing takes care of the sonic part of it. If I’m not comfortable and I’m not doing a good performance, that’ll cancel it out sounding good anyway.”
Some early advice shared by Byrds manager/producer Jim Dickson still holds water to this day. “He said, ‘Go for more substance, and go for more depth. You want to make a record you can be proud of in 40 years,’” Hillman clarifies before rightly concluding, “Boy, was that ever true.” Naturally, we’re all much younger than that now.
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