The bluegrass is always greener
Chris Hillman returns to his favoured genre after a 50-year cycle, writes Michael Dwyer.
Chris Hillman returns to his favoured genre after a 50-year cycle, writes Michael Dwyer. ONE of the greatest stories in American music begins like this: ''In the autumn of 1964, a 19-year-old bluegrass-adept and mandolin virtuoso named Chris Hillman stood at the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Kirkwood Drive contemplating a 'For rent' sign on a telephone pole.''The vacancy to which Michael Walker alludes in his 2006 book, Laurel Canyon, was at the crossroads of folk and rock'n'roll. The band Hillman was about to join would change the course of popular music by treating young Bob Dylan's freewheeling American poetry to the incoming jangle and harmony of the Beatles.''I love that he used the word virtuoso,'' Hillman says with a chuckle, though he feels bound to correct one detail in Walker's soft-focus scene.''I was actually contemplating that sign after I joined the Byrds. It was right after our first tour, in '65, when I began to make a little money. When I was playing bluegrass I was living down in West Hollywood - starving.''Hillman will doubtless be adequately fed in Australia this month but in other respects, his first trip here since '78 illustrates a big circle closing, the mandolin back in his hands and fellow folk veteran Herb Pedersen by his side.''The Byrds weren't rock'n'roll guys,'' he says. ''We were kinda like your Seekers ? folkies who took it a step further.''We did the Dylan material, which suited us well at the time, then we moved on to [psychedelic] things like Eight Miles High and then to country'' - notably with Gram Parsons on the classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo album.With Pedersen, Hillman continued the back-to-roots cycle with the Desert Rose Band in the '80s, a bold precursor to the new country and alt-country waves nobody saw coming.''All along I did what I was comfortable doing, which was to play the music I enjoyed and try to stretch the parameters a bit. Country and bluegrass and folk were my foundation,'' he says. ''So back to square one with Herb? Absolutely.''It is a neat 50 years since Hillman declared his first passion on an album called Bluegrass Favourites by the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers - a band that also included future Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon.''It's probably one of my better records,'' he says of that '62 rarity today. ''We did it in four hours and we each got paid $10. I think it's good because it was so in the moment. We were just a bunch of kids, really going for it, without any thought.''The thinking came later, when an industry exploded in the wake of Beatlemania. The Byrds had a hit with one of the first songs to criticise that development. Hillman says he and Jim McGuinn wrote So You Want to be a Rock'n'Roll Star in response to TV-fabricated pop sensation the Monkees.''Here we are, jaded already at 23, 24 years old,'' he says with a dry laugh. ''Those Laurel Canyon days were great. I have a real fondness for that era, 'til about '68. Musically, it was wonderful and there was this great innocence, an idyllic view of the world. After that, everything got a little ? edgy.''Walker's book tells that story as well as any: peace, love and pipedreams annihilated by porn, cocaine and the Manson family. Hillman's personal dream turned sour as he watched the tragic self-destruction of Parsons, his ''brother'' in country-rock through the last incarnation of the Byrds and the briefly blazing Flying Burrito Brothers.''I don't hold any bitter memories about Gram because I feel like I had the best part of his life,'' he says. ''[The Burritos] were sloppy, we were lazy but we had soul, a great feel for the music. It was towards the end of the second album that we lost it. Gram got himself another mistress, so to speak.''As the drugs and the ideas men took over in the '70s, Hillman gradually sought to distance himself from the machine. He is less than effusive about his years with Stephen Stills' band Manassas and the short-lived Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, label boss David Geffen's attempt to clone the Crosby, Stills & Nash cash cow.As it happens, that battle-scarred trio will return to pack Australia's big theatres only days after Hillman and Pedersen's more modest lap of folk tents and pubs. David Crosby was, of course, another original member of the Byrds.But would the reborn folkie trade places with his eternal rock star buddy if he could?''No,'' Hillman says. ''David and Graham [Nash] are very close. But I think the three of them [tour] because it is a very well-paying vocation. I'm being diplomatic here. Stephen is a different kind of guy. I respect him. But he's a difficult fellow to work with.''Moreover, he adds: ''I sat in with them at one concert three or four years ago and, my god, it was so loud. I'm used to getting up there and hearing myself.''I find now that I really love playing ? in some ways more than at the highest points in my career. And I'll tell you why ? I love the challenge of going up there and miking up the instruments: two people, two instruments, with the object to expand that dimensionally. That's what we do.''We don't just get up there and do a set of bluegrass or gospel songs. We do all kinds of stuff, covering the whole gamut of our careers. And I find that challenging.''Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen play the Port Fairy Folk Festival on March 9-12; the Caravan Music Club March 17; and the Burke & Wills Winery, Mia Mia, March 18.