Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen Album Revisits Two Stellar Careers
Two men whose careers span more than five decades of popular music — Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen — chose a rather unlikely setting in which to record their latest album. While Chris’ resume includes the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Herb’s work as a musician has spanned as many genre lines as decades, the careers of the two first intersected when they formed two-thirds of the Desert Rose Band. Their new collaboration, ‘At Edwards Barn,’ includes live versions of 15 tunes that barely touch on the extensive contributions each has made to the music scene in America. However, it seemed a fitting spot for Herb and Chris to do a benefit show for a local church and to record a live retrospective.
Chris lives in his native California, where he continues to find inspiration for his music. “I do still write a lot,” he tells The Boot. “On the new album there are a couple new songs. Much of this live album that Herb and I did covers a lot of my life and career, so we did a couple Byrds songs, including ‘Turn, Turn, Turn,’ which I have not recorded since 1966. We also did ‘Have You Seen Her Face,’ which I always wanted to do again because I didn’t do it good enough in ’67. There are also a couple Flying Burrito Brothers songs and a few from the Desert Rose Band. We have Bill Bryson playing bass, Larry Parks on acoustic guitar and David Mansfield playing fiddle. The songs run through a 40-year history of my music. Herb does ‘Wait a Minute,’ a beautiful song he wrote.”
Other tunes on the disc range from the Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’ to ‘Tu Cancion’ and the Desert Rose Band’s ‘Love Reunited.’ The Chris/Gram Parsons co-write ‘Wheels’ and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Sin City’ find their way into the lineup. Recorded side by side with the standards are a few new tunes, co-written by Chris and frequent writing partner Steve Hill, ‘Our Savior’s Hands,’ ‘The Cowboy Way’ and ‘Heaven’s Lullaby.’ They also cover the Buck Owens hit, ‘Together Again.’
While Chris helped develop the genre of music known as country rock and furthered country music with a rock beat on the West Coast, Pedersen found his niche playing with musicians including David Grisman and the late Jerry Garcia as well as contributing music to TV shows including ‘The Rockford Files,’ ‘The Simpsons’ and movies such as ‘Maverick’ and ‘Smokey and the Bandit.’
Although no one is keeping count on how many times they have performed these songs, Herb, Chris and their compadres manage to reintroduce the listener to them as if they were fresh and new. Chris says the reason for this could be he feels more comfortable recording a live album than one in a studio.
“In the studio you have to create in your mind the environment of playing in front of people,” he explains. “Live you get instant gratification from the audience and that propels you into greater things. One of my favorite Burrito Brothers albums, ‘Last of the Red Hot Burritos,’ was a live album and last one I was on. There was a feeling on that album that translates right over the speakers, and that’s what you want to get. It’s what you aim for and hope for in the studio. I like doing things live, spontaneously, just going for it. I still make mistakes, but you always can fix them if they’re really bad. Sometimes you’re the only one who hears it.”
Chris, who is a member of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, has been playing music for nearly 50 years. While he is often referred to as an icon, he respectfully disagrees with that title.
“I always look at icons in a religious sense; that’s like saying genius and throwing that word around,” he says. “I don’t think of myself that way but I like mentoring as a means of giving back to people. I give mandolin lessons to a couple young boys in town for free. They are both incredible players, one is 15 and the other boy is 23, and I give lessons to a retired lady marine. I just do it to give back.
“Herb and I go down to this place, Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch, and we teach there at guitar camp for two or three days. I love it, I love to teach. The other thing I do is a lecture performance. I did one at the Library of Congress last October. Getting up and talking about my life and playing a few tunes, and telling how they related to a certain time in my life. I’ve got a writer’s symposium to do at the University of San Diego in February. I can’t teach anyone how to write songs but I can teach them what to avoid. I’ve got 45 years under my belt in music and I look to that when I teach.”
Chris says he has been told he should write a book, but his answer is, “I’m not done yet. I don’t have the story where I went to jail, went to rehab. My story is normal. The guy who said I should write the book said ‘That’s the point, that’s the angle. You did it the right way.’
“I think kids need role models,” Chris continues. “When I was growing up, I looked at sports figures like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, or all the cowboy guys like Hopalong Cassidy. They were unbelievable role models. They were telling kids be honest, work hard, treat your family and everyone you meet with respect, never bully. It was wonderful. I see what’s going on, I see the media, I see awfully bad messages out there. I don’t know if you can legislate morality; it’s all choices. I think back to how I was raised. That’s why I survived a very crazy, tumultuous business. I survived because of what I learned from my parents. I had to say ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘yes sir’ to adults, and I worked for things. You fix the family in this society, this culture, and you are eliminating 80 percent of our problems.”
Chris isn’t worried that music is going to die, as some people are predicting. “It’s just different, it’s similar to when we went from 78s to 33s. You adapted to a different marketing approach. Yes there are tons of singer-songwriters now but it’s not going to die. Obviously we’ve come to the point where we’re evolving in the business sense and it’s downloads versus album sales.
“Is the music going away? No, there will always be music; it’s part of the human condition. The only problem I have, and I used to tell my kids this, during the Byrds and Beatles, when rock ‘n roll really took off, even with Elvis, nobody ever wrote obscene lyrics. You implied things in ever so subtle ways and left it to the listener or reader to translate it their own way. We never wrote offensive lyrics, violence against women …. that’s the only part of music I object to today. But music will never go way — no, of course not.”
Chris says he’s constantly asked by younger and aspiring musicians and singer-songwriters, “Do you have any advice for me and my band?” “I tell them, ‘Yes, play music and get a four-year degree in something you like. Don’t stop playing music, enjoy it, play where you can, and if you get paid that’s an extra attraction. Play free and if something comes along and you hit the jackpot, and have success, that’s great. Otherwise, you’ll always have something to fall back on, as opposed to when I started in 1963. I didn’t think I’d make money, but I had a passion for music. But back then you could find work, and you could get into college. It was a smaller arena back then. Today there are a lot of kids out there, who have learning tools that we couldn’t imagine. I can remember I would slow down the record to learn a mandolin part or something, when I was learning to play. We’ll always have music, but God knows what form it will take. You can’t beat a beautiful lyric with beautiful music sung by a great singer.”
The singer says he loves all kind of music. He admits that he’s been listening to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, two of his parents’ favorites. He still loves the old country music and bluegrass. “As much as I’ve heard ‘Jambalaya’ by Hank Williams, there’s always something I miss. Everything he did was so great. I just rediscovered him, after listening for 45 years. I love the old country stuff, the old Ray Price. What a great singer! To this day he’s still good. He still has it. He was such an innovator, and Buck Owens took that whole shuffle beat and made it a little snappier because he was playing for people who wanted to dance.
“I love old bluegrass too. I respect this new bluegrass that’s out there. I look at them and think I could never get near that. But to me I don’t hear the songs. The old bluegrass was so soulful: old Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. I’m stuck in my youthful love for all that music. I think it was awfully good. They didn’t have all that fancy stuff, no effects. The Byrds cut eight-track analog, the Beatles cut four-track, all reel to reel tape. It was all about getting that performance. Some of the greatest music I ever heard was played on the worst instruments, but this guy played some of the most unbelievable things. It really was the artistry of it all.”
‘At Edwards Barn’ is in stores now. The music was recorded almost a year ago, on November 7, 2009, at the Southern California location, which Chris says was chosen for its wonderful acoustics. Chris and Herb are playing a few select dates this fall, beginning October 2 in Poway, California.