When Chris Hillman, now 65, plays at the 25th annual Tucson Folk Festival, he'll have come full circle, back to the acoustic music of his youth.
Hillman helped create the genre of country rock, giving rise to bands from the Eagles to Alabama. Along the way, he hung out with the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons and many others.
In 1964, Chris Hillman was a handsome mandolin prodigy who had been playing professional bluegrass gigs since he was 17. He was recruited to switch instruments and play bass for a new, unknown Los Angeles group called the Byrds.
"That was a very innocent time," Hillman says today. "Roger McGuinn was great to work with, because he had that sense of responsibility. When we got up and did a show, we were responsible to entertain people. It proceeded to get very edgy and rough, and then you had problems with drugs expanding in the late '60s and beyond."
His thunderous bass line opened the controversial 1966 hit "Eight Miles High." When singer/songwriter Gene Clark quit the band that same year, Hillman became a singer.
But the enduring impact of his youthful love for traditional music was still to come. By 1967, Hillman was also a songwriter, contributing country-tinged tunes like "Have You Seen Her Face" and "Time Between," which featured an uncredited solo by guitarist Clarence White.
In 1968, with David Crosby and drummer Michael Clarke also gone from the Byrds, Hillman and McGuinn began work on a double album planned as one record of country music, and one record of McGuinn's electronica. A session musician from Georgia named Gram Parsons soon changed all that. The electronic album was quickly scrapped. Parsons became a member of the band and helped create rock's seminal salute to country music, the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, with Hillman on bass and mandolin.
Soon after, Hillman and Parsons also left the Byrds to further blur the differences between rock and country in the Flying Burrito Brothers. Much has been written about Parsons, his genius and his demons. It is unlikely he would have achieved as much as he did without Hillman's support as an already-famous musician, band member and even housemate.
Parsons flamed out on fame and drugs, dead before his 27th birthday.
Hillman admits, "I've worked with some great people, and I've worked with some people who I could not help, who are not alive today. Drugs and alcohol became the career. Gram Parsons, what a talented guy he was, but he wasted his life on that. Gene Clark had written so many great songs, but he was his own worst enemy. Michael Clarke had the talent that he could have been one of the finest drummers out there. Unfortunately, they made choices in their lives that were dark and negative."
Hillman played the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival with the Byrds and ill-fated Altamont in 1969 with the Burritos. He also played bass for Stephen Stills' Manassas, and fronted the short-lived Souther-Hillman-Furay Band with Eagles songwriter J. D. Souther, and Buffalo Springfield and Poco founder Richie Furay.
"I don't go backward," Hillman says now. "I don't look over my shoulder and say, 'Well, if only I'd ... .' I used to. Everyone does. But I decided at some point about two or three years ago that everything happened for a reason. Yes, I was presented with choices, and thank God I made the right choices. I never went over into the abyss, so to speak."
Further success came in a straightforward country-rock outfit called the Desert Rose Band, with friend Herb Pedersen and guitarist John Jorgensen. Reaping success from musical seeds sewn two decades before, they had a string of hits beginning in 1987: "Love Reunited," "One Step Forward," "He's Back and I'm Blue" and "I Still Believe in You."
Hillman continues to tour with Pedersen on vocals and banjo. Pedersen's credits also include work with Jerry Garcia, Dave Grisman and Linda Ronstadt.
"I've worked with a lot of wonderful people, and Herb is right up there," Hillman notes. "We've known each other since we were 18 years old. We didn't really work in a band together until Desert Rose in the '80s. He's an incredibly gifted musician and singer. I couldn't ask for a better guy to play music with now."
In addition to headlining the Saturday night Folk Fest show at 9 p.m., Hillman and Pedersen will hold a free singing-and-songwriting workshop Saturday at 1 p.m.
They also have a new album coming out later this year on Rounder Records, called Live at Edwards Barn.
"I think I'm singing better than ever," Hillman states. "It took me a long time to learn how to sing. In the Byrds and the Burrito Brothers, I really wasn't very good. About the time the Desert Rose Band came along, I started to get a grip on it."
Today, Hillman sings in a Greek Orthodox church choir when he's not touring.
"I sing every Sunday when I'm in town in the tenor section of this choir, and I think it's really enhanced me," he says. "It's so different from what I do, which is bluegrass/folk-oriented stuff, and to sing Byzantine liturgical music is really interesting."