American Routes Shortcuts: Chris Hillman
Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers co-founder Chris Hillman is a musician, singer, songwriter, and author. A third-generation Californian, Hillman grew up hearing Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, all on his parents’ hi-fi. He discovered bluegrass and picked up mandolin by way of Bill Monroe and the New Lost City Ramblers. At seventeen Hillman joined his first band, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, a bluegrass group that included Eagles’ guitarist Bernie Leadon. He later played with the Golden State Boys, the resident bluegrass band for Los Angeles television’s Cal’s Corral, which became the Hillmen. I spoke to Chris Hillman over Zoom, where he told me how he was recruited to play bass for the Byrds at a studio rehearsal in L.A.
Chris Hillman: Going in on the first night and hearing Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark and David Crosby sing, I went, “Ah.” They had it. So I finally met them all when I got the phone call, “Can you play the bass?” I hadn’t even picked up a bass. And I had heard them sing, Nick, and I went, “Yeah, I can handle that.” I knew there was something gonna happen.
Nick Spitzer: Where did you get the harmonies? It seems to kind of fit the folk revival, but of course it’s kind of folk rock, I mean that’s a new genre.
CH: I got to tell you, and I’ve got to give credit to Crosby. Crosby was an incredible singer. David was in glee club. David Crosby, who gets into mischief every twenty minutes, but he was such a great singer.
NS: So as things evolve, we next find the band all perched on a carpet, and the record is called Fifth Dimension, and the song “5D” is sort of an existential survey of the psychedelic mind.
CH: That was Roger’s, and it was pretty interesting. “Scientific delirium madness,” I mean he–I love that song. I think I really liked it because of the groove, that big sweeping waltz, you know, and David comes at the end–
NS: David Crosby.
CH: “How is it that I could come out to here,” and oh man, it smokes. He gets that high harmony.
NS: Of course, the song that most people remember is “Eight Miles High,” and I mean your bass playing on that is so muscular. You were a damn good bass player on that song among many others.
CH: “Eight Miles High” was–I loved that song, and I seriously still love it. That was totally influenced by John Coltrane because we would listen to John Coltrane when we would be on the road. I think I borrowed that bass line [sings bass line] from Coltrane did a song “A Love Supreme.”
CH: And it says “Eight miles high,” which I guess he did his homework because it was about flying, but we changed it from–seven miles high was sort of the equivalent to the altitude a 707 would fly in 1965. “Seven miles high” didn’t work, so we went to “eight miles high.”
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