Look! Down on the page! It’s a Byrd! It’s a Flying Burrito Brother! It’s Chris Hillman.
Named not only for his early-Byrds composition, but for what takes place along the dash between dates of birth and death on a tombstone, Chris Hillman’s Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond is the history of country and rock’s convergence.
As Dwight Yoakum makes clear in his introduction, no artist had more to do with that convergence than Hillman. The product of a troubled Jewish father, a strong, non-Jewish mother and the divided extended family that resulted, Hillman started his musical journey as a bluegrass picker, lied to co-founding Byrds Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark about his ability to play bass – he quickly mastered the instrument – and that fib set Hillman on his way.
Hillman was in many post-Byrds groups, but none for very long – only his Desert Rose Band tenure lasted beyond the half-decade mark. And that group finally has its story told in full.
Still, “Time Between” spends too many of its 315 pages on Hillman’s childhood in California, which he describes as idyllic, and too few on his less-famous bands. These include Souther Hillman Furay, Stephen Stills’ Manassas, Rice, Rice, Hillman and Penderson and various stints with fellow former Byrds.
Despite being a born-again Christian, Hillman is cagey and not altogether honest about his past, writing generically about problems with temper, poor personal decisions, dark places and “trying to get myself sorted out.” He wears his faith on his sleeve but doesn’t proselytize.
He is kind to his still-living former colleagues, Crosby, McGuinn, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, et al., saving his most critical words for the late Gram Parsons, Michael Clarke and Gene Clark. Perhaps these dead compatriots deserve the harsh words, but they are distasteful at times.
But the music is sweet. And Hillman takes readers deep into the Byrds’ evolution from a folk-rock five-piece that quickly began to shed and add members and came out as a country-and-western band with Sweetheart of the Rodeo before Parsons and Hillman decamped for the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Hillman played Altamont with the Burritos and writers graphically about the horrifying experience.
He recalls finding an unknown Emmylou Harris playing in a bar and inviting her to join the band. She, wisely, Hillman says, declined.
He writes about his interactions and collaborations with a who’s-who of country-rock royalty and is particularly kind to Stills, who invited Hillman to join Manassas and has remained forever grateful to him for championing Buffalo Springfield when the Byrds were hot and the Springfield was not.
In the end, “Time Between” is like a country-rock textbook – something students must read even when it lags.
And like the best textbook, “Time Between” is guaranteed to impart new information even to fans who’ve studied Hillman right through 2017’s Tom Petty-produced Bidin’ My Time.