Chris Hillman – The Asylum Years (review)

First time on CD for a pair of underrated solo albums from the ex-Byrd

Chris Hillman was a late-bloomer. He began as the bassist, and occasional vocalist for the seminal 60’s band, the Byrds. Yet, his early songs sounded tentative, and video footage of him from that time period revealed an uncomfortable rockstar. Who could’ve guessed that much bigger success for him lurked right around the corner?

Eventually, Hillman would help found the groundbreaking country-rock outfit the Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons, team with Stephen Stills in the genre-bending Manassas, and hit well-deserved success in the early Eighties with the country combo the Desert Rose Band. The Asylum Years, a new disc from Omnivore Recordings, fills a gap in that story, making available for the first time on CD and digital formats, two forgotten solo albums Hillman recorded in the late Seventies, Slippin’ Away and Clear Sailin’.

Hillman’s solo debut, Slippin’ Away (1976), is the best of the pair, and is augmented by a dizzying array of guest musicians – the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon, session aces Jim Gordon & Lee Sklar, even Stax guitarist Steve Cropper lays down some tasty licks on a few tracks. The harmonies are helped by the addition of Rick Roberts, who would soon go on to form Firefall.

The biggest surprise is Hillman’s voice – relaxed and full of confidence.

Really, Slippin’ Away is a fantastic, lost California rock album – complete with tracks that echo everyone from the Eagles (the very Glenn Frey rocker “Take it on the Run”) to Jackson Browne (the piano ballad “Blue Morning”). “Falling Again” is a decent mid-tempo rocker with an odd synthesizer solo (courtesy of Albhy Galuten, best known as the producer of Saturday Night Fever).

“Witching Hour” is a Stephen Stills composition that was originally cut for, but left off the first Manassas record. Here, Hillman bests the original with a smooth vocal and excellent slide work from Donnie Dacus, reminiscent of Joe Walsh. “Midnight Again” is another great rocker featuring Cropper on guitar. The album closes with “(Take Me in Your) Lifeboat,” a traditional bluegrass number with fantastic harmonies.

Hillman followed up a year later with Clear Sailin’ (1977), which benefitted from a steady band throughout the entire record. Yet, the production is more slick and the songs are maybe just a tad down in quality. Things get off to a good start with the Fifties’ throwback, “Nothing Gets Through,” which features a honking sax. “Fallen Favorite” is the kind of midtempo, countryfied pop that he would soon perfect in the Desert Rose Band.

Hillman outdoes Danny O’Keefe’s ode to divorce,“Quits,” with a passioned vocal and a great fiddle accompaniment. It’s definitely the highlight of the second record. Much of the album features multi-part harmonies thanks to a very young Richard Marx and a pre-Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmidt. The ballad, “Heartbreaker,” would later be recorded as a hit single by Dolly Parton.

Not everything here works – “Playing the Fool” suffers from slick production and (gasp!) a disco beat. A synth-heavy reading of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” is another misstep.

The moody “Rollin’ & Tumblin’” (not the old blues song) has some nice guitar work from John Brennan, while the album ends on a positive note with the gorgeous harmonies of “Clear Sailin’”

If you enjoy the California rock of the Eagles, and Jackson Browne, The Asylum Years will fit nicely into your collection. —Tony Peters