The Quiet Byrd Tells His Story (book review)

Time Between – My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond – Chris Hillman (BMG Books)

He had a hand in the formation of both folk rock and country rock – a quiet bass player gives his story

Chris Hillman isn’t exactly a household name.  Yet, he’s managed to have both commercial success and critical acclaim throughout 60 years in the business. And, he’s done so in varied genres, from bluegrass to rock to country, all the while, keeping company with some of the finest musicians around.  His new autobiography, Time Between, chronicles Hillman’s life in music, and makes a strong case for him to be considered a true pioneer.

Hillman eschewed the typical route of teaming with a co-author and penned the book entirely himself.  Because of this, his story is told in a matter-of-fact way that avoids the salacious exaggerations and instead focuses on the things Hillman actually remembers.  Drug use?  If he did it, he sidesteps most of it by saying things like “we had a good time that night,” leaving things open to interpretation.  Women? One would insist that he must’ve had numerous ladies come in and out of his life over the years.  Yet, the only female he talks about romantically is his current wife, Connie, whom he married in 1979.

The first few chapters deal with his early life.  He lost his father at 16 (I’ll leave that story for the book) and this absence created anger that Hillman spent most of his life dealing with.  If there’s one thing we learn from Time Between it’s that Hillman had a knack for finding talented people to surround himself with, whether it be country star Vern Gosdin or future Eagle Bernie Leadon, or future Firefall leader Rick Roberts.

The next few sections deal with his time in the hugely-influential band, the Byrds.  Honestly, there aren’t a lot of “a ha” moments here.  If you’re familiar with the band’s story, you know that Hillman was asked to join the band even though he had never played bass before.  Also, I think history has a way of softening things over time.  Hillman remembers the recording session for “Mr. Tambourine Man,” basically saying that no one minded that they weren’t allowed to play their own instruments. In hindsight, it’s easy to say that having members of the famed “Wrecking Crew” play on their song was an honor, but I bet back in the day, it pissed the guys off.

You also don’t get much new insight into the guys in the Byrds – David Crosby several times sabotages things and comes off as an ass (no surprise there), while Gene Clark and Michael Clarke both are portrayed as guys that liked to party (both of their lives were cut short due to substance abuse).

He does credit himself for introducing the legendary Gram Parsons to the rest of the band.  That pairing only lasted a few months and yielded the stellar Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, but the effects can still be felt today.  There’s a great story of how the Byrds were badly treated on their one appearance on the Grand Ole Opry.

More interesting is how Hillman chronicles he and Parsons’ departure from the Byrds and subsequent teaming as the Flying Burrito Brothers.  Like a lot of bands, things started out with a great deal of promise, but soon fell to pieces, largely due to Parsons penchant for partying, and the fact that the world wasn’t quite ready for “country rock” in 1969 (The Eagles would sweeten and slick it up and achieve superstardom, just a few years later).

During this time, Hillman was joined by first Leadon and then Rick Roberts in the Burritos.  Leadon would go on to form the original Eagles with Don Henley & Glenn Frey, while Roberts took Byrd drummer Michael Clarke and formed the soft-rock outfit Firefall.

An interesting chapter deals with Hillman’s time in a Stephen Stills’ supergroup project called Manassas.  This short-lived outfit was an attempt to tackle everything from rock to country to bluegrass, soul and even Latin. The two albums the band put out are extremely underrated. 

The real surprise in the book was the unlikely success of the Desert Rose Band, a group Hillman assembled that ended up placing eight singles in the country Top 10 and earning a bevy of awards along the way, during the 1980’s and early 90’s.  For the first time, the once-shy Hillman led the band and wrote a lot of their material.

Several times in the book, Hillman says “it was all about the music” and by the end, you start to believe him.  He never chased trends (quite often, he ran from them, thus creating new ones) and never seemed interested in “cashing in.”  The most compromising thing he seemed to do was reunite with his former Byrd mates in several different incarnations over the years.  Even when he did achieve commercial success in the Desert Rose Band, he did it on his own terms.

Although the Eagles successfully blended country and rock together, Chris Hillman did it first.  His uncanny ability to jump back and forth between both genres set him above his peers.  Time Between is an honest look at an under-appreciated pioneer of modern country music.  –Tony Peters