Chris Hillman is a rarity among popular music performers – a world-famous rock star (from his work with the Byrds and other rock bands) who has also enjoyed top-of-the-chart success in country, notably with the Desert Rose Band. But for all he has been asked about and has talked about regarding those aspects of his 45 years as a songwriter, musician and singer, what so many still wonder about and ask about most is the period of less than three years when he was out front with the Flying Burrito Brothers – at first, of course, with co-leader and songwriting collaborator Gram Parsons.
In the new book Hot Burritos: The True Story of the Flying Burrito Brothers, a collaboration between Hillman and author John Einarson published by Jawbone Press, Chris addresses those years in detail, pulling no punches about the band’s limitations and the unraveling of what was initially a close working and personal relationship with Parsons. He also takes on, and corrects, a good many myths about the Burritos that have evolved over the years, not least in many of the books about Gram.
I recently spoke with Hillman at some length about the book, the Burrito Brothers’ experience, and the Hillman/Parsons collaboration. The full-length version of that interview will appear in the next edition of the No Depression bookazine, ND #77, due out in the spring on University of Texas Press. We offer, for now, this preview, an appetizer to the main course.
Barry: Through much of Hot Burritos, you and John Einarson are spelling out just how messy the original Burritos lineup’s music could be, live and in the studio, and the opportunities missed; but for all that, near the end, you also say that “the ’68-’69 band with Gram” – the one that made The Gilded Palace Of Sin – “had the magic.” For one thing, there’s a succession of songs on that first LP that can still stun. I’ve seen the strong reaction in your solo shows when you sing “Wheels”, for instance. While the songwriting collaboration with Gram Parsons was working – how did it work? And when it wasn’t, what had happened?
Chris: When it worked, it was really back and forth – lyrically and melodically. We were on the same page; it was almost second-guessing the next line with him, and vice-versa. The true story of “Sin City” – and I’m not patting myself on the back with this – is that I did come up with that first verse, and part of the chorus, and I woke him up. I said, “I really think there’s something interesting here: ‘This old town is filled with sin, I will swallow you in.’” Well, I’d just gone through a divorce, and all of this garbage, and that song really wrote itself. But he came up with the “green mohair suits” stuff, a fascinating line, and then it went off on some abstract thing about being at Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Strip. It was a microcosm of the culture at that particular time. And I tell people at shows that this song was sort of our little chronicle of the time – but it’s relevant right now. And Robert Kennedy, by the way, was the man who ‘came around, tried to clean up this town.’
“Juanita” was a true story about this girl that I met, and “Wheels”, well, Gram had crashed his motorcycle. Everything had something that spurred it. “My Uncle”, Gram gets his draft notice in the mailbox while we’re living in the San Fernando Valley, and we ran in and wrote that one in twenty minutes. I know that Steve Earle’s cut it, to bring that sort of Vietnam-era draft-dodger theme into current events, which actually works quite well.
Barry: How did you first know that this special sort of collaboration was going to be possible?
Chris: The day Gram auditioned for the job in the Byrds, he started doing “Under Your Spell Again”. I went, “Whoa! This guy knows who Buck Owens is!” Nobody in the Byrds knew that – except me, coming out of country music, and I immediately hit the harmony part with him. That was the first moment; that was about something we both connected on.
Gram knew his country music. You’ve gotta remember something; Emmylou Harris, when I first heard her playing in Georgetown, was not singing country music; she was singing folk, like Carolyn Hester, Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez – and Gram gave her a hell of a musical education, a quick course in the 30 or 40% of country that’s good music! I mean, I might have worked with Emmy then, but I didn’t see where she could fit into the Burrito Brothers at the time. So in writing these songs, we had that point of origin that both of us were steeped in.
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo wasn’t my favorite album, but it was a noble experiment. And Gram was the guy who brought stuff to that party – “One Hundred Years From Now” and “Hickory Wind”, two of his greatest tunes, and he sang them. Even with the mixup over legalities of using his vocals, Gram sang those pretty darned good. He always had a bit of a pitch problem, but when he was there emotionally, that overrode any technicalities. He was on the money with those two songs. Roger [McGuinn] and I weren’t writing anything at the time; we were like old, grizzled veterans who’d been hammered and kicked around over four years, and here we were, holding the band together.
Barry: Whatever the limitations were, how do you see the Burritos lasting musical contribution – the real reasons for still talking about that short-lived band?
Chris: Nobody is aware of creating some sort of legacy at the time. You’re doing it, and it’s trial by error; you’re sort of doing something you feel. It’s all heart-driven. It wasn’t a big leap for us to do a country album. With what we did with Sweethearts, and then going right to The Gilded Palace Of Sin, the door was opened for people who were normally rock music FM radio listeners to find this interesting, and then go on to discover more of it. I think those two albums did usher in a greater appreciation of country music – and that was despite all of the country rock that came out of California, some of which I thought was fluffy. But the Burritos were, I thought, the ultimate outlaw soul band. Talk about ‘alternative country’ music; that’s what we were. We started that. If there’s any claim to fame, it’s that we started the alternative movement that you still hear today. There was nobody doing that.
Barry: I was a college DJ in Washington, D.C., in those years, and I’d play those records, and it’s certainly true that not everybody who listened to rock or listened to country got what it was all about. And they’d not always be shy about saying so!
Chris: There was the funny story with Ralph Emery, the DJ in Nashville, where he had The Gilded Palace Of Sin tacked on the wall outside of his office, and with a big red pen it said, ‘This is not country music.’ Roger and Gram had gone to do an interview with him when we were all still with the Byrds, and Ralph was such a jerk to them then that they wrote that song “Drug Store Truck Driving Man”. A classic! I wish I’d written a part of that. But later, whenever I’d go on his show with the Desert Rose Band, Ralph would ask, “Did you write that song?” Finally, I had to say, “No, but I wish I had!” So when Roger was on later, Ralph would say, “Well, how is Gram doing?” and Roger would answer, “He’s still dead.” McGuinn was pretty darned quick in those situations!