Fox Tucson Theatre
Desert Rose Band brings acoustic hits to town
Superb country musicians led by former Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman
Chris Hillman was there in the beginning, one of the original Byrds, shaping pop music in the mid-60s. Twenty years later, he was still crafting hits in the Desert Rose Band, one of the top country acts of the late '80s, with hits like “He’s Back and I’m Blue,” “One Step Forward,” “Summer Wind” and “I Still Believe In You.”
Hillman will bring the Desert Rose Band in its acoustic quartet version to the Fox Theatre on Saturday. In addition to Hillman, now a spritely 68, the band includes fellow founding members Herb Pedersen (banjo/guitar), John Jorgensen (lead guitar) and Bill Bryson (bass).
“The only thing that’s different is that we’re not using amplifiers,” said Hillman. “You’ll hear the lyrics better, performed acoustically. I like it myself – I tend to shy away from loud things at this point in my life.”
Hillman, playing guitar and mandolin and accompanied by Pedersen, was the featured headliner at the 2010 Tucson Folk Festival.
“Herb and I work a lot of performing arts centers and theatres like the Fox,” Hillman said. “Those are the kind of places I like to work. Herb is one of my oldest friends in the music business. We get along great and we’ve been all over the world together. I really rely on him because he’s such a professional in how he approaches his job. When I go off into space with some solo, he’s always there on the downbeat to get me back to earth.”
Hillman, Pedersen and Jorgensen formed the Desert Rose Band in 1985. The original band also included Bryson, Jay Dee Maness on pedal steel and Steve Duncan on drums.
“Once in awhile, we do the six-piece band, when it’s feasible,” Hillman said. “Those shows are few and far between, because of the logistics of moving six people around.”
So You Wanna Be A Rock and Roll Star
Over the course of his career, Chris Hillman has played a pivotal role in shaping popular music. As a member of the Byrds, he hung out with the Beatles and Dylan, performed on Ed Sullivan and the Tonight Show and at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.
Today’s country music might never have acquired its rock influences without the Byrd’s seminal “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album in 1968. Led by Hillman and Roger McGuinn’s appreciation of country music and enhanced by their new band member, Gram Parsons, the album opened the flood gates that had previously separated the rock and country genres.
Hillman, along with Parsons, then founded the legendary Flying Burrito Brothers. It was impossible to discern, in 1969, if they were a rock band playing country or a country band playing rock. Without Hillman’s influence, bands from the Eagles to Alabama would have sounded very different.
“This month is 50 years for me,” Hillman said of his professional career in music. “If I was sane, I would ever so gently step away. But I still enjoy it.”
Teenage bluegrass to pop stardom
Hillman began performing as teenager, playing mandolin in bluegrass bands around the San Diego region where he grew up on a ranch. Invited in late 1964 to join an LA band of Beatles-wannabes struggling to find their own sound, he switched to bass guitar.
The Byrds soon figured it out and began a string of hits including “Mr. Tambourine Man, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “My Back Pages.” When original member Gene Clark left, Hillman filled the void, becoming a songwriter and lead singer. Hillman’s strident bass opens the classic, “Eight Miles High.” He cowrote “So You Wanna Be A Rock and Roll Star” with McGuinn, poking fun at the vapid world of pop stardom.
After the ups and downs of working with Parsons, with whom he shared a house, Hillman left the Flying Burrito Brothers to work in Steven Stills’ band, Manassas. In the mid 70s, with former Buffalo Springfield and Poco founder Richey Furay and Eagles songwriter J. D. Souther (now a regular on the TV show “Nashville”), they formed the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band and released two rock albums, before burning out. Hillman then returned to more traditional acoustic music, starting a solo career that continues today.
Hillman co-wrote many of the Desert Rose Band’s hits. Catchy songs, they combine impeccable harmonies with crisp playing. Their style was influenced by the twangy Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens.
“I would bring a song in to the band and John Jorgensen would arrange it,” Hillman said. “He’s a fantastic musician. I would give him a completed song and he would say, ‘Let’s try this.’ It wasn’t a conscious effort to do that Bakersfield thing, but it came out through osmosis, because John would make use of that Fender Telecaster (guitar) sound.
In addition to Desert Rose hits at the concert, look for other songs spanning Hillman’s career.
“I’ll pull gems out of the past, certain songs that I like, that I was lucky enough to be a part of, like ‘The Bells of Rhymney,’ a Pete Seeger song that the Byrds did.”
These days when he’s not playing, Hillman is writing a memoir, with his daughter, an English teacher, as his editor.
“It’s not about music,” he said, commenting that too many rock autobiographies cover the same well-worn ground. “I’m writing about growing up in a little town of about 800 people in Southern California from 1946 to 1960. I’m writing every day. The minute I start writing, I start remembering these little nuances in my life and it was all good, all good stuff.”