The phone rings and rings and finally a man answers: "Hillman's laundry." I have finally tracked down Chris Hillman in a laundromat in Pittsfield, Mass., and we're both laughing at his rather self-effacing introduction.
If nothing else, Hillman's greeting proves that after 20 years on the pop music roller coaster, the man still has a sense of humor. It also proves that after being in some of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful bands of the past two decades, including the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas and the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, Hillman has not escaped one of the more mundane rituals of road life -- namely, laundry.
Hillman is now fronting his own acoustic group and playing at the small clubs and festivals that constitute the bluegrass circuit. Friday he opens for and plays with Dan Fogelberg at the Merriweather Post Pavilion. If that seems like a career plunge in light of the Byrds' status as one of the '60s' most influential bands, Hillman doesn't share the view.
"It's taken me a long while to realize I've always been more comfortable in a country format," he explains. "I feel rather blessed to continue to work in this business. I certainly don't take what I do for granted. The music business is a lot like professional sports. If you're lucky enough to make the team or get a hit record, you might have a shelf life of six or seven years. For 20 years I've been able to get a job, pay my bills and even get some acclaim."
If there's a musical thread to Hillman's career, it is country and folk music. He brought his love and knowledge of these traditions to the two rock groups he helped found, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. These groups remain the pioneering bands in the folk-rock and country-rock styles of the '60s.
"I was raised in a rural area of Southern California," Hillman begins. "I became infatuated with country music after watching the local TV shows in the '50s and seeing people like Spade Cooley and Cliffie Stone. I really got interested in the Weavers and Pete Seeger when I was in junior high and I started to listen to the New Lost City Ramblers. Then I heard Flatt and Scruggs, which opened me up to this wonderful, highly charged improvisational music called bluegrass. I liked the energy. It was fast and exciting, and I took up the mandolin."
In 1963 Hillman joined one of California's first bluegrass groups, the Golden State Boys, which included current country star Vern Gosdin and Don Parmley, now of the Blue Grass Cardinals. They recorded one classic album as the Hillmen before Hillman left to join a group of ex-folkies determined to fuse the styles of the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
"I never really considered the Byrds to be a rock band," says Hillman. "We weren't teen-agers coming out of a garage trying to play rock 'n' roll. Like the Lovin' Spoonful or the Buffalo Springfield, we were all guys out of the folk music boom of the early '60s. The five Byrds were strange individuals to put together in a group, but we were able to mold our influences into a sound. Once we got the 12-string guitar and three-part harmonies down, the folk-rock thing, we started to experiment. We were listening to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ravi Shankar and other stuff. Roger McGuinn was an innovator."
From 1965 to 1968, the Byrds released some of the most adventurous progressive rock of the era. In 1968 Gram Parsons joined the band, and with their "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" album the Byrds made a bold move into country music. Parsons and Hillman then left to form an even more overtly country band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, who were the first to seriously bridge country and rock. Not surprisingly, Hillman takes some offense at the fact that Parsons, who died in 1973, still receives credit as the country-rock pioneer.
"Actually, before Gram was in the Byrds," he says, "we were doing country. On 'Younger than Yesterday' we had country songs, and I had brought in Clarence White to play guitar. Having Gram in the band was like having an ally. We badgered McGuinn into doing 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo.'"
After leaving the Burritos, Hillman moved through a number of bands in the '70s, including Stephen Stills' Manassas, the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band and McGuinn-Hillman-Clark, as well as recording solo. In 1980 he was out of work when opportunity knocked.
"Sugar Hill Records had just bought the masters to the Hillmen album we made in 1963. I was talking to the label president and I said, 'Boy, I'd like to make an acoustic LP,' and he said, 'When do you want to start?' That got me going. Capitol had dropped McGuinn and me in 1980, and I took 1981 off to try to figure out what I was going to do at age 40. I couldn't do rock 'n' roll. Sugar Hill gave me a chance, and we did the 'Morning Sky' album. It rejuvenated me."
So, after 20 years, Hillman came full circle back to country and bluegrass. He recently released his second Sugar Hill album, "Desert Rose," which despite limited distribution has received critical acclaim and charted two country singles.
"I love the fact that I'm still working in bluegrass," Hillman says, "although I don't consider myself a bluegrass musician. I consider myself -- and I hate this term -- a country-rock musician. I'm working acoustically now, but I will be making another electric album. The bottom line is, I don't think I've peaked."