The other Burrito Brother 

Country legend finds his peace beyond Brother's shadow

"Each day is a blessing. They're not always wonderful, but I appreciate each one," declares the 62-year-old Chris Hillman. "I'm lucky to still be here and to get to do what I love to do." Humble but thankful words from a man who was so instrumental in creating the genre of country-rock, and who has proven a success in every single musical endeavor he's attempted.

It's a résumé that elicits awe. From the seminal West Coast bluegrass work of the Hillmen, with the Gosdin brothers; a stint with the Byrds during the tumultuous '60s; through the formation of the Flying Burrito Brothers, with the late Gram Parsons; and then on to incredible country-music-chart success with the Desert Rose Band, Hillman has definitely earned his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and beyond, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association in 2004.

While Hillman may not have the broad public recognition and cult status of his late Burrito Brother Gram Parsons, it is obvious that Hillman has had as much or more of an impact on the state of music than Parsons. "Gram certainly had moments of brilliance, and we lost him way soon," Hillman acknowledges. "But if you listen to the Byrds' albums we did just before Sweethearts Of The Rodeo, there are some country-rock songs on them, like 'Time Between.'"

Hillman's stint with the Byrds gave him the confidence he needed to stretch. Their eventual entrance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was well-deserved and Hillman is very proud of that accomplishment. "While every band I have been in has its special moments, I will always be an ex-Byrd, no matter what else."

Hillman's next project with Parsons was the legendary Flying Burrito Brothers, the band given the most credit for creating and defining the country-rock genre. Today, the Burritos are revered, but according to Hillman, "we were too country to get on the rock radio stations, and too rock to get on the country stations." Hillman held the Burritos together for a while after Parsons' departure and untimely death, but it was soon time to move on. When the Burritos' pedal steel player, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, passed from Alzheimer's in January 2007, it was a blow to Hillman. "Sneaky Pete was one of a kind and a wonderful person. I spoke to him in 2006, but his memory was fading. As much as it sounds like a cliché, he is in a better place now."

In the mid-'70s, Hillman sort of drifted from project to project -- Manassas with Stephen Stills, the contrived Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, and back to the Byrds for a while. But eventually he dropped out of the national scene. A chance meeting with Barry Poss, owner of Sugar Hill Records, got Hillman back to his original bluegrass roots and, along with old friend Herb Pedersen, he recorded a couple of well-received albums for the label. A brief acoustic tour ensued and from there Hillman created the Desert Rose Band with Pedersen and guitarist John Jorgensen in 1985.

"Of all my projects, I am most proud of Desert Rose, because I was basically the leader of the band for the first time. I wrote a lot of the material, and we were very successful on the country charts and radio. Everything before that was an apprenticeship," he laughs. "I was in that band for a great eight-year run, but when the radio hits stopped coming we folded and parted friends. And after 35 years on the road, I wanted to slow down a bit and spend some time with my family. Now I consider myself semi-retired, but Herb and I still record now and then, still tour when we want to and it's so much more fun because there is no pressure. Each day is a blessing."

music@creativeloafing.com

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