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Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen: Old Friends Remain True to Their Roots
Written by Terry Roland

In the late 50's, from San Diego and up to San Francisco, bluegrass and country music were beginning to strike the imaginations of beach hanging teenagers.  In a recent interview from his Ventura home in Southern California, former Byrd, Flying Burrito Brothers and Desert Rose member Chris Hillman laughed and said, "Back then, surfers didn't listen to surf music.  Real surfers listened to bluegrass!" 

At 15, Chris joined The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers. It was a venture that was to change his life. It is rare to a young man at such an early age who can begin working in the studio and learning professional chops. But this he did, which prepared for a future ride forging his way through rock, bluegrass and country history. The Byrds have left an indelible mark on the American musical psyche. With the sound of their jangly 12 electric guitar and letter-perfect harmonies, they sounded the call to folk-rock influencing even The Beatles. The first inklings of country rock were to begin with the band's seminal_Sweethearts of the Rodeo_ album and The Flying Burrito Brothers, the landmark band he founded with Gram Parsons and later included Eagle's founder, Bernie Leadon. Twenty years later Hillman formed the Desert Rose Band, quite possibly the finest mainstream country band of the last 20 years. In this interview, we talk about his history, his love of roots music his faith in Christ.
Herb Pedersen is a true purist of the bluegrass tradition. He played for everyone from Earl Scruggs to The Dillards to John Denver. For his old friend, Chris Hillman, he has become an irreplaceable and dependable sideman and partner. With Chris, he saw his most commercially successful days with The Desert Rose Band, but has never strayed far from his roots.

Herb and Chris remain headliners at bluegrass, country and folk festivals around America. 

CHris Hillman Interview

Hillman: I love old-time and bluegrass music. But before that I was listening to Leadbelly, Blind Willie McTell, Lightnin' Hopkins, Robert Johnson ... really, all of the old acoustic music I could find. 

Roland: What initially brought about your interest in roots music?

Hillman: My mom bought me a Louvin Brothers album in Del Mar at the only record store that carried this kind of music. Their voices, my god, how beautiful. Less than ten years later, I was standing on the stage singing some of those songs with Gram Parsons.

Roland: Herb mentioned a great story. He said that when you were still a teenager, you took a train up north for a mando lesson?

Hillman: There was nobody in the San Diego area that I could find at the time who played mandolin. I took the train from Del Mar to Berkeley [a nine-hour trip] and found Scott Hambly, who had filled in for Roland White in the Kentucky Colonels. He was a great player and was kind enough to give me two days of lessons, which really helped me get started.

Roland: Did the discovery of country music lead to your involvement with the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers?_

Hillman: When I got into bluegrass I was still in high school. Kenny Wertz and Larry Murray, these guys were the best. They were surfers and into bluegrass. If you were a real surfer in those days, you didn't listen to surf music, you listened to bluegrass! [laughs] Their music gave me an appreciation of the older songs, the old Baptist hymns, and the old story-murder songs, the hill songs. I took this with me to the Byrds.

Roland: I heard a story about you borrowing a mando from Ed Douglas back in the '60s. You hocked it and he had to track it down in L.A.

Hillman: Yes, unfortunately this is true. I was starving at the time and did indeed hock the mandolin. The best part was that I lost the pawn shop ticket. Ed did get the mandolin back but that was only one of the many times back then when he wanted to kill me.

Roland: Tell us about the Byrds.

Hillman: You know, we were all folk musicians. We didn't know anything about rock and roll.

Hillman: Were you brought in because of your bluegrass background?

Hillman: No, they needed a bass player so I lied and said I could play. I didn't know anything about the bass! The only bass I'd seen was the stand-up Ed Douglas would play. But the guys didn't know and I learned fast.

Roland: What was your first impression?

Hillman: They were great singers. Roger, Gene, and especially David [Crosby]. He's gotta be the best harmony vocalist alive. But we were all into acoustic music, so there was no blueprint for what we were doing, which is what made it so good. 

Roland: What about Sweetheart of the Rodeo? Did your love for bluegrass and country allow you creative input?

Hillman: Absolutely! I hadn't played mandolin for four years, having put it aside while in the Byrds. In fact, I didn't even own one. The Sweetheart project got me back into playing, which I did on the album. I bought one of John Duffy's old Gibson F-5s in Virginia. Not a very good mandolin but as I said before, it got me going again. This particular mandolin was the one I later used in the Flying Burrito Brothers. It's the instrument Stephen Stills heard me play at a show in Colorado. Later, when he gave me the beautiful Loar in 1972, which I still cherish and play, he said, "That mandolin I heard you play in Colorado sounded so bad I decided you deserved a decent instrument." What an incredible gift from a very kind and generous man.

Roland: So, with the Flying Burrito Brothers you were even better able to use your acoustic/bluegrass and country background?

Hillman: Yes. There was more opportunity. Gram Parsons and I had a good first year up to the __Gilded Palace of Sin__. We were really productive. At that time Gram was focused. He had a real love and knowledge of country music. You know, Buck Owens, Haggard, the Louvin Brothers, all of the great country music of the time. It was the best. But the Burritos were flawed. There were other great bands at the time, like Richie Furay's Poco, who were really tight, but we had this material, these great songs we were writing. Unfortunately, we didn't play well. We were too loose. We had the soul, we just didn't execute it as well as we could have.

Roland:What about Gram Parsons?

Hillman: Oh, man, he was so good. As long as he was on, he was great. He could've been like Dwight Yokum during his time. He just didn't have the discipline. You know, Gram had the trust fund and all of that; Dwight came to L.A. with nothing, and he struggled and worked day jobs until he got it. But, Gram just faded away. We lost him.

Roland: Let's jump ahead to 20 years later and the Desert Rose Band.

Hillman: They're my favorite band. Just a great bunch of guys, each one of them. Herb had a history of being a hired hand or a sideman, but he's the musician who always has your back. He never lets you down. I've had to be the second before in my career, but Desert Rose was my time to bring out my songs, to front the band. But, still, we were all a unit. No one had a personal agenda. We were all there for the music and for each other. By that time I was really working on perfecting my craft and becoming a front man ... and I couldn't have done it without them. They're all stand-up guys. You know, John [Jorgenson] is such an incredible talent. Even so, he'd be the first to help out in little ways during those years and even now. If I needed any help with anything, he'd be there, no questions asked.

Roland: How did last summer's Desert Rose reunion go?

Hillman: You know, it's been 20 years and it seems we were just picking up where we left off. In fact, I told John that I thought we were better than 20 years ago. After the time passed, we had so much maturity - no baggage, no war wounds. It was a really successful reunion. If we'd moved to Nashville, we might have won some of those awards we were nominated for.

Roland: So, you think staying in California made a difference? 

Hillman: Yes, definitely. That's the price we paid. It's always been that way for California country music. Buck Owens talked about it. It took Merle Haggard a long time to be acknowledged.

Roland: Well, Chris, the only other topic I'd like to cover with you is your faith. I understand you've had an interesting journey.

Hillman: Yes, Terry. Its changed. When I grew up my parents took us to church at the usual times, Christmas, Easter, you know. 

I really became a Christian in the early 80's.  I was an Evangelical. I got out of it for a while, but returned to it a few years back and I'm solid now.

Roland: Do you attend a church?

Hillman: Yes. I go to a local Greek Orthodox Church.

Roland: How has this changed your faith?
Hillman: Well, Terry, I feel closer to God through the Eucharist and my own understanding of the Holy Trinity. I know there is a lot of misunderstanding about this. I wish everyone could experience it. But, I'm not in-your-face about it. I would love to see all the churches come together. I think we're looking at some hard times ahead. We're going to need each other. 
Roland: Chris, its been a pleasure.
Hillman: For me too, buddy. 


Roland: Since we're talking about a roots festival of old-time music, who would be your earliest influences?

Pedersen: Well, I got into this in 1960. That's when I became a big fan of old-time music and bluegrass. Before that it was more urban folk like the Kingston Trio, who I saw at the Berkeley [California] music festival. Flatt and Scruggs were there. I became a huge fan. After that I started listening to Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and the Stanley Brothers. I had been playing the banjo in more of the two-finger folk style. After that I learned the bluegrass three-finger-string style.

Roland: How did you get from the San Francisco music scene to Nashville?

Pedersen: It didn't happen right away. I moved to L.A. in '63. I was with the Pine Valley Boys for a year. After they heard me, I joined Vern and Ray. They were playing around Northern California for a while. I learned about country and bluegrass vocals from them. They moved to Nashville in '66, so I stayed with them for a year and a half after that. During that time I was invited by Earl Scruggs to sit in for Lester Flatt for some shows. We played two weeks at the Ash Grove in L.A. Then I was called to replace Doug Dillard in the Dillards. After two years with them, I decided to stay at home to be with my family. It was the early '70s, the era of the singer-songwriter. There was a need for instrumentalists in the sessions with some great people.

Roland: How was that experience?

Pedersen: It was different from what I had been doing. Experimental. I was asked to play banjo, guitars, and vocals.

Roland: You mentioned session work was a time for you to spend with your family.

Pedersen: Yes. When you have young kids and bands like the Dillards were always on the road, I had to make a decision to be there with the kids. After they were in their pre-teens, I went back to playing live. I started out with Jonathan Edwards. Then I was invited to play with John Denver. That is the most extensive touring I've done ... all over the world.

Roland: How did you first meet Chris Hillman?

Pedersen: I think it was around 1963. Bob Stane was having a bluegrass festival at the Ice House in Pasadena. Chris was playing mando with the Golden State Boys. That's how we learned back then. We'd go to an apartment and swap licks. No electronics. Just live music one on one.

Roland: What made you decide to work together?

Pedersen: For years after we met, we played sessions together. In 1984 I joined Dan Fogelberg on during his High Country Snows bluegrass-influenced tour. Chris was on that tour along with John Jorgenson and Bill Bryson. We'd do an acoustic set during the show. This is when Chris and John started talking about forming a band. We did some acoustic shows around town. It was John's idea to take what we were doing, especially Chris' new songs, and plug in. When we went electric, we became the Desert Rose Band.

Roland: Yes, I was there the night Desert Rose first played McCabe's around 1986, along with 150 other people. We felt like that guy in the Sony speakers ad, sitting in front of his speakers with his hair blowing back.

Pedersen: [laughs] It was like that. McCabe's was too small for what we were doing. We needed to be at Santa Monica Civic or someplace like that.

Roland: This may be a bit of a cliché question, but what is the future of bluegrass?

Pederson: I think it will be important to remember what it was, how it was played, how it is understood. A lot of new bands have become one-dimensional. They can tune to every instrument and get all the right sounds, but they lose the dynamics. Once you get the sound right, is it memorable? Chris has said that the songs should stand on their own - you know, stand the test of time. The tradition of bluegrass is about how the music was played in front of people. They would use one microphone and whoever did the solo would move close in ... things like that created more than one dimension in the music. So, the future will depend on how well each generation is able to keep a memory of that and recreate it. This is also something I stress with my guitar and banjo students. It's important to take the song or the technique and make it your own. Put your own mark on it, earn the basics, and then find your own interpretations.

Roland: Do you stay in touch with the older guys you learned so much from?

Pederson: Earl Scruggs is a long time friend. It was such an honor to work with him. He is a great man. Huge. A great figure in American music. Whenever we see each other, it's just like we just talked yesterday and we're picking up where we left off...

Roland: Well, thanks, Herb. I appreciate the opportunity to interview you.
Pedersen: It's been a pleasure.


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