Just a week after several of the highest-profile members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame gathered in New York for the hall’s 25th anniversary blowout concerts at Madison Square Garden, another member of that elite pack was setting up in a very different environment.
Without an ounce of hoopla, Chris Hillman, who was inducted into the Rock Hall in 1991 as a founding member of the Byrds, slipped the strap for his mandolin over his shoulder Saturday night, stepped up to a makeshift stage for a church benefit concert. The location? A barn alongside a quiet road in this rural town just north of Santa Maria, 3,000 miles and a world away from the glitzy Madison Square Garden event.
“Here’s one the Byrds did in 1965,” Hillman, 64, told the sellout crowd of about 200 onlookers, mostly contemporaries in their 50s and 60s but with a smattering of younger listeners. “This is the first song that ever made the Top 40 that came straight out of the Bible.”
With that, he launched into “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” the song in which folk music icon Pete Seeger set scriptural passages from Ecclesiastes to music and which the Byrds then transformed into a bona fide hit single more than four decades ago.
This is life for a onetime rock star at the end of the rainbow opposite the one that terminates in a pot of gold. While former bandmate David Crosby still plays huge amphitheaters and sports arenas in the company of rock-star buddies Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and, occasionally, Neil Young, Hillman has made a comfortable living away from the bright lights of pop stardom, traveling a life path more focused on musical inspiration and exploration than remuneration.
So he continues to record and play live periodically, usually in the company of the man on his left on Saturday, guitarist-banjo player-singer Herb Pedersen. They prefer playing in community theaters and for special events like this one, a fundraiser for the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Santa Maria. Proceeds from about $14,000 in ticket sales plus money from a silent auction will go to the church’s building fund and to its efforts supporting a home for the elderly in Adwa, Ethiopia.
It’s the third year Hillman and Pedersen have donated a night of music to aid the church. This time, they decided to piggyback recording of a live album out of their two sets, for which they drafted fiddler David Mansfield, guitarist Larry Park and bassist Bill Bryson.
“For someone my age who has come through 47 years in the music business, what are your options?” Hillman, 64, said in an interview a few days before Saturday’s recording session. “Unless you’re Bruce Springsteen or somebody on that level, you make your own album: You pay for it and try to sell it. At a time like this, when there are fewer and fewer retail outlets, that usually means at your shows or on your website.”
In this case, Hillman has the help of Rounder Records, which is underwriting the recording and plans to release the live album next year. They chose this venue, Edwards Barn, as the site of the recording because of its exceptional acoustics. A rented truck outfitted with a small battery of digital recording equipment sat just outside.
“This place has such great ambience,” Hillman said a few minutes before starting the performance. “It has lots of lights and it’s not a bar.”
He and Pedersen were so taken by the sound in the room from the first time they played there that they instantly knew they wanted to record a live album there one day.
“We started doing this [benefit] a few years ago,” said Pedersen, drawing himself a cup of coffee from one of the metal urns at the back of the room shortly before the show began. “Then we were playing a show in Massachusetts and Ken Irwin of Rounder Records was there. It was just Chris and me, doing a little workshop. He said, ‘What are you guys doing here?’ After he heard us, he said, ‘I’d love to get a live record of this sometime.’ So here we are.”
Hillman’s set list for the occasion not surprisingly leaned on spiritually attuned songs, including old gospel tunes and originals, many of them written with Steve Hill, a Texas transplant to California who has been collaborating with Hillman since moving here in 1980 and who watched the performance from one of the round tables just a few feet from the stage.
After Hillman introduced their song “Our Savior’s Hands,” Hill leaned over to a reporter seated next to him and whispered, “I think that’s the best song we’ve written.”
That roster would include songs the pair wrote for the Desert Rose Band, the country group Hillman and Pedersen formed in the 1980s and one of a long string of Southern California country-rock acts in which Hillman has spent the bulk of his professional life.
The performance also tacitly spoke to the rich history of Southern California rock and country music through the L.A. native’s own songs and the inclusion of the likes of “Together Again,” the classic by West Coast country pioneer Buck Owens, whom Hillman called “our old pal [and] mentor, an unbelievably innovative musician without whom there wouldn’t have been the Byrds, the Burrito Brothers, the Dillards or so many others.”
It was out of the Byrds that Hillman and the late Gram Parsons -- the influential but under-sung musician -- started the Flying Burrito Brothers.
From there, Hillman moved on to the Souther-Hillman-Furay band with fellow singer-songwriters J.D. Souther and Richie Furay; then McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, a short-lived ensemble with his two other former Byrds bandmates Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark (“Sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it?” Hillman quipped recently.)
He touched on the music of several of them on Saturday, offering his inventive bluegrass adaptation of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” from a recent album with Pedersen, as well as one of the signature Burrito Brothers numbers he wrote in 1969 with Parsons, “Wheels.”
The latter expresses a yearning for freedom with youthful bravado in a refrain that boasts, “We’re not afraid to ride / We’re not afraid to die.”
Parsons carried that statement to its conclusion in his live-fast, die-young life. He was just 26 when he died, but not before helping create a template for a hybrid of country and rock music still in use today by countless alt-country and Americana musicians.
As another key architect of that genre, Chris Hillman has carved out a career path that serves as a coda to the “not afraid to die / born to run” manifesto of youth, a potential blueprint for musicians who are not afraid to live.