Former Byrd Chris Hillman Is Flying High Again on 'Bidin' My Time'
When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were working their way up the food chain in the late Seventies, astute listeners couldn’t help but notice that certain songs, including “American Girl” and “Listen to Her Heart,” sounded a bit like high-energy homages to the Byrds.
Sure enough, Petty & Co. were infusing the earlier band’s “jangly” electric folk-rock sound with a hefty dose of New Wave attitude.
So it’s fitting that 40 years later, Petty has produced what can best be described as Byrds co-founder Chris Hillman’s comeback album, Bidin’ My Time. Hillman, who also founded or co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers (with Gram Parsons), Manassas (with Stephen Stills) and the Desert Rose Band (with Herb Pedersen), hasn’t released a studio album since 2005’s The Other Side or a live album since 2010’s At Edwards Barn (with Pedersen).
So why the sudden shot in the arm?
It started when Pedersen, Hillman’s longtime friend, was singing backup for Petty’s other band, Mudcrutch, last year.
“Somewhere on the road, Tom and Herb conjured the idea of producing a record for me,” Hillman says. “Herb got the deal with Rounder Records with the agreement that Tom and Herb would co-produce [Editor’s note: Petty is credited as producer and Pedersen as executive producer]. Last year I didn’t have plans to ever record again, but things just fall your way when you least expect them.”
Bidin’ My Time features guest appearances by fellow ex-Byrds Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, Desert Rose Band alumni (banjoist/guitarist/vocalist Pedersen, guitarist John Jorgenson and pedal steeler JayDee Maness, who also played on the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968), plus Petty and a horde of Heartbreakers, including guitarist Mike Campbell. Hillman sticks to vocals, mandolin and his signature Guild Byrds Bass.
In terms of material, a shimmering mix of new and old, Bidin’ My Time touches upon several stages of Hillman’s career; there’s bluegrass, country, light rock, acoustic folk and new versions of three Byrds tunes. There’s also the extra-catchy “Here She Comes Again.”
“It’s a song Roger and I wrote in 1979 that was never recorded,” Hillman says. “The only version I had was from a live show. I always wanted to record it—it’s so reminiscent of the 1965/1966 Byrds.”
Below, you’ll find my bonus Q&A with Hillman. Bidin’ My Time will be released September 22 via Rounder Records.
How well did you know Tom Petty before Bidin’ My Time, and what’s it like to work with him? What’s his “approach to production”?
I knew Tom from back in the McGuinn, Clark & Hillman days in the late Seventies, just when the Heartbreakers were hitting it big. I really got to know him working on this project. Tom loves music and has such great instincts. He was a joy to work with and offered up some wonderful ideas throughout the recording. I was truly honored to have him in my corner.
Was all of the absolutely new Hillman material written ahead of time—or was some of it written for the album once Tom Petty got on board and you realized it was really happening?
I had the songs lying around and didn’t write anything new.
What’s your favorite of the new Hillman compositions on the album?
“Given All I Can See” rings loud and clear.
Did you think 2005’s The Other Side was going to be your final studio album? If so, why?
I didn’t know at the time. Herb did a masterful job producing The Other Side. After At Edwards Barn was released, I never thought I would record again, and then along came Rounder Records and Tom and Herb.
What gear did you use on Bidin’ My Time, and do we hear any other interesting bits of gear besides Roger’s 12-string Rickenbacker? It sounds like Mike Campbell is playing his B-bender on “Restless.”
I used my Red Diamond mandolin, [but I] didn’t play guitar because I had Herb and John Jorgenson handling that end. I played my [Chris Hillman signature] Guild Byrds reissue Starfire bass on “Here She Comes Again.” Mike played a beautiful B-bender lead on “Restless.”
Herb Pedersen goes back deep into Hillman/Byrds history; he even was Clarence White’s bandmate in the New Kentucky Colonels in 1973. How, where and when did you guys meet?
It’s been 55 years. We’re both native Californians; he grew up in the Bay area, me, down south in San Diego County. We met as 18-year-old kids playing bluegrass in our respective bands back in 1963.
You did a beautiful job with three Byrds songs on the new album. Why did you choose these tunes to revisit—and how long ago did you write the updated “Old John Robertson” lyrics?
For “New Old John Robertson,” I did a slight rewrite last year. I just added a bridge with all due respect to Roger; we wrote this back in 1966/’67. Gene Clark’s wonderful song “She Don’t Care About Time” … I’ve always loved it—such a haunting lyric.
What was it like recording with David and Roger again?
I wish we could have all been together in the studio, but scheduling didn’t permit [it]. David has worked with me in the studio in the past, and it’s always a pleasure. Roger graciously added a guitar part from his studio at home in Florida.
Is there any chance you, David, Roger and Herb would get together for a brief West Coast acoustic tour?
It would be nice, but it’s not likely to ever happen.