He’s been playing music professionally now for 50 years “give or take a few months,” so Chris Hillman has cause to be a bit existential ahead of his two nights at Iridium this week (July 19 and 20) with his celebrated country group Desert Rose Band.
“Here we are,” he said in a phone conversation last week from his Southern California office, speaking of himself, longtime music partner Herb Pedersen, guitarist extraordinaire John Jorgenson and bassist Bill Bryson—the acoustic group format of DRB that will be at Iridium.
“We have lots of friends of our age group who’ve been doing this a long time who are facing the same questions: What are we doing? Should we be out there pursuing a magical career in a music business we don’t even recognize anymore? No! We’re musicians! We play–and beyond the career or golden ring or hit record on the merry-go-round. That’s somebody else’s game now.”
Rather, Hillman professes, “You play music because you like to–and with people you like!”
A Rock and Roll Hall of Famer as bassist in The Byrds–and later co-founder with Gram Parsons of the legendary Flying Burrito Brothers–Hillman formed Desert Rose in 1985. The band also included pedal steel player Jay Dee Maness and drummer Steve Duncan, and topped the country charts in 1988 with “He’s Back And I’m Blue” and “I Still Believe In You.”
The group’s last album, Life Goes On, was released in 1993, and they officially disbanded shortly afterward. They began performing reunion gigs on a limited basis in 2008.
“My rule is to go out and play within a context of integrity and dignity,” Hillman says. “We’ll do some Desert Rose songs acoustically, some Byrds and a couple Burritos, but of all the groups I played in–and I loved them all–this is the one band that I parted with as friends, and am able to work together again as friends and not make it a career reunion. That’s not the point: It’s truly something now that’s a labor of love and a lot of fun. Maybe we’ll play again next year. Maybe not. Maybe never.”
At Iridium–and The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, on July 21–the group will also perform music associated with Bryson–long one of the top country/bluegrass bass players in Southern California–and Jorgenson, who currently fields gypsy-jazz group The John Jorgenson Quintet.
“As much as I’d love to play with the full [Desert Rose] band, it’s just not possible,” notes Hillman, explaining, “We just did two shows with the full band in California but other than moving around in the state, it’s cost-prohibitive—even having a roadie. So we’re minimalizing, not on the quality of the music but on the presentation. The costs of traveling have gone up—and we don’t get a cost-of-living increase!”
Hillman has another couple dates with Desert Rose later this summer, as well as a number in the fall with Pedersen. He will also teach again this year at Jefferson Airplane guitar great Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch music camp in Ohio.
“It’s my third time, and I love doing it,” he says. “A lot of the students have stuck with me, and it’s a lot of fun—and interesting: When you teach, it increases your own knowledge.”
And while he and Pedersen did three weeks in Australia in March, he’s content to stay close to home.
“At this point in my life, I’m happy doing three, maybe four days a month,” says Hillman. “I pick and choose and work when I feel it. And working with Herb is ideal: He’s a great singer and guitar player and easy to work with, and we’ve built up a great trademark.”
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