There has hardly been a fiber of Americana music — from country to bluegrass to rock 'n' roll — that Chris Hillman has not made his own over the past 45 years.
He was the co-founding pilot of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. He helmed the traditionalist country music of The Desert Rose Band. He has collaborated extensively with musical greats Gram Parsons, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, J.D. Souther, Richie Furray, Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, Tony Rice and scores of others.
Friday night, however, Hillman's remarkable musical history will be whittled down to inconspicuous essentials. He will present songs from throughout his career with help from longtime pal Herb Pedersen and a bare-bones musical makeup that relies only on guitar, mandolin and harmony singing during an opening set for Riders in the Sky's concert at Lexington Opera House.
It is a performance setting that Hillman finds unassuming and progressive. For new and longtime fans alike, the acoustic duo design is a means of exploring a lifetime's worth of music with fresh and open ears.
"I don't look over my shoulder," said Hillman, 66. "And I don't look at my career in terms of, 'If only I would have ... .' I don't do anything like that. I have always said of the early days, 'I was the apprentice. I was the first mate on the boat. Then I became the captain.' And that took a while. I had to do it at my pace."
A third-generation Californian, Hillman was born in Los Angeles and grew up in San Diego County. Early fascination with folk and country music led to brief tenures in bluegrass groups the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and The Hillmen. Then came an offer to sit in with a trio of acoustic songsmiths: Crosby, McGuinn and Clark. Along with drummer Michael Clarke, the quintet became Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee The Byrds.
"The Byrds left a brand, a legacy that I wouldn't trade now for all the money in China," Hillman said. "Sometimes, The Byrds were the forgotten stepchild. But you heard a lot of what we did in artists from Bruce Springsteen to Tom Petty, who has always acknowledged how The Byrds, in a sense, created him."
After scoring a series of enduring hits in the mid- to late '60s (Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn! and So You Want to be a Rock 'N' Roll Star among them), The Byrds enlisted Parsons and flirted dramatically with traditional country music on 1968's landmark album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. A year later, Parsons and Hillman flew the Byrds' coop, formed The Flying Burrito Brothers and forged a new-generational country sound. The hard-living Parsons stuck with the band for two albums (The Gilded Palace of Sin and Burrito Deluxe). Hillman carried on for two more underrated entries (The Flying Burrito Bros. and the concert chronicle Last of the Red Hot Burritos). The four recordings were viewed as cornerstone influences for a legion of up-and-coming roots-dominated bands in the '80s and '90s.
"When Gram was somewhat in control of his life, he and I wrote some incredibly good songs (including Christine's Tune, Sin City and Wheels). I'm not patting myself on the back. I'm just saying that was a very productive time for me and Gram.
"But the band, up to that point, was terrible. We were awful. When Gram left, we put a lot of work into getting it back into shape and making it a presentable live act. It got to where we played bluegrass, we played country and even played a little rock 'n' roll. It progressively got to the point that I said, 'I don't know what else to do with this.' Then along came Stephen."
"Stephen" was Stephen Stills, on hiatus as one-third of Crosby, Stills and Nash. He invited Hillman to Miami for recording sessions that dressed broadly electric tunes with country and even Cuban accents. The resulting band became the short-lived Manassas.
"Manassas was an amazing sort of window in time. Stills was at the top of his game in terms of singing, writing, everything. As a band, Manassas was top-rate," Hillman said.
Flash forward to the present. On a 2005 solo album titled The Other Side and a 2010 concert recording with Pedersen, At Edward's Barn, Hillman re-examined the music of The Byrds (Eight Miles High, Have You Seen Her Face), The Burritos (Sin City, Wheels) and Manassas (1972's It Doesn't Matter) along with the country hit Love Reunited that fortified the '80s and '90s lifespan of The Desert Rose Ban. ("That band was the greatest — great guys, great players, consistently strong onstage.")
With fellow Desert Rose alum Pedersen as his lone bandmate onstage Friday and instrumentation that will transform songs from a storied career into new acoustic portraits, the past will very much become Hillman's present.
"Herb is my sidekick. We've known each other for 47, 48 years — something like that," Hillman said. "So we obviously have a good time playing together. But it is also challenging. We're game to try just about anything within this instrumentation of mandolin, guitar and voices, so it goes beyond that one dimension.
"Our performances are stripped bare. Nothing is electric. We're not plugged in We're just playing this music the way we did when we were 18."