“I am in the land of giants!” Chris Hillman exclaimed as he stepped onstage at the Double Stop Music Hall in Guthrie, Okla. Hillman should know something about giants — despite his unassuming presence, he is a giant in the history of American music. An inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Hillman was one of the original members of the legendary group the Byrds, one of the first and most credible American responses to the British invasion of the mid Sixties. The Byrds were a uniquely American phenomenon, and are credited with launching two genres of music — folk rock and country rock — that have profoundly influenced the history of American music and the generations of musicians that followed.
The Byrds had a way of spawning legends. The original members were already veterans, though barely out of their teens. Leader Roger McGuinn, then known as Jim, had been a backup musician for the Limeliters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and Bobby Darin. Hillman had already recorded as a mandolin player in bluegrass bands. Gene Clark had toured and recorded with the New Christy Minstrels. David Crosby was an aspiring folkie in the L.A. club scene, and the otherworldly, childlike drummer Michael Clarke was, according to legend, discovered playing bongos on the beach and was invited to join the band on account of both his great hair and his resemblance to Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones.
McGuinn was the innovator who created the Byrds’s so-called “jingle jangle” sound on his twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar. Crosby became known for his exquisite harmony vocals, while Gene Clark wrote and sang songs of such emotional depth and power that they broke hearts. Hillman took up bass guitar, bringing to the band the melodic sense of someone who already had a reputation for playing Coltrane solos on a mandolin. Michael Clarke, a self-taught drummer — -and who, like contemporaries Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, Ringo Starr of the Beatles, and Keith Moon of the Who, was not of the Buddy Rich school — played with a unique grace and soaring beauty which complemented the band’s sound perfectly.
The original members evidently had temperaments to match their talent, and the Byrds were to gain and lose many members, among them several legends-to-be. Clarence White, for instance, was a country-influenced guitar legend who invented a gadget that fit inside his Fender Telecaster guitar and on which one could bend notes by moving the bridge by applying pressure on the guitar’s neck. Tragically, while crossing a street after a performance White was killed by a drunk driver.
While McGuinn was the mainstay through these changes, Gene Clark was the first to leave, and by the Byrds’s fourth album, Younger Than Yesterday, Chris Hillman had suddenly emerged as a songwriter and singer. The story goes that Crosby was expelled by McGuinn and Hillman after making a political speech about the Warren Commission during a performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Another young veteran-cum-legend was to join the Byrds in the person of Gram Parsons, who, along with the emergent Hillman, was to point the Byrds in the direction of country music. The Byrds were eventually to develop the genre of country rock as they had invented folk rock years before, all under the leadership of McGuinn.
Hillman and Parsons left to form the Flying Burrito Brothers, but Parsons was to die of a drug overdose in late 1973. Some have said that Parsons was at heart a sensitive country boy for whom the pressures of fame simply proved too much.
Like Parsons and White, the other two deceased Byrds have since passed into the realm of legend. Both Michael Clarke and Gene Clark died tragically and young in the early 90s, after intense battles with substance abuse. It is hard not to speculate that the pain and melancholy one hears in the voice and songs of Gene Clark finally caught up with him. Some believe he was not well handled by producers, who failed to promote his various post-Byrds projects. Clark died a tremendously under-recognized talent, though he is now gaining a fiercely devoted cult following on the Internet. It’s said that his own songwriting in turn had an influence on those — like Bob Dylan and the Beatles — who had originally influenced him.
Happily, today McGuinn and Hillman are enjoying life and digging into their respective roots. Ever the innovator, McGuinn has a website where he presents and markets traditional folk music in an effort to keep it alive for future generations. He also tours both as a solo act and with other celebrated folk artists, such as Judy Collins. He was recently nominated for a Grammy for a self-produced CD, Treasures from the Folk Den, which is available through his website.
David Crosby, thankfully, has survived his own trials with substance abuse and is now a member of the super group Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and sometimes Young).
Chris Hillman records and performs bluegrass, and has been known to turn up in venues such as Guthrie, Okla., to perform with old friends like Byron Berline and his band. His latest CD on Virgin Records is Way Out West by Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen. (ChrisHillman.com.)
Guthrie, Okla., is a small city 30 miles north of Oklahoma City and was once the state’s designated capital. Guthrie’s major industry today is tourism, thanks to the historic preservation of the town’s beautiful turn-of-the-century architecture and ambiance.
Byron Berline is a music legend in his own right. He tells the story of how he and Hillman met when as 19-years-olds Berline went to Los Angeles to play fiddle on a recording session by the bluegrass band The Dillards. His reputation as a session musician and performer was already growing. He recorded with Byrds and ex-Byrds on various projects, and Gram Parsons is said to have referred him to the Rolling Stones to play on their comedic country version of “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Country Honk,” on their 1969 album Let It Bleed.
Berline was also around during the formative years of talents such as Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Vince Gill. He owns the Double Stop Fiddle Shop on Oklahoma Avenue in Guthrie, and records and performs with the Byron Berline Band, featuring Berline on fiddle, John Hickman on banjo and pedal-steel guitar, Jim Fish on guitar, Richard Sharp on bass fiddle, and Steve Short on drums. They sometimes feature special guest Barry Patton on bones. (Yes, bones.) The Byron Berline Band recently released a tribute CD of Gene Clark and Gram Parson songs.
The Double Stop Music Hall, upstairs from Berline’s fiddle shop, is festooned with T-shirts from decades of bluegrass festivals and with 8×10 glossies of Byron and many friends from the music industry — famous, infamous, and legendary — with whom he has worked over the years.
Guthrie and Berline recently hosted the Sixth Annual Oklahoma International Blue Grass Festival, October 3-5, with former bandmate Vince Gill as the Saturday-night headliner, and Berline himself performing nightly. The Byron Berline Band performs regularly at the Double Stop Music Hall (DoubleStop.Com), a great place to catch a legend.
— John Mallon is contributing editor for Inside the Vatican magazine, and writes from Oklahoma City.