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Chris Hillman on Gram Parsons and the Birth of Country Rock

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman - two of the pioneers of country rock.

There may never have been country rock without Chris Hillman. But to say he alone pioneered the genre would be unfair, largely to a bunch of fellow musicians, known as The Byrds, he teamed up with the mid sixties - the gestation period for this exciting musical phenomenon.

And it would certainly be unfair to another central figure, Gram Parsons, who Hillman would later invite to join The Byrds and then, after firing him, forgive him and together launch the Flying Burrito Brothers, an outfit seen as probably the first pure rock-influenced country band.

The debut album of country rock has to be the 1968 release Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It was Gram’s one and only recording with The Byrds and Hillman’s last album with the legendary group formed in 1964 with David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and Michael Clark.

But the defining country rock album would come a year later with the Flying Burrito Brothers original release The Gilded Palace Of Sin. Like Sweetheart, Gilded Palace never sold well. But it has such a timeless quality, it will forever be seen as the golden light for countless musicians, such as the Eagles, to firmly fuse country music into the popular rock landscape of the seventies..

Hillman provides a fascinating insight into the growing pains of country rock in his memoir Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito, and Beyond, to be released later in the year.

As a preview, Rolling Stone has published chapter 10 –“Sin City” - which documents the formation of the Flying Burrito Brothers and how Hillman and Parsons shared not only their first love for country music but their desire to embrace country in the booming culture of popular rock music. The title “Sin City” comes from one of the first songs Hillman and Parsons would write together. It would become a genre classic.

The chapter begins in late 1968 when both young men had left the Byrds. Hillman was just 24 and Parsons two years younger. Gram would die of a drug overdose five years later.

In the memoir, Hillman notes that not only did the pair share a passion for country music, but also a common sadness. Both their fathers have taken their own lives. He writes:

It’s not a topic we spoke much about, but there’s something about facing the loss of a parent at a young age that leaves a mark on you. Neither one of us could have articulated it at the time, but there was a dull mix of anger and sadness that perhaps we recognized in one another on a subconscious level. Whatever it was, we had a real connection, and for a time, we were like brothers.

Hillman not only acknowledges Gram’s brilliant musical vision but his endearing personality:

Gram Parsons was so smooth he could charm anyone — man, woman, or child — out of the gold in their teeth. I think he developed this gift as a survival mechanism, growing up in a Southern family of eccentric characters whose love of money and deceitful ways were right out of a Tennessee Williams story.

Hillman nicely recounts how he and fellow Byrd Roger McGuinn saw Gram’s potential in helping them achieve their changing musical goals:

When Roger and I hired Gram and made the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, it was never intended as a permanent change of direction for The Byrds. Roger and I always viewed it as a one-off Byrds album in country music, but it was a genre I wanted to continue to explore. Traditional bluegrass music was my first love, and from that first day at Bill Smith’s house in 1961, that music had only become more ingrained in me as a player, singer, and songwriter. Since Gram and I shared a common vision to bring real country music to a rock audience with a hip sensibility, we agreed it would make sense for us to join forces and carry on from where Sweetheart left off. With that common vision, we had forged an instant partnership. We just needed a band and a record deal.

First they had to write some songs. Hillman’s account of how he and Parsons penned “Sin City” has been well documented over the years. They were living together in the San Fernando Valley and one morning while still a bed he started sketching what would become one of the great opening lines in country rock: This old town’s filled with sin/It’ll swallow you in/If you’ve got some money to burn … When Parsons woke, Hillman put a coffee cup in his hand and asked him to help finish the composition. He adds in the chapter:

Gram and I finished the song in about thirty-five minutes. He was really on his game during that time and we inspired each other in what soon became our daily songwriting sessions. In a two-week period, we wrote “Sin City,” “Devil in Disguise,” “Juanita,” and “Wheels”— some of the best collaborations either of us were ever involved with. We could practically finish one another’s thoughts while writing or singing. Gram and I were very different people, but we made a good team. The timing was right, as we were both looking for our next musical outlet.

To do so, they needed a band and the pair soon recruited bass player Chris Ethridge and steel guitarist “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow. Old Byrd-mate Michael Clarke would later join them as drummer. Hillman writes:

The Flying Burrito Brothers. You couldn’t have assembled a finer bunch of criminals! The players, the band name, and the songs we were writing were the perfect ingredients for something either truly grand or totally insane.

Once The Gilded Palace of Sin was released in February 1989, it was time for a promotional tour. The infamous Phil Kaufman was hired as road manager. He had been introduced to Parsons by his best buddy of the time, Keith Richards. Kaufman would find notoriety as the person who snatched Gram’s body at Los Angeles Airport in September 1973 and burnt it in the Joshua Tree National Park.

As was the apparent norm at the time, the tour descended into an excess of all things but the music survived. Hillman:

There were some off nights, but, musically, it turned out to be a strong tour. Gram was at his best during that first year with the Burritos, and sometimes I would just sit back and shake my head in wonder. He was so funny and bright, and nothing seemed beyond his reach.

Much has been made of the relationship between Gram and Keith Richards, the most authoritative detailed in Keith’s wonderful biography Life, published in 2010. Hillman has an interesting recollection of a period when Keith had a real hold on Gram:

One night we were booked at a show in El Monte, a Los Angeles County suburb. On the day of the performance, I couldn’t find Parsons anywhere. Searching for Gram was becoming a daily chore, but I knew the Stones were in town cutting tracks for their next album, so I had a hunch where I’d find him. I drove to the studio, Sunset Sound, and explained why I was there. Gram didn’t want to leave until, finally, Mick Jagger walked over and said, “Gram, Chris is here to pick you up; you have a show tonight and we’re busy working.” What Mick was really saying was, “You have a responsibility to your band and your fans, and we don’t really need you here while we’re recording.” What a moment. Mick Jagger giving Gram Parsons a lesson in social and professional responsibility! Though Keith and Gram were tight, I had a feeling Mick never had much warmth in his heart for Gram. But Gram wanted to be Mick Jagger, so Mick managed to get through to him with a message I’d not been successful at communicating. I was grateful for Jagger’s words, but I sensed the end was in sight.

However there was a plus in the relationship for the Flying Burrito Brothers. When the band began work on a second album in late 1969, the recording sessions soon became laboured, with Gram losing focus. Hillman, however, remembers a key memorable event:

Needing outside material to round out the sessions, Gram convinced Mick and Keith to let the Burritos record “Wild Horses” even though they’d not yet released their own version. I think they’d sent a tape of it to try to get Sneaky to overdub a steel part, but when Gram heard it, he wanted us to cut it. The song didn’t work for me at all. It was depressing, maudlin, melodramatic, and did not fit what we were doing on the second album. At that point, I just didn’t care. I was starting to lose all interest in the band, so I just went along with it.

When the second album Burrito Deluxe was eventually released in April 1970, a simply-stunning version of “Wild Horses” was the final of 11 tracks. It would be another 12 months before the Stones themselves would release what would be included in Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” and one which would become a mainstay cover for many top artists.

A month after the release of this second album, Parsons turned up for a Burrito gig intoxicated. He then spent the evening singing songs different to what the band was trying to perform. For the second time in two years, Hillman fired him. This time for good. In the book, Hillman honestly reflects on his friend and roommate:

I poured what energy I still had into protecting the music and the band while Gram, always the charmer, was more of a hustler. He was brash and assertive and sought to advance his career by networking and ingratiating himself into the right social circles. But he was starting to trade off his career aspirations for a more hedonistic lifestyle. We both had the drive to succeed but with a very different methodology when it came to execution. It just wasn’t that important to me to see and be seen, but as Gram was drawn into the trappings of Hollywood excess, I could feel him slipping away. He was drifting into dark territory, and his fascination with the party scene chipped away at the tight musical brotherhood we’d established just a few months before. It increasingly seemed that Gram cared more about fame than about the music.

Gram would go on to have a short, but critically acclaimed, solo career - helped by linking up with a singer named Emmylou Harris. And who would alert Parsons to this attractive young performer in a DC folk hideaway? None other than Chris Hillman!

Chapter 10 of the memoir also touches on two dark periods of California’s sixties culture that Hillman became embroiled in.

The first was the Sharon Tate murder which occurred in Los Angeles, August 1989, not far from where Hillman was living at the time. He recounts:

The first half of 1969 was like one never-ending party, but then the vibe suddenly changed. We were still living at Burrito Manor in August when the Manson murders happened. The free-flowing culture of trust disappeared in the blink of an eye. It was like the entire city went under lock and key. People were frightened to the point of not leaving their homes at night, and it suddenly seemed crazy to have unknown people coming and going from your house.

The second happened nearly four months later when the Rolling Stones asked the Burritos to perform at the free concert at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California. In Time Between, Hillman remembers quite vividly the nightmare:

The Flying Burrito Brothers played a good show. We managed to calm everyone down a bit, and there were no problems during our set. As we exited the stage, however, we found a very large naked man being severely beaten by a couple of the Hell’s Angels. He was out of his mind on drugs and had no clue what was happening or why. As soon as the Angels found something more interesting to go after, we pulled this guy into our van and told him to stay put until we could find someone to help him. The minute our backs were turned, he escaped from the van and proceeded to get the Angels’ attention again. They were immediately back on the attack. This was turning into an unbelievable nightmare. It was like a living Hieronymus Bosch painting unfolding before my eyes.

For Hillman - a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - the decade of peace and love was ending as a shattered dream. But it was a decade in which his contribution - and that of Gram and fellow Byrds - would change popular music forever.

Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond will be released on November 17. The extracts from chapter 10 “Sin City” were first published in Rolling Stone. © 2020 by Chris Hillman, Bar None Music, Inc. Courtesy of BMG.


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