From The Byrds to Tom Petty, new exhibition celebrates local music legend Chris Hillman
Perched on the wall of the Museum of Ventura County’s current exhibition, “Chris Hillman: Time Between,” is a framed letter, handwritten by the late singer-songwriter Tom Petty.
“Chris Hillman has been a well kept secret in the history of rock,” Mr. Petty wrote. “Yeah, we all know how great he was in the Byrds, but his contributions go well beyond that. Chris was a true innovator, the man who invented country rock. Every time the Eagles board their private jet, Chris at least paid for the fuel.”
Across six decades of making music, Ventura resident Chris Hillman has amassed a musical legacy few have matched. In addition to joining David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke to found the seminal rock band The Byrds, Mr. Hillman, 74, has written songs that have been recorded over the years by the likes of Beck, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, kd lang, Roy Rogers and Sheryl Crow.
To celebrate Mr. Hillman’s musical achievements, the Museum of Ventura County recently opened an exhibition of memorabilia drawn from his personal collection. On display through March 31, “Chris Hillman: Time Between” includes everything from vintage concert posters to backstage passes, gold records, musical instruments and stage costumes.
The exhibition spans Mr. Hillman’s illustrious career, from The Byrds to The Flying Burrito Brothers, Souther-Hillman-Furay, The Desert Rose Band and his latest project, “Bidin’ My Time,” a solo album produced by Mr. Petty. Released in 2017, just prior to Mr. Petty’s untimely death, the album was one of Mr. Petty’s final projects. Mr. Hillman was an early influence of Mr. Petty, and while the two had met casually over the years, it was when Mr. Petty worked with Herb Pedersen, Mr. Hillman’s longtime friend and musical partner, that a collaboration came up.
“To be completely honest, I wasn’t planning on ever making another record,” said Mr. Hillman. “I’ve made a lot of records over the years and I was pretty happy to just quietly wind down a career that’s been going for 55 years. But this record fell into my lap. When Tom Petty wants to do something with you, well, it doesn’t matter if you’re thinking about retiring or not ? you’ve gotta do it.”
The album, which also features the talents of Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and members of Mr. Petty’s band, The Heartbreakers, came about after Mr. Pedersen worked with Mr. Petty’s band, Mudcrutch.
“I was totally in the dark about it, but Tom and Herb had cooked up this idea for me to make another album,” Mr. Hillman told the News-Press during a recent tour of the exhibition. “Herb came home and told me the idea, but I didn’t really know what to make of it, so I called up Tom and I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ and Tom said to me, ‘Do you want me to do it?’ He hadn’t heard any of the songs, but he wasn’t too worried about that.”
Born in Los Angeles, Mr. Hillman was introduced to folk music in the late 1950s by his older sister while growing up in the San Diego area. After performing around that city, Mr. Hillman eventually settled into the bluegrass band The Hillmen. In 1964, he joined David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke in The Byrds before forming The Flying Burrito Brothers in 1968 with Gram Parsons.
A staple of the Los Angeles music scene, Mr. Hillman, in the 1970s, then joined J.D. Souther and Richie Furay in Souther-Hillman-Furay, before forming a trio with Mr. McGuinn and Mr. Clark. After living in Los Angeles throughout the 1960s and 70s, in 1980, Mr. Hillman and wife Connie moved to Ventura.
“I had grown up about five miles from the beach in Rancho Santa Fe,” Mr. Hillman recalled. “I was a surfer, and when we got married in 1979, I wanted to live by the water, so we came up here.”
A pioneer of California rock music, Mr. Hillman is always ready to pay homage to his music roots. After touring in support of “Bidin’ My Time,” Mr. Hillman reunited last year with Mr. McGuinn for a nationwide tour with Marty Stuart and his band in celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Byrds’ seminal 1968 album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been on a better tour,” Mr. Hillman said. “Marty Stuart’s band was fantastic. It was so much fun. I would love to do something with Roger and Marty again. Maybe we will do something on the road, we’ll see.”
As well as chronicling Mr. Hillman and Mr. McGuinn’s work together, ranging from early photographs of a youthful-looking The Byrds to signed posters from last year’s “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” tour, the exhibition also gets personal. There is a wedding photograph of Mr. Hillman and his wife taken by famed rock photographer Henry Diltz; a wall of Mr. Hillman’s favorite instruments; and a design drawn by hand by Mr. Stuart for a suit he had made for Mr. Hillman’s last birthday.
It is an exhibition that might not have been, if not for the diligence of the local firefighters during the 2017 Thomas Fire. Not long after the fire broke out on Dec. 4, the flames reached Ventura, consuming the entire neighborhood surrounding the Hillmans’ hillside home.
“We were out celebrating my birthday that night,” Mr. Hillman recalled. “My wife and I went home and the wind was screaming and the power went out. Not long after, Connie said she could smell smoke, and we looked out the window and the whole ridge was on fire.
“We got everything of value out of there ? papers, passports and two priceless instruments ? and we then drove down the hill. The next day, we found out our house was intact even though the whole street looked like a war zone and everything around us was gone.”
The Hillmans later learned that a fire crew saw the next-door neighbor’s balcony crash through the Hillmans’ kitchen window. While the kitchen was destroyed and family room damaged, the crew’s truck had enough water on board to save the house.
“We were out of the house for eight months,” Mr. Hillman said. “We stored all of our stuff and they fixed our kitchen and family room. We were a lot luckier than a lot of people were in that fire.”
IF YOU GO
“Chris Hillman: Time Between” runs through March 31 at the Museum of Ventura County, 100 E. Main St., Ventura. The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $5 adults, $3 seniors (62 and over) and $1 youth (6-17); children 5 and younger are free. For more information about the exhibition, call 653-0323 or visit www.venturamuseum.org. For more information about Chris Hillman (including signed copies of “Bidin’ My Time”), visitwww.chrishillman.com.