Together Again: Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen

By Larry Nager

Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen are looking at their alternate universe, and they don’t like it a bit. We’re sitting in the restaurant of Nashville’s Hilton Garden Inn as a crew of aging rockers gathers at the bar.

Bluegrass Unlimited - May 2011 - Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen

Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen

Their long hair dyed black or blond and arranged to conceal any thinning, they’re an oldies band dressed for 1975, sporting leather pants as wrinkled and out of style as the geezers wearing them. “Look at those guys,” Hillman shakes his head, whispering to his friend of almost fifty years. “We saw some of these guys at the airport one time and they looked a little beyond it. It looked a little odd, like they’re really trying to hang on to something a little desperately.”

Both he and Pedersen are certified legends of rock and pop. Hillman is a member of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame for his work with The Byrds, the folk-rock band often called the “American Beatles.” After The Byrds, he played key roles in such seminal, genre-bending groups as the Flying Burrito Brothers and Stephen Stills’ Manassas. While Hillman headlined rock palaces, Pedersen was the L.A. studio scene’s most in-demand harmony singer, spending the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s adding vocals, rhythm guitar, and occasional banjo to an estimated five thousand sessions, helping create hundreds of classics by Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, James Taylor, Jesse Winchester, Kris Kristofferson, and countless others, doing scores for TV shows such as Rockford Files, Dukes Of Hazzard, and The A-Team and also touring with Jackson Browne and John Denver.

With those platinum priors, both men could be forgiven if they, too, clung to glory days, replicating their hits on an endless classic-rock circuit of state fairs and trade shows. But, in this universe, they’ve continued creating great new music and, dressing like full-grown men, returning to their roots in traditional country and bluegrass.

Today, at 66 (Pedersen is seven months older than Hillman), they’re making some of the best music of their illustrious careers in the simplest setting they’ve ever performed in—a duo powered only by their still-crystalline vocals, Pedersen’s bedrock rhythm guitar, and Hillman’s melodic mandolin. They can be heard that way on their latest CD, At Edwards Barn (Rounder Records). Minimally augmented by fiddler David Mansfield, lead acoustic guitarist Larry Park, and Bill Bryson on upright bass, they work through their musical histories. From The Byrds comes “Turn Turn Turn,” Hillman’s composition “Have You Seen Her Face,” and a surprising version of the psychedelic anthem “Eight Miles High” that sounds like the Louvin Brothers on acid. From Hillman’s Flying Burrito Brothers tenure is “Wheels” and “Sin City.” Herb Pedersen does his classic “Wait A Minute,” which he wrote and gave to his friend John Duffey and the Seldom Scene in the early ’70s. “Love Reunited” dates back to their Desert Rose Band days (the song was also recently recorded in full bluegrass mode by Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie). And there are songs by artists who inspired them: the Louvins’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love” (which Pedersen sang with Emmylou Harris on her first major hit), Ralph Stanley’s “Going Up Home” [aka “Green Pastures”], and the Buck Owens/Don Rich duet “Together Again.”

The casual listener, unfamiliar with their history, might think that they’re just a couple more rock stars dipping toes in the bluegrass/Americana creek. But with careers that began in West Coast folk and bluegrass clubs nearly half a century ago, Hillman and Pedersen have more than earned places of honor as California bluegrass pioneers.

Back At The Ranch

Hillman grew up in the country—southern California country—where his family had a “ranch.” “It was about two acres, but in a very rural part of San Diego County,” Hillman recalls. “The town at the time was called Rancho Santa Fe, had about 800 residents, a gas station, and a little market and a pretty snazzy hotel. It became one of the wealthier enclaves of the United States. When my dad moved us down there in 1948, we called it a ranch, but it really wasn’t. My brother and me, we had chickens, two hogs we named Benny and Mike—he was raising hogs for the 4-H Club—and a burro. And then I got a horse when I was about eight. I’d been riding since I was five, and I would go off all over the place by myself.”

His parents loved the big band jazz and pop of the ’40s and early ’50s. Young Chris was first drawn to early rock’n’roll. “I loved all that, but I didn’t have the inclination to play guitar when Elvis came out. And then folk music came along. My older sister went off to college and came back with some folk records, really cool ones—Leadbelly, the Weavers, Pete Seeger’s solo records, Woody Guthrie. So that piqued my interest in learning the guitar and I got plenty of support from my folks. And then I heard bluegrass by way of the New Lost City Ramblers, by way of old-time music. My dad was so funny. He’d walk in my room and I’d have Flatt & Scruggs on and he’d say, ‘Are you sure this is our son?’”

The elder Hillman wasn’t the only California parent raising a hillbilly wannabe. Far to the north, Hillman’s future music partner was going through a similar process. “Here it is 1960, I’m in high school, Herb Pederson is up in Berkeley, California, approximately 700 miles away from me doing the same thing. But, he’s living in the city and he got from folk music to bluegrass. It touched a nerve. Guys not from rural Appalachia, but being touched by this music, the energy, the improvisation of it.”

By 16, Pedersen had started banjo. Today, instructional videos are a mouse-click away and seemingly every recorded banjo note is available in tablature, but fifty years ago, aspiring pickers wandered the wasteland searching for crumbs of information as to what strings, picks, and capos were the right ones. There was no Bluegrass Unlimited, no Banjo Newsletter. Pedersen sat in his bedroom with his open-backed Slingerland banjo trying to decipher the sounds from his record player.

“All I had was the LPs,” he says. “That Country Music LP that Lester and Earl did—the cover was white, they had on red coats, standing behind the WSM mic—that was my first initiation into bluegrass music on record. Mercury just put a whole package together of Lester and Earl’s stuff, and boy, that was just one of the greatest albums of all time.” Pedersen snagged what he could, slowing down his turntable to catch subtleties. “It was needle on the record. Listen, take it off, try it, play it at 16 2/3 (rpms). We figured that out real quick, that it was exactly an octave (lower), so you didn’t have to re-tune. That helped a lot. But it was very tedious, you had to have a lot of patience.”

In 1961, he saw the Redwood Ramblers with future bluegrass historian Neil Rosenberg on banjo at Berkeley’s Bear’s Lair coffeehouse. “Neil was actually the first five-string banjo player I ever saw,” he remembers. “It was great, just an electrifying sound.”

Hillman’s introduction to bluegrass was Vanguard Records’ Newport Folk Festival compilation. “It was Flatt & Scruggs and I went, ‘Oh my god!’ They did ‘[Old] Salty Dog Blues,’ probably the best version they ever did, and it was live…and ‘[That Was] Before I Met You’ and ‘Cabin On The Hill.’ I think it was three cuts. I started looking for those kind of records. I couldn’t find them where I lived, but I found what I could.” His finds included the first two Country Gentlemen Folkways LPs. “John Duffey was a huge mandolin hero of mine. Watching Mike Seeger at the Ash Grove (an L.A. folk club) really got me into the mandolin. He had that blond F-5. And I went, ‘I want to learn to play the mandolin.’ That’s what did it. I was on a mission.”

From Woodshed To Stage

Like Pedersen, it was trial and error as Hillman tried to unravel the mysteries of a cheap Kay mandolin. “It was $50 new. I worked half the summer to get the money to buy the thing in 1960. I was about 15 years old. I was taking what I could off of records. I didn’t really have the right pick or approach to it.”

He listened to classic recordings of the first generation—Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers. But, he could also see the music live in SoCal’s budding bluegrass scene. Clarence and Roland White had moved to L.A. from Maine and formed the Country Boys/Kentucky Colonels, the band that brought bluegrass to The Andy Griffith Show.

Hillman’s first bluegrass band was the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, which included banjo player Bernie Leadon, who, a decade later, helped start the Eagles. In 1963, Hillman got an offer to replace Herb Rice (father of Tony, Larry, and Wyatt) in the Golden State Boys with banjo player and future Bluegrass Cardinals founder Don Parmley and future country stars Vern and Rex Gosdin. Hillman learned a lot from those older, authentically country musicians. They, in turn, borrowed their young mandolinist’s surname to give the band a more folk-revival name, The Hillmen.

Hillman was working hard on his Gibson F-4, taking lessons from northern California mandolinist Scott Hambly, who played in the Kentucky Colonels while Roland White served in the military. After Roland’s return, Hillman started hanging with him as much as possible, learning a musical approach that still serves him. “He is to this day one of my favorite players, because he understates it. He plays so gently, he plays the melody so soulfully. He doesn’t play a million notes. He doesn’t need to. I got so much stuff from him.”

Back then, even in a huge state like California, the bluegrass scene was tiny, and Hillman was getting to know another young picker who’d just moved down the street. Pedersen had recently graduated from Berkeley’s St. Mary’s High School and relocated to southern California with the Pine Valley Boys, which included school pal and mandolinist Butch Waller (later of High Country) and singer/guitarist David Nelson (who would form New Riders Of The Purple Sage). Back in the Bay Area, Nelson played with the Wildwood Boys with Jerry Garcia on banjo.

Though The Hillmen made an album (reissued by Sugar Hill) and the Pine Valley Boys played Carnegie Hall, they couldn’t quite make a living. When The Hillmen broke up, Hillman took a gig with a pre-fab folk-bluegrass band called the Green Grass Revival, drawn to the $100 weekly salary (big money in the early ’60s).

“It was such a stupid group, and Dwain Story was in it with me, Carl Story’s nephew. Randy Sparks, who had done the New Christy Minstrels, formed it. It was his version of a bluegrass band, like The Beverly Hillbillies. But it was $100 a week and a place to stay; they had a house out in the San Fernando Valley. The songs were just horrid. Dwain would be on one side of the stage playing rhythm guitar and I’d be on the other playing mandolin and we’d just be rolling our eyes.”

Byrds Take Flight

Not surprisingly, when former Hillmen manager Jim Dickson approached him about a new folk-rock group called The Byrds, Hillman jumped, though it meant trading mandolin for electric bass. When he “went electric,” his bluegrass buddies, including Pedersen, saw it as a betrayal says Hillman. “He said to me years later, ‘You broke my heart when you put that mandolin down. You left us for money and women,’” Hillman recalls with a rueful chuckle. “There was a lot of us that felt that way,” Pedersen adds dryly.

Hillman admits it was easier to get dates as a rock star. “Girls didn’t like bluegrass,” he says with a laugh. “It was a whole new world when I went into The Byrds.” But in a group that included Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark, it was the complex vocal harmonies, folk roots, and greater musical freedom that were the main draws, he asserts. “I wouldn’t have joined if I didn’t like the music.”

Hillman honed his singing, performing, and composing, writing and co-writing such classics as “Time Between” and “So You Want To Be A Rock’n’Roll Star.” He also met his next music partner, the brilliant singer-songwriter Gram Parsons. In 1969, after helping make The Byrds’ country-rock classic Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, which included Parsons’ masterpiece “Hickory Wind,” Hillman and Parsons left to go further into country-rock, forming the Flying Burrito Brothers. Along with trading his Fender bass for acoustic rhythm guitar, he picked up the mandolin again, featuring it on the Burritos 1969 debut The Gilded Palace Of Sin, notably on the anti-war bluegrass song “My Uncle.”

He regrets abandoning it. “It wasn’t worth it to stop playing the mandolin from 1964 and picking it back up in 1969. I lost a lot of headway. I had to play catch-up.” Parsons was a brilliant songwriter whose addictions made him an erratic performer and business partner, frustrating the more disciplined Hillman. Parsons left the band in 1970 for a solo career that ended in 1973 with a fatal overdose. Before he died, Hillman introduced Parsons to the woman who became his music and romantic partner, Emmylou Harris, whom Hillman had discovered singing folk songs in a Washington, D.C., coffeehouse.

Decades after his death, Hillman and Harris still perform Parsons’ songs, many co-written by Hillman. Two of them became bluegrass standards. “That’s thanks to J.D. Crowe, bless his heart,” Hillman says. “Larry Rice was working with him, and me having known him and his brothers since they were kids, he brought ‘Sin City’ and ‘Devil In Disguise’ to J.D. Crowe and the Kentucky Mountain Boys.” Hillman stayed with the Burritos, bringing in ex-Scottsville Squirrel Barker Bernie Leadon. By 1973, Hillman joined Stephen Stills’ band Manassas, frequently featuring his mandolin. Stills showed his appreciation with the gift of a Lloyd Loar F-5 that Hillman still treasures. But it doesn’t go on tour and Hillman says there have never been so many great mandolins available, citing the superb Red Diamond Loar copies by Ohio luthier Don MacRostie.

California To Foggy Mountain

While Hillman explored the worlds of rock and pop, Pedersen dug deeper into bluegrass. In 1966, he joined Ray Park and Vern Williams, the Arkansas-born duo recognized as the fathers of Northern California bluegrass. He recorded with them for Starday and moved to Nashville with the group in early 1967.

Like Hillman’s experience with the Golden State Boys, Pedersen’s tenure with Vern & Ray gave him a deeper feel for bluegrass. “You don’t have to be from a cabin in the Clinch Mountains to understand this music,” explains Hillman. “But I do believe the two of us were lucky, because he worked with Vern & Ray and I worked with Don and the Gosdins. We were kids and that was our window on authenticity. We learned the music; we learned the culture; we learned the cuisine; we learned how they spoke. We learned the whole thing, as opposed to maybe a kid who’d grown up with just the records. You get it through osmosis, you get the feeling for how to do it. You don’t have to come from Kentucky to play it, but you need the connection.”

“I think, more than anything, you have to have a feel for it,” agrees Pedersen. “You can learn the notes, but if you don’t have a feel for it…” The Nashville move didn’t result in the national success Vern & Ray had hoped for, but a TV appearance earned Pedersen one very high-profile fan. “Earl (Scruggs) had seen me on a local show and called me through the union, and we had a conversation on the phone. I didn’t believe it was him at first. I thought it was one of my buddies from California pulling a trick. But, we chatted more and I realized who it was and he invited me over to his house. He was, and is, just a very gracious person.”

Pedersen was excited to meet his idol, but admits he had a hard time ringing that doorbell. “It took me ten minutes to walk up to his front door. My heart was racing. I was trying to figure out what to say to him. But he made me feel right at home the minute I got there. He said, ‘Well, I kind of got you over here under false pretenses.’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, I have to go into the hospital for an operation and I was wondering, if you had the time, if you could maybe sub for me with the Foggy Mountain Boys.’ I didn’t believe what he was saying at the time. I just kind of had this buzzing in my ears from that point on. And I said, ‘I’ll do my best.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ve heard your best on TV and you’ll fit right in.’

“He made me feel very comfortable. He played guitar and I played banjo and he just asked me about certain tunes and we’d play them and he’d shake his head affirmatively and then we’d move on to something else. And then I said finally, ‘O.K., I need to hear you play something up close and personal.’ So, I took the guitar and he played ‘Home Sweet Home’ for me in C tuning and it was great! Oh man! Just the tone he got is still one of the great finds of the universe.”

At 23, Pedersen had the ultimate banjo gig, playing the classic Flatt & Scruggs repertoire with the original band, while Scruggs recuperated from hip surgery. He packed up his 1930 RB-3 and became a Foggy Mountain Boy for the Spring and early Summer of 1967. “It was terrific. It was just an unbelievable band and they were very supportive, all of them. We did all their Mercury stuff, the Carnegie Hall set. They were branching out a little material-wise, but they hadn’t gotten into the Dylan stuff in 1967.”

Pedersen’s bluegrass stock soared. “When I got off the road with Lester, I got a call from Dean Webb saying that things had changed in the Dillards and would I be interested in being in the band? And I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I’m coming out in a month to play the Ash Grove with Vern & Ray and I could come out to your house and play some music and see how it works.’ And, I did.”

Replacing Doug Dillard on banjo, Pedersen brought his harmony arranging skills, helping the group with its ambitious Wheatstraw Suite and Copperfields albums. That got Pedersen into the L.A. session scene. “While I was with the Dillards, Linda Ronstadt was doing her Hand Sown…Home Grown album and I think Rodney (Dillard) suggested that I play and sing on her stuff. It’s a word-of-mouth kind of a deal. Everybody back then was looking for outside players. When I started recording with the Dillards on Elektra, people heard my harmonies and they said, ‘Gee, we’d like to have some of that on my record.’ And that kind of steered me into more studio work and more singer-songwriters started coming into L.A. It just got real busy and I had a child at the time and needed to make money, so I decided to leave the Dillards in 1970 and just pursue studio work.”

California Bluegrass And Desert Rose

Pedersen was also doing uncredited sessions, discreetly hiding other artists’ flaws by “sweetening” tracks in the days before Pro Tools. That included the Burrito Brothers, says Hillman. “He’s the guy who would come in and fix things. We did The Last Of The Red Hot Burritos and I left the band; Herb came in and did some repair work. He could take a sloppy band situation and turn it into something really tight.” He also worked on the two Parsons solo albums, says Pedersen. “It was just tracks that needed a little shoring up. So, I would come in and play guitar and do harmony vocals here and there. I worked on his last two records and it was a little tough trying to thread the needle on the harmony parts.”

Pedersen also sang on Country Gazette’s two United Artists LPs. That high, clean, bell-like harmony synonymous with the California bluegrass sound is largely the creation of Herb Pedersen. “We would just try to do different types of stacks as far as the vocals were concerned. And a lot of that had to do with my love for the Osborne Brothers, the way Sonny and Bob just kind of changed the template with Red Allen, those high lead things. We would listen to everybody we could, and do the kinds of things that we loved.”

Session work with a who’s who of ’70s California singer-songwriters and tours accompanying Jackson Browne and John Denver paid for Pedersen’s bluegrass habit. Though not a prolific writer, along with “Wait A Minute,” he penned the bluegrass standard “Old Train.” Pedersen made three solo albums (Southwest, 1976; Sandman, 1977; Lonesome Feeling, 1984, still available on Sugar Hill).

Hillman sang on Lonesome Feeling and the pair reunited for Dan Fogelberg’s all-star Nashville-meets-Colorado bluegrass project High Country Snows (1985). “Dan called me to come down and play banjo and sing and (David) Grisman came with me and we had Russ Kunkel and Emory Gordy and Jim Buchanan, great players, and we did it out at Norbert Putnam’s place in Franklin (a Nashville suburb). Then when Dan decided to go on the road, he had run into Chris in Colorado at some festival. And he said to Chris, ‘It would be really great if you could put together like a bluegrass quartet and open for me, and then I’ll come out and we’ll do part of the High Country Snows album.’”

Along with Pedersen, Hillman recruited Bill Bryson, who’d played with Don Parmley in the Bluegrass Cardinals as well as with Country Gazette. To fill out the group, Bryson suggested John Jorgenson, a guitar and mandolin ace playing bluegrass and swing at Disneyland.

Realizing Jorgenson was the hotter picker, Hillman put music ahead of ego. “I thought John should be the mandolin player, ’cause he was way ahead of me,” he explained. “But, Dan thought I should play mandolin, because he remembered me from Manassas. So John played guitar, and that was the beginning of Herb and I working together.”

“And that was the beginning of the Desert Rose Band,” adds Pedersen. “When we got off the road, John said to Chris, ‘Why don’t we plug in and see how it sounds country wise?’ And so we got Jay Dee Maness (who’d played on The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo) on steel and Steve Duncan on drums, and there it was.”

Hillman says there was no business plan. “John wanted to do a country band. And I just had no real inclination to do that again. I don’t know how Herb felt, but we said, ‘OK, we’ll try it.’ We’d go out to this little funky club out at the beach, and we made like $6 a night. We weren’t looking for a record deal, and all of a sudden we had a record deal and we started writing songs in that vein and that’s how it happened.”

For the next eight years, the Desert Rose Band racked up an impressive string of country hits, electrified bluegrass songs like “Ashes Of Love” and “Once More,” as well as tributes to the stripped-down Bakersfield sound that Pedersen and Hillman had also grown up on. With an approach of mixing bluegrass with a more fully realized—and disciplined—version of the Burritos’ country-rock, The DRB was a major reason people who love real country look back fondly on Nashville’s mid-’80s “integrity scare.”

Back To Bluegrass

After the DRB ran its course in 1993, Pedersen continued playing bluegrass, frequently performing with Bay Area buddy David Grisman. They recorded with the all-star Here Today, featuring Vince Gill on lead vocals, as well as Grisman’s Home Is Where The Heart Is project in which he performed with some of the greatest singers of the first generation including Del McCoury, Curly Seckler and Red Allen, and Allen’s Bluegrass Reunion.

After Jerry Garcia died in 1995, Pedersen took over on banjo in Old & In The Way (renamed Old & In The Gray). In addition, the tireless Pedersen led the Laurel Canyon Ramblers with Bryson on bass, recording three albums between 1995 and 1998: Rambler’s Blues, Blue Rambler 2, and Back On The Street Again. In 1996, he and Hillman reunited for the no-frills honky-tonk of Back To Bakersfield. In 2008, they reunited the original DRB for a show at Nashville’s bluegrass capital, the Station Inn, leading to sporadic, ongoing reunions.

Pedersen’s also has a new quartet, Loafer’s Glory, with Bryson and the father/son team of Bay Area old-time music master Tom Sauber and his multi-instrumentalist son Patrick. Pedersen plays rhythm guitar, leaving banjo to Patrick. And then there’s the acoustic Hillmen-Pedersen duo, which grew out of the DRB reunion, an easier less-encumbered way for old friends to tour and enjoy the simple pleasures of making music together.

After lifetimes of playing with hundreds of musicians, both men agree something special happens when they work together. At this point, their relationship is a bluegrass version of the Sunshine Boys, as Hillman (who seems to know every banjo joke) constantly needles a good-natured and laidback Pedersen.

With nothing left to prove, they just want to play and record the bluegrass and country they love. As Hillman says, “We want to leave something good that we’ve done; leave a piece of art with our names on it.” They hope to do that for the rest of their lives, he adds. “Unless we choke each other to death on the road or I shoot him,” he laughs. “But I don’t see that happening. I think we’ll play as long as we can, as long as there’s people that want to hear it.”

Larry Nager is a Nashville-based writer, musician, and documentary filmmaker.

One Response to “Together Again: Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen”

  1. Darryl Boom says:

    Great article!

    You mention Tom Sauber; Tom is from the LA area and is a long time friend of Bill Bryson. They we’re doing old-timey in the early 70′s. I first met Tom at Bob Given’s shop in El Monte. Later Tom and I played in a group with Bryson and we all went to play bluegrass in a different groups, including Cornbred with John Hickman, a group Tom and I started in the mid 70′s. Tom went on to establish himself in the old-time music field. His son Patrick has soaked up the music like a sponge and is a pleasure to listen to on mandolin, guitar or banjo.

    Here’s a great interview with Tom:


    Darryl Boom