The Byrds' Chris Hillman on the 'Sweetheart' Anniversary Tour: 'I Haven't Had This Much Fun In 40 Years'

Roger McGuinn Chris Hillman
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn perform during the Sweetheart of the Rodeo Reunion at The Mountain Winery on July 29, 2018 in Saratoga, Calif. 

Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman have just another seven dates lined up for their tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Byrds' influential Sweetheart of the Rodeo album with Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives. But after a rapturous reception, Hillman predicts the project could take flight again in the new year.

"There's a lot of markets we're not getting to -- the northwest, parts of California, Arizona, Utah and thereabouts, so you never know what might happen," Hillman, who in 1968 also turned Sweetheart into a springboard to form the Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons. "I don't know if it's something you can stop doing and then start it up again six or eight months later. I'm not sure about that. I'd have to listen to wiser people on that idea. We might say, 'OK, I'll see you in March' and we'll go to Detroit. Anything could happen -- and I hope it does. I haven't had this much fun in 40 years."

Whether that happens or not, however, Hillman also voices a desire to document the shows in some fashion. "We need to do a DVD for them that won't see this -- and probably those who did," he explains. "There should really be a good DVD. We thought about doing one at the Ryman, but the expenses to do it there were way too much. I'd just like to have (a video) for myself, but a lot of people aren't getting to see this, and that would be a way to bring it to them."

The Sweetheart show -- which is currently slated to wrap Dec. 19 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. -- features the album in its entirety, with scripted narration by McGuinn and Hillman, along with a selection of other Byrds favorites. The troupe also pays tribute to the late Tom Petty -- a Byrds devotee who produced Hillman's 2017 album Bidin’ My Time -- with performances of his "American Girl," "Wildflowers" and "Runnin' Down a Dream." Hillman says it was his funk after Petty's October 2017 death that helped get the Sweetheart tour going in the first place.

"I was ready to cancel the last four dates of my tour, I was so upset," Hillman remembers, "and Roger calls me out of the blue and he knew Tom had passed and he said, 'Tom would not want you to quit and go home. You know that.' He said, 'Go out and celebrate him and play those shows.' It was total wisdom, just what I needed.

"Then Roger called me a few months ago with the idea of doing this. The whole thing was so well thought-out I jumped on it and said 'Absolutely!' I must give Roger full credit; It was a great idea, and I think he really wanted me to get moving again."

Hillman has, in the past, said that Sweetheart "wasn't my favorite album in the whole Byrds catalog," despite its acknowledged status as the launch pad for the California country-rock movement of the '70s. Hillman felt he was "still getting my feet solid" as a singer, while rebuilding the band after the acrimonious departures of Gene Clark, David Crosby and Michael Clarke was difficult -- even if new arrivals Parsons, Clarence White, Kevin Kelley and Gene Parsons made for just as potent of a lineup.

Now, Hillman acknowledges, "The album stands up. It's funny when you start thinking about it. We didn't even know what we were doing. We were rebuilding the band. We hire Parsons and off we go. But, y’know, that was one of the wonderful things about the Byrds -- we never wanted to be boxed in. We always explored other genres. By the time we got to the point of doing Sweetheart we had already ventured into psychedelic rock. We never wanted to be one thing, so consequently we lasted a long time."

And rest assured his attachment to Sweetheart has grown stronger over the years. "The songs mean more to me now in the way we're playing them," Hillman says. "They're so solid; The arrangements are the same, but the way we're delivering the songs, there's so much more energy and excitement in it, and it makes for a better presentation. The songs really come alive now onstage. It's the perfect mix of Marty and his band and Roger and I."

At the time the Sweetheart tour was announced Crosby made some wounded noises about not being included, but Hillman says he and McGuinn took quick measures to smooth over any bad feelings. "I think he got some wrong information and thought we were going out as the Byrds," Hillman says. "He wrote Roger and said, 'I feel really hurt,' and immediately we both wrote him back separately, and said, 'No, no no, this is the Sweetheart album. It's not a Byrds reunion. We're just doing this album from 50 years ago that you were not involved in.' He was always invited to come see it -- still is, if he wants to. I care about David a lot. He's a mischievous little bad boy, still, but I do love him dearly."

Hillman plans to take the early part of 2019 to consider what he wants to do next. Top of the list is a memoir he's been working on, which is "90 percent done" and Hillman plans to finish and add Petty's death and the Sweetheart tour. "It's not a huge priority in my life; I don't know fi the world needs another aging rock star autobiography," Hillman says. "I don't have any horrible angles. I didn't go to prison. I wasn't a drug addict. I was a lucky kid that loved music and got to follow his dream. I don't want to denigrate anybody or anything. I'm just trying to be as honest as possible, and I remember everything."


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