Chris Hillman Reflects on The Flying Burrito Brothers' 'The Gilded Palace of Sin' at 50

 Jim McCrary/Redferns
The Flying Burrito Brothers photographed in 1969.

Chris Hillman remembers his old country-rock group, the Flying Burrito Brothers, as not just a good-time band -- but as part of a lineage. “In Old Testament terms, the Byrds begat the Burritos,” he describes. “Which begat Manassas and the Eagles.”

That down-home pedigree goes right through The Gilded Palace of Sin. Today (Feb. 6) marks the 50th anniversary of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ debut album, now typically heard by critics and fans as the moment when country married rock. They didn’t set out to be innovators; back in 1969, Hillman was simply adrift from a dysfunctional Byrds and wanting to try something new.

The 1960s heroes had experimented with country music ever since their second album, Turn! Turn! Turn!; on The Gilded Palace of Sin, Hillman would bring his nascent interest fully into the light. And Gram Parsons, a Harvard dropout and country music obsessive who spent a few months as a Byrd, was the lodestar for all of it.

The Byrds’ previous album was Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a full-on costume change into Western wear. The results tanked commercially and rankled rock and country fans equally; too hokey for the former, too performative and ironic for the latter. They never returned to the style.

When Hillman quit the band in a huff in a 1968, Parsons won him in the divorce. Where Sweetheart approached country like an anthropologist, the Flying Burrito Brothers played the role to the hilt -- with a few twists.

On songs like “Christine’s Tune,” “Sin City,” “Do Right Woman,” the Burritos peppered their country music with dry-humored, surreal imagery that would have made Ernest Tubb blush. On the cover, they donned suits by Nudie Cohn, a designer who remixed cowboy-cut suits by adding rhinestones and embroidered images of pills, poppies and marijuana leaves.

But the Burritos concept was unsustainable. In Hillman’s words, Parsons became “inconsistent,” preferring to go on limo rides and party with Keith Richards than to move the band forward. And Hillman, who was growing into a consummate professional, ousted him.

Parsons briefly led a solo career before dying of an overdose at 26; Hillman soldiered on with the Burritos before forming folk-rockers Manassas with Stephen Stills. Bernie Leadon, a brief addition to the Burritos, ran with that country-rock idea -- eventually joining the more commercially successful Eagles.

Now, the idea of “country rock” is a given: Americana disciples from Old ‘97s to Son Volt have been advancing the Burritos’ agenda ever since. Still, the high and lonesome Sin stands alone. And Hillman, the last surviving founding member of the band, was there for it all.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of The Gilded Palace of Sin, Billboard spoke with Hillman about his memories of the original album and how the Flying Burrito Brothers proved to be ahead of their time.

The Gilded Palace of Sin is often cited as the genesis of country rock. Were you guys cognizant that you were innovating a new genre, or were you just trying to make the kind of music you wanted to hear?

You’re absolutely right. I’ve never gone into something thinking that. The album that set up the Flying Burrito Brothers was Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and Roger, Gram and I did not go to Nashville to try and break into country music. We were just making an album and having a good time. You don’t pre-plan it. “Country rock” was coined by a journalist. I don’t know who. It doesn’t matter.

The Byrds never wanted to be boxed in. We did try different things. We were trying country songs back on 1965’s Turn! Turn! Turn!. But I think Sweetheart was the precursor to it all. It was not the biggest-selling Byrds album. It was critically panned. People were going, “What are they doing?” Country radio and rock radio didn’t want to touch it. But 5-10 years down the road, they both became these cool, hip albums.

My only regret is that I came out of a band that was really good -- the Byrds. The Burritos had the material, but we were sloppy and lazy, and we didn’t really execute the songs the best we could.

What led to your exit from the Byrds?

I was frustrated. I didn’t leave the Byrds in a gentlemanly manner. It was after a show. Very immature, in hindsight. I’m very ashamed of that behavior. But Roger and I are very, very close, dear friends, and he’s a very forgiving man. I’m sure I’ve forgiven him for things. But my exit from the Byrds was not in the way it should have been done.

The Gilded Palace of Sin kicks off with “Christine’s Tune,” which is such a bitter breakup song. What, or who, inspired it?

Well, it’s not a pleasant story. We wrote the song about this girl. Parsons and I got together and we were living in this house. We had both come out of these failed relationships. This girl we knew was causing havoc and spreading a lot of unnecessary rumors. It’s pretty trivial now.

But the problem was, Christine was David Crosby’s girlfriend, and then they were quite an item. Then she got in a horrible car crash and died. So, we quickly changed the name of that song to “Devil in Disguise.” I felt terrible. It’s sort of a misogynistic song.

“Sin City” is full of intriguing images: earthquakes, mohair suits and researchers in a lab.

We were sort of writing about the culture back in 1969: Robert Kennedy, the California earthquakes. “We’ve got our recruits / And our green mohair suits.” I don’t know what Gram’s talking about there.

How about “Hot Burrito #1," a beautiful soul ballad that doesn’t have much to do with country music at all?

That’s probably one of his best vocals he had on record. He was a little loose on his lead singing, but that and “Hot Burrito #2” are very heartfelt, soulful renditions. God knows why he named it that. Elvis Costello did it and changed it to “I’m Your Toy.” That’s a great title.

For all of Sin’s brilliance, it seems like Gram was attracted to country music on an intellectual level where he didn’t have to get his hands dirty.

Dwight Yoakam had the greatest line of all about Gram: “You can’t be a country singer with a trust fund.” Oh my God, that’s so spot on. Gram had a trust fund coming every year. His parents bought him a club called Derry Down so he’d have a place to play in. That doesn’t help you when you’re trying to achieve a career in music.

There were some interesting times when he’d rent a limo to go to the show, and it’d be some little club in L.A. Mike Clarke, the Byrds’ drummer, and I had already been around the block with that game. His background really hurt him, in that he didn’t share that total hunger. He didn’t have to worry. He didn’t have to suffer.

I say this out of truly loving Gram Parsons, but then I lost him. I lost him to his excesses. It was almost like he was swapping out his career for other pursuits. He had a lot of talent, but his work ethic wasn’t up to par. He was inconsistent and unprofessional onstage. As good as he was, it was all a fantasy to him.