Chris Hillman Recalls Working With Tom Petty: ‘He Put His Heart and Soul Into It’
More than a half century after he made his first record as a member of the Byrds, singer-songwriter Chris Hillman figured that he might be done adding chapters to his impressive discography of work.
But Tom Petty had other ideas and reached out to Hillman, offering to produce a new album. The project began to take shape when Hillman’s longtime associate Herb Pedersen, who served as executive producer on the album, was out on tour with Petty and Mudcrutch in 2016. The pair began to toss around the idea of doing a record with Hillman, and, after the road dates wrapped up, Pedersen returned home and helped to negotiate a deal with Rounder Records.
Something that had seemed hypothetical at best suddenly became a reality for Hillman, who recalls thinking, “Okay, now what are we going to do?”
“Tom was on board and I really had to get it together," he tells Ultimate Classic Rock. "I just wasn’t thinking that way. But maybe that was a good thing, just approaching it without pressure. I don’t know where that pressure would come from at my age after all of these years. I figured if Tom wasn’t hearing it or it wasn’t what he thought it would be, he probably would have gotten out of it ever so graciously. He would have said, 'You know, I can’t finish the project, Herb’s going to take over. I’ve got to do this thing.' He would have come up with some idea. But he was there every day on time. He was on time more than we were and put his heart and soul into it.”
Bidin’ My Time, the album that emerged from the sessions, will be released on Sept. 22. It's a wonderfully cohesive mix of material from Hillman’s storied past, a stack of new songs and some choice picks representing treasured influences. Pedersen, Petty and members of the Heartbreakers helped to flesh out the recordings, which were brought to life at Petty’s studio, the Clubhouse, with his recording engineer Ryan Ulyate behind the boards.
Longtime Byrds associates David Crosby and Roger McGuinn are among the guests who stopped by and appear on the album. “Here She Comes Again,” a McGuinn/Hillman composition, even makes its recorded debut after being performed live by the former bandmates in the late ‘70s.
“Roger and I wrote that in 1979,” Hillman recalls. “I don’t know why we didn’t touch that thing. It’s very early Byrds, early Beatles, sort of ‘65 English-American rock. The melody is a good catchy melody. But all I’d ever had was a live show that was taped off of a soundboard in 1979. That’s all I had -- a very rough recording of it. I had the opportunity to cut it and I felt that the lyric wasn’t too dated. So I just said, 'Well, I’m going to play bass on this,” because I played bass originally, when we did it once or twice onstage.”
It was the first time in nearly 30 years Hillman had played bass. He says that working with the Heartbreakers, made it easy to tackle the challenge. “Steve [Ferrone] is such a good drummer," he says. "He’s just so right in the pocket. It’s effortless for me to pick up an instrument I haven’t touched for all of that time and play with him. Having those guys, they’re such good players and they knew exactly what to do. I didn’t have to tell them anything. They knew exactly where to go with it.”
Petty was a valuable asset to the sessions, too. In typical fashion, he wasn't afraid to offer an unvarnished opinion, which helped to keep the project on track and in focus. They began recording the album in January and worked on it as songs began to take shape, with a few happy accidents along the way.
“We’d work four or five hours [each day]," Hillman recalls. "I said, ‘I don’t like working over three or four hours, and I like to work in the daytime.’ He said, ‘Me too.’ As opposed to 30 or 40 years ago, when you’re up at night until two in the morning or some godawful hour. So that worked great. We pretty much had a game plan, but the Everly Brothers song, 'Walk Right Back,' was a total accident. Herb and I were goofing around while we had a little break in the studio. We were just goofing around with singing it, and Tom runs out of the booth and he says, ‘We’ve got to cut that right now.’ We cut it and sang it in an hour. It was just so much fun. Bottom line is that I’m not chasing a career. I’m not getting on the charts, but it was a great time making this record. If it’s the last one I make, that’s fine. I couldn’t ask for a better last hurrah.”
Bidin’ My Time doesn't overstays its welcome; clocking in at a little more than a half hour, it’s a brisk trip, and there's a chance you’ll find yourself returning to the beginning to listen to it all again. “I’ve had so many strange situations where I’ll make a record for somebody and they’ll say, ‘Well, there’s not enough time,’" Hillman explains. "Herb and I did an album about eight or 10 years ago, and they actually said, ‘There’s not enough music on this CD.’ I said, ‘Well, are we selling it by the pound? Or are we trying to make a record where you don’t have to fast forward?’ Don’t fill it up with filler material. This one, we went, ‘That’s enough.’ We did 12 songs."
Hillman notes that an outtake from the sessions will probably be offered as a download to fans who buy the vinyl version. "In the old days, it was 10 to 12 songs on a vinyl album, six on a side," Hillman says. "I think Tom said, ‘Well, they can call me if they have a problem.’”
Hillman and Pedersen plan to hit the road in the fall to play the new music live. In addition to most of Bidin’ My Time, Hillman expects them to pull songs from his past -- like the Byrds' “Eight Miles High” and cuts by his other bands, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band -- during the sets. "It’s from 1965 on, and the new album is fitting right into that," he says. "I don’t see one song that wouldn’t fit into the format we have.”
Tom Petty Albums Ranked Worst to Best