Over his long and remarkable career, the modest roots musician Chris Hillman mostly has blended into whatever ensemble he joined. His face was one of many that decked the covers of the Byrds’ The Notorious Byrd Brothers, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin, and Stephen Stills’ Manassas.
Hillman eased into each of those projects, playing a pivotal role each time, but rarely sticking out. Even his 1980s foray into mainstream country was done not through his moniker but under the auspices of the Desert Rose Band. Given his understated, working-man nature, his is hardly a household name, except perhaps only to the geekiest of rock obsessive. And he has embraced that.
“I’ve had a great life,” Hillman said during a 2009 talk at the Library of Congress. “I didn’t want to be Bruce Springsteen. I didn’t want to be the king of the mountain. I wanted to play music, and it just happened, and it just developed, and I learned as I went along.”
On Bidin’ My Time, his first solo effort in more than ten years, Hillman appears out front in concept and art. True to form, however, is the album’s all-star composition, in which multiple rock and roots titans come together to support this Americana pioneer. Those names include Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of the Byrds, Herb Pedersen of the Desert Rose Band, and Tom Petty, who produced the record.
Bidin’ My Time respectfully covers the many genre forays of Hillman’s career, as well as notable influences. “Walk Right Back” is indebted to the Everly Brothers, with gentle melodies that recall Don and Phil in their heyday. Elsewhere, Hillman delivers a pristine take of “Bells of Rhymney”, a Pete Seeger song featured on the Byrds’ debut LP, Mr. Tambourine Man.
The album standout is a cover of Petty’s “Wildflowers”. The original was the title-track highlight of Petty’s finest mid-career achievement. Hillman’s version features a light bluegrass treatment and is buoyant through simplicity. Here, and only here, he recalls the joyful front-porch picking of his landmark 1982 Sugar Hill release Morning Sky.
Hillman remains grounded on his Byrds-inspired, jingle-jangle tracks like “She Don’t Care About Time”. The guitars chime in a way that harkens back to Turn! Turn! Turn!. On “Here She Comes Again”, Hillman and his backing band surge forward with a power-pop pacing.
As a package, Bidin’ My Time lacks cohesion. It is often as if Hillman is spinning a giant wheel to see what subgenre he should veer toward next. Although he has played in all of these spaces before, this approach can be somewhat off-putting in practice. The listener yearns for a singular statement.
Still, Bidin’ My Time finds this affable team player demonstrating that he deserves to be known to more than just the crate diggers. Hillman’s talent remains at high levels, even as he still lacks the widespread credit he so rightly deserves.