- Peter Blackstock American-Statesman Staff
When 2017 began, Tom Petty had two big commitments on the horizon. Looming in April was a 53-show tour with his band, the Heartbreakers, celebrating 40 years since the November 1976 release of their debut album. But first, he had some business to take care of with an old friend.
Chris Hillman had helped to change the direction of Petty’s life, half a century ago. As an original member of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers the Byrds, Hillman left an indelible mark on popular music in the 1960s, as his bluegrass background helped shape the Byrds’ influential melding of American roots music and British Invasion rock ’n’ roll. Petty openly revered the Byrds, covering a couple of their songs on his records and often citing the group as a primary inspiration.
Post-Byrds, Hillman had many more career highlights, joining Gram Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers in the 1970s and founding the countrified Desert Rose Band in the 1980s among other adventures. Along the way, he released a half-dozen solo records as well. But at 72, he had no plans for more. Until Petty came knocking.
Their mutual friend and fellow musician Herb Pedersen had been touring with Petty’s side-band Mudcrutch, and the subject of doing a record with Hillman arose. “Herb brought it up to Tom, and Tom jumped on it,” Hillman says. “I had no intention of making another record; I just wasn’t pursuing that. I had some songs, but the record business of halcyon days just wasn’t there anymore, and I wasn’t that interested. But Herb pushed that, and Tom was eager to jump on.”
So in January, they began recording at Petty’s home studio, working with Pedersen, Desert Rose guitarist John Jorgensen, several of the Heartbreakers and special guests including Hillman’s old Byrds mates David Crosby and Roger McGuinn. The result was “Bidin’ My Time,” a 12-song album that was released by Rounder Records on Sept. 22, just as Petty was concluding his five-month run with the Heartbreakers. A week later, Tom was gone.
Hillman, Pedersen and Jorgenson had just begun to support the new album with a tour that brings them to Austin on Nov. 10 for a show at the Texas Union Theater. They were in Nashville the day they heard the news. “It was devastating to everybody,” recalls Hillman, who says his initial instinct was to cancel the next few dates of the run.
It was his old Byrds mate McGuinn who convinced him otherwise. “Roger and Tom were very, very close friends,” Hillman says by phone from his home on Oct. 20, which would have been Petty’s 67th birthday. “When it was announced finally that Tom had passed away on that dreadful Monday (Oct. 1), Roger called me. And he said, ‘You cannot cancel these shows. Tom would not want you to do this. He would want you to be out there playing the music.’
“That was the greatest wisdom. It was just what I needed to hear. So we didn’t cancel the shows. We continued on, and we made it a celebratory thing every night, for Tom. We were honoring Tom with the music that we were a part of with him.”
Hillman is quick to note that the tour hasn’t become a tribute show; they’re playing “Bidin’ My Time” almost in its entirety, as opposed to covering songs from Petty’s repertoire. But there is one heartbreakingly beautiful point of intersection. The last song on the new album is “Wildflowers,” the title track to Petty’s 1994 triple-platinum album. Floating on Hillman’s sweetly straightforward lead vocal and mandolin, Pedersen and Jorgensen’s acoustic guitar textures, Benmont Tench’s piano accents and gentle string support from fiddler Gabe Witcher and uprightbassist Mark Fain, it’s an absolutely perfect closing track to one of 2017’s best and most important records.
And it was a very late add to the sessions. Hillman confesses that he didn’t really know the song until Petty asked Hillman and Pedersen to perform one of his songs at February’s Grammy MusiCares Person of the Year benefit concert, which honored Tom Petty in 2017. Pedersen suggested “Wildflowers,” and they performed it at the event. “As we worked it up, I said, ‘We need to record this.’ I talked to Tom and said, ‘Do you mind if we tackle “Wildflowers”?’ He said, ‘No, I’m honored, it’d be great!’”
It wasn’t the only track on the album that bloomed spontaneously in the midst of the sessions. Hillman’s story about the inclusion of “Walk Right Back,” a song written by Buddy Holly bandmate Sonny Curtis that was a 1961 hit for the Everly Brothers, illuminates just how valuable Petty could be in the studio as a producer.
“Between setting up for a song in Tom’s studio, Herb and I were goofing around and singing ‘Walk Right Back’ — just a couple of guitars, having fun,” Hillman says. “And Tom runs out of the booth. He says, ‘We gotta cut that right now.’ I said, ‘What?’ He says, ‘We gotta cut that song right now, let’s put it down.’ So we recorded it. Jorgenson was sitting there, and he does this solo. In about an hour we were done with the song. And it fit perfectly into the album.”
Indeed, the tune’s early-’60s origins help flesh out the historical arc of “Bidin’ My Time,” which places a handful of outstanding new tunes such as “Restless” and the title track (both written with native Texan Steve Hill) alongside fascinating glimpses into Hillman’s past. He pays tribute to fellow Byrd Gene Clark, who died in 1991, with “She Don’t Care About Time,” a Clark tune that appeared on the B-side of the band’s 1965 smash “Turn! Turn! Turn!” And he revisits the 1968 Byrds track “Old John Robertson,” which he and McGuinn wrote about a character from Hillman’s childhood days near San Diego, by adding a new verse and retitling the song “New Old John Robertson.”
Most auspicious, though, is “Here She Comes Again,” a two-and-a-half-minute gem that McGuinn and Hillman wrote in 1979 but never released. It’s a simple but instantly memorable number that sounds like a long-lost AM-radio classic. “It just always stuck with me; there was something about it,” Hillman says. “I think it was one of those situations where we sat down and were messing around, and wrote the song in 20 or 30 minutes. That particular territory was so familiar to us from the old days. It does sound like 1965. If not for this album, it probably would’ve sat in obscurity for the rest of our lives.”
And then there’s “Bells of Rhymney,” one of the Byrds’ most exquisite recordings. Released on their 1965 debut album “Mr. Tambourine Man,” it was a revelatory chiming-guitars take on a folk song Pete Seeger had created from passages written by Welsh poet Idris Davies about a 1920s coal mining disaster and strike.
Though it was never released as a single, Hillman said he thinks it’s the quintessential representation of the band. That motivated him to revisit it, with his Byrds mate David Crosby and Pedersen harmonizing on the track behind Hillman’s lead vocal.
“To me, if you were taking one song (to show) this is what the Byrds were, it would be ‘Bells of Rhymney,’” he says. “The harmonies, the groove of the song — for lack of a better explanation, there’s folk-rock. I hate to use that term; it’s so trite. But Mike Clarke was playing these beautiful things on the cymbals, and it was like, almost monastic.
“I remember David Crosby had an album of Bulgarian liturgical hymns, and it was just gorgeous; it was like chorale singing. This friend of ours had an art studio; he was a sculptor, and he let us play there sometimes. I remember the day we worked that up. We were sitting around playing that song, and then we recorded it. And to me, THAT was the Byrds — the sound of the Byrds, of what the Byrds were capable of doing.”
For Petty, getting to work on that song with one of his boyhood idols clearly was special as well. “He listened to the Byrds and really was quite taken with them as a young guy in Florida. And then he took it 10 steps up the ladder,” Hillman says. “He cut ‘So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star’ on a live album, and he cut ‘Feel a Whole Lot Better’ really well — as good or better, maybe, than we did.
“But he didn’t stay there. He just took it way beyond. When I heard ‘Listen to Her Heart,’ which is one of his older songs, I thought, my God, I wish we’d have had that. But that was probably the takeoff point when he left that strictly Byrds sound and went off.”
If “Bidin’ My Time” is, in many ways, a full-circle journey that brought the Petty/Byrds connection back together, one wonders what more might have come of it. “I think if Tom had not such an untimely passing, he probably would have been the one to put the three of us in the studio,” he says tantalizingly of a possible reunion with McGuinn and Crosby.
“He had mentioned he wanted to go out and do a semi-acoustical tour, like what Herb and I and John do,” Hillman says, the sadness and lament clearly evident in his voice. “You know, I was telling him (during the recording sessions), ‘This’ll be the last one I do, and I’m so glad it’s turning out so well.’ And he said, ‘I wouldn’t be saying that just yet.’ So he was saying that to me: ‘We’ve got other things to do.’
“It didn’t work out that way. But I couldn’t be happier with it. I’m just enjoying the moment, and if it’s the end of the trail, that’s OK.”