Chris Hillman: The Asylum Years

Jeff Tamarkin on March 12, 2018

By the time he cut his first two solo albums in 1976–77, Chris Hillman had long ago earned his future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame credentials as a founding member of The Byrds—sticking around long enough to pioneer country-rock with the Gram Parsons edition of the band—the Flying Burrito Brothers (again with Parsons) and Manassas (with Stephen Stills). He then teamed with singer-songwriter J.D. Souther and ex-Buffalo Springfield/Poco member Richie Furay in a short-lived but fine trio that cut two albums before hanging it up. Hillman was certainly due for his own spotlight after a decade of sharing one, and his two albums for Asylum Records, Slippin’ Away and Clear Sailin’, although they tanked commercially, are highly considered among the aficionados of the ‘70s California singer-songwriter genre. The two records, presented for the first time on a single CD together, project distinct personalities. On Slippin’ Away, produced by Ron and Howard Albert, Hillman—as first-time solo artists often do (see Stills)—reveled in the freedom available to him. He  brought in numerous guests (Steve Cropper, Flo and Eddie) and went for a large sound that, while not quite approaching overproduced, wasn’t exactly lean either. Hillman’s singing on the set is strong and some of the songs—the title track, the bluegrassy “(Take Me in Your) Lifeboat”—are keepers, but the follow-up release is clearly the superior effort. This time, Hillman kept to the basics, sticking with a core band, save for a few embellishments and keeping the Jim Mason-helmed production more focused. A country-funky take on Marvin Gaye’s hit “Ain’t That Peculiar” is both an anomaly and a highlight, but Clear Sailin,’ overall, makes for an ideal intro to the rootsy, proto- Americana Desert Rose Band—his next adventure and one that would further cement Hillman’s place as a key, if often undervalued, artist of the era.

Label: Omnivore