Hillman’s new album Bidin’ My Time puts that pedigree on ferocious display. Produced by Tom Petty and executive produced by Herb Pedersen, the project captures a rarity: an icon who has never sounded better, making music with old friends for the sheer love of it. "I did everything I felt was right in the moment,” Hillman says of the recording process, before adding with characteristic sincerity, "I did my very best. That’s all any of us can do.”
Bidin’ My Time is an understated but undeniable masterpiece, relevant, layered, and bright. Folk, rock and roll, bluegrass, and the unmistakable country-rock Hillman helped pioneer come together seamlessly on songs written by Hillman and his peers in the 60s or in the last few years. Collaborators and admirers from Hillman’s storied career appear throughout the record, some as the album’s backing band, others in winking cameos. In addition to Petty, Bidin’ My Time features Hillman’s Byrds bandmates David Crosby and Roger McGuinn; the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench and Steve Ferrone; Desert Rose Band’s John Jorgenson and Pedersen; giants Jay Dee Maness and Mark Fain; the Shelters’ Josh Jové; and the Punch Brothers’ Gabe Witcher.
Petty’s debt to the Byrds is well documented, most of all by Petty himself––he penned the Byrds’ entry in Rolling Stones’ "100 Greatest Artists,” writing that the band is "immortal because they flew so high. For me, they're still way, way up there.” When he asked Pedersen to join him on a recent tour to sing background vocals, Pedersen called Hillman, his close friend for more than 50 years, from the road to check in. "I knew Tom, but I didn’t know him well,” says Hillman. "I didn’t think I’d make another record. I was done.”
Petty and Pedersen had other plans. "Somehow the idea popped up between Tom and Herb: ‘Why don’t we produce Chris?’” Hillman says. "It just kind of fell in my lap.”
Hillman recalls the conversation he finally had with Petty about producing the project in November of 2016. "I said, ‘Do you really want to do this?’ And he said, ‘Well, do you want me?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, I’d love to have you. But do you really want to commit to something like this?’ He said, ‘Well, do you want me to?’ Just back and forth.” Hillman laughs, then adds, "I said, ‘Man, you haven’t even heard any of these songs I have laying around.’ He said, ‘Aw, I know you’ll have some good stuff.’ Whatever that means.”
The funny anecdote reveals a big piece of who Hillman is––the only one in the room who doesn’t think he’s a legend. "I can look back on my career and say, ‘Gee, I wish this had happened,’ or ‘I wish I’d had more confidence,’––I was such a shy guy in all those groups I was in,” he says. "I could have been a bigger ‘whatever.’” He pauses. "But does it really matter?”
Hillman grew up in California in the 50s. After his sister––"the bohemian of the family”––came home from studying art at the University of Mexico and the University of Colorado with a stack of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and other records under her arm, 15-year-old Hillman became enamored with folk music. Then he heard old-time music and bluegrass, and his world shook. Head down, ears open, fingers suddenly itching inexplicably for a mandolin, a Southern California kid’s innocent obsession with Appalachian familial harmonies and strings would end up changing the course of music.
Almost 60 years later, Bidin’ My Time brims with that storytelling and virtuosity Hillman first loved, then perfected. The album kicks off with a new recording of Pete Seeger’s and Welsh poet Idris Davies’ "The Bells of Rhymney,” which the Byrds recorded for their debut, Mr. Tambourine Man. It’s always been Hillman’s favorite song the band ever recorded. Crosby and Pedersen contribute otherworldly harmonies to the tune, which swells from stripped-down folk into a layered rock-and-roll cry. "I decided to cut it again because I wanted to sing with David and Herb, two great tenors,” Hillman says. "David just loves Herb’s singing, and at 75-years-old, David is still a powerful singer––one of the best I’ve ever worked with or been around.”