As ever, the Joe Val Festival — which reaches its 29th edition this weekend — will offer a lineup that draws on the best that bluegrass has to offer. But this year, the festival also offers the opportunity to see something a little different: an acoustic version of the Desert Rose Band.
The Desert Rose Band played electric West Coast country; it was part of the traditionalist resurgence in mainstream country music in the mid-1980s. Before calling it quits in 1994, the band enjoyed a string of top 10 hit singles, including a couple of number ones (“He’s Back and I’m Blue,” “I Still Believe in You”), and major touring success (which earned them the award for best touring band for three years running from the Academy of Country Music).
The band was founded by singer, songwriter, mandolinist and guitar player Chris Hillman. Twenty years earlier, he had played a primary role in the emergence of folk-rock and of country-rock, first as a member of the Byrds and then with the Flying Burrito Brothers. He also did a stint in Stephen Stills’s Manassas, and was part of country-rock supergroup the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band.
That sort of resume is not what you’d typically expect from one of Joe Val’s main attractions. But while he’s best known for those accomplishments, Hillman has also had enduring connections to acoustic music, and to bluegrass in particular. The same could be said of most of the members of the Desert Rose Band, two of whom — Herb Pedersen and John Jorgenson — will be joining Hillman onstage Saturday for acoustic treatments of Desert Rose Band material, along with some Byrds, Burritos, and other songs.
Indeed, Hillman’s musical career began in bluegrass. “The very first band I was in was the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, which was a great bluegrass band, a bunch of guys my age,” Hillman points out, speaking by phone from his California home. “After that I went into the Golden State Boys, later known as the Hillmen, with Vern Gosdin and his brother Rex, and Don Parmley.”
Pedersen had similar roots, continues Hillman. “Herb worked as a banjo player for a duo called Vern and Ray. They were from Arkansas. They were a killer bluegrass duo, and Herb was their banjo player at 18 years old.”
Those early bands, and especially the Hillmen, constituted his musical apprenticeship, he says. “It was hardcore, traditional bluegrass, and those guys could sing it and they could play it. That’s where I came from, and I learned it properly.” It carried over into the Byrds (“the first song I brought to the Byrds in 1966 or ’67 was ‘Time Between.’ Where did that come from? It came from my bluegrass roots”) and it remained a distinct element in subsequent endeavors, including Desert Rose Band harmonies, instrumentation choices, and songs.
That doesn’t surprise Jon Weisberger, an observer/practitioner thoroughly embedded in the bluegrass world — he’s an award-winning songwriter and journalist, radio host, and player, who will be performing at Joe Val Friday night as a member of Chris Jones and the Night Drivers. Weisberger argues that the acoustic version of the Desert Rose Band “really underscores the closeness of classic country and bluegrass.”
“There are some folks who like to make a hard and fast distinction between bluegrass and country music, and certainly, if you’re looking at contemporary country, it’s easy to see what a difference there is. But as soon as you start to go back in time, the differences really start to disappear.”
Weisberger thinks that what DRB took from bluegrass was band identity — “a self-contained unit that didn’t rely on a lot of extra studio guys, whether in the studio or on stage” — harmonies, and an emphasis on instrumental virtuosity.
“From a kind of 30,000-foot view,” he suggests, “Hillman and Pedersen have a coherent and consistent set of musical interests. How those come out, the exact flavor, whether Chris is playing a Telecaster or a mandolin, and whether Herb is playing a guitar or a banjo, almost becomes a function of what’s going on at that particular moment rather than some kind of change in direction.”