John Jorgenson on His Bluegrass Band, Herb Pedersen & Chris Hillman


The John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band made its long-awaited return to the concert stage in late July 2021, bringing its high-lonesome harmonies and wide-ranging instrumental prowess to stages in Santa Ynez and Redlands, California.

“Returning to the stage with J2B2 after more than a year, excited and a little nervous too,” the Grammy-winning guitar virtuoso and designer, music teacher, bandleader, session ace, and producer confessed in a July 12 social media post. “Hoping to see some friends out there,” Jorgenson said. “In the meantime, I will be trying to regain my callouses!”

Jorgenson (acoustic guitar, mandolin, and vocals), Herb Pedersen (banjo, acoustic guitar, and vocals), Mark Fain (bass), and Patrick Sauber (acoustic guitar and vocals, who replaced Jon Randall) – brought their signature high-lonesome harmonies and wide-ranging instrumental prowess to the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez on Wednesday night, July 28, as part of the “Tales From The Tavern” series.

“Last night did go well overall – a bit rusty, but certainly spirited!!” he said in a private message Thursday.

On Friday night, J2B2 followed with a free outdoor concert for a crowd of 6,500 people at the historic Redlands Bowl in Jorgenson’s hometown of Redlands.

The John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band aka J2B2: Mark Fain, John Jorgenson, Patrick Sauber, and Herb Pedersen, 2021. Courtesy photo.

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Have Callouses, Will Travel

Before the pandemic crippled the live music industry in spring 2020, Jorgenson’s were some of the most versatile and well-traveled callouses on the planet.

Raised in a musical family, he plays just about everything with strings, plus several wind instruments and piano. He gigs in as many as five different lineups devoted to different genres, and enjoys an international following.

In addition to J2B2, there’s the John Jorgenson Quintet (homage to string-driven gypsy jazz and swing of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, with other tasty musical flavors blended in); the John Jorgenson Electric Band (aka JJEB, rock, blues, country, and more); and Hooker, John & Harry (aka HJ&H, vocal trio with Beth Hooker and Harry Stinson); and John Jorgenson, Dennis Diken & Mike Mesaros of The Smithereens (JJDDMM, East Coast-meets-West Coast alt-rock).

A co-founder of the country chart-topping Desert Rose Band with Pedersen, bassist Bill Bryson, and Chris Hillman in 1987, Jorgenson went on to co-found The Hellecasters electric rockabilly-roots rock band in 1993 with Will Ray and Jerry Donahue.

He was also Elton John’s lead guitarist for six years from 1994-2000, touring the world with Elton, a serious DRB fan who has called Jorgenson a “brilliant guitarist.”

Before all that, Jorgenson had played in Dixieland, bluegrass, and gypsy jazz groups at Disneyland, often all three in the same day, just by changing costumes, instruments, and repertoire. He’s carried on the same musical juggling act just about ever since.

Over the years, he’s also done scores of sessions, including collaborations with Earl Scruggs, Bonnie Raitt, Luciano Pavarotti, Tommy Emmanuel, and Bob Dylan as well as Elton John.

Jorgenson earned his Grammy as one of the featured pickers on “Cluster Puck,” a track from Brad Paisley’s 2009 “Play: The Guitar Album.”

Combining bluegrass with elements of West Coast folk-rock and country, the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band is the quintessential American roots music quartet. So far, J2B2 has released one album, “From The Crow’s Nest,” out in 2018.

We’ll find out more about much of the above in the interview below. But first, check out J2B2’s performance of Pedersen’s heartbreaker “Wait a Minute,” one of the songs featured on the album, at Music City Roots’ “Live from The Factory” on May 10, 2017:

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John Jorgenson Talks About Chris Hillman and ‘Time Between’

In late April 2021, in an hour-long conversation with this writer, John Jorgenson spoke about the arc of his friendship and musical adventures with Chris Hillman, co-founder of The Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas, the Souther-Hillman-Furay band, McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, Desert Rose Band, and more.

Desert Rose co-founders Jorgenson, Hillman, and Pedersen have worked together in numerous configurations in the post-DRB era. Herb and John were key figures in the recording of “Bidin’ My Time,” Hillman’s acclaimed 2017 solo album, the last sessions produced by their friend and fan Tom Petty.

jorgensonHillman published his memoir, “Time Between,” through BMG Books on November 17, 2020, with a second printing quickly following in early 2021.

Read and see my two-part interview with Hillman in late February here and here; signed copies of “Time Between” are available directly from Hillman’s website.

“John Jorgenson is a true artiste. He’s a phenomenal musician,” Hillman has said.

Read SKP’s conversation with Herb Pedersen about J2B2’s return, plus DRB, his pal Chris Hillman, and Hillman’s 2020 memoir, “Time Between.”

My conversation with Jorgenson has been edited for length, clarity, and flow.

Stephen K. Peeples: John, what was your first awareness of Chris Hillman as a musician or as an artist?

John Jorgenson: Probably The Byrds, like everybody else. I remember trading 45s with somebody so I could get “Mr. Tambourine Man” on a 45. I was that young [about 9] where I probably didn’t know who the band members were. But pretty soon in my development, I started reading magazines, books, articles, liner notes, and everything about musicians. So I was aware of Chris early on, and later heard about him in the Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas, Souther-Hillman-Furay, and McGuinn, Clark & Hillman.

Bassist Bill Bryson, go-to bassist, key player in careers of Herb Pedersen, Chris Hillman, and John Jorgenson, among countless others.

I remember reading a feature on Chris in an acoustic music magazine called Frets talking about his bluegrass background, and I didn’t know that until then.

At that time, I was playing bluegrass pretty much every day at Disneyland as well as clubs around L.A. in the evening like McCabe’s or the Banjo Cafe in Santa Monica.

One of the musicians I became really good friends with back then was [bassist, singer, and songwriter] Bill Bryson. He’d come and play with my band and we would jam at festivals and such.

Pretty soon Bill started playing in a band with Chris, Al Perkins, and Bernie Leadon, and Bill told me about that, which was cool.

Grisman-Jorgenson NAMM Jam 1985

In January 1985, at the NAMM Show, the musical instrument trade show in Anaheim [near Disneyland], I had just met David Grisman, who was there demonstrating a signature mandolin a company was putting out for him. I happened to have a guitar, am a fan of his, and knew he liked Django. So I asked, “Do you want to play a couple tunes together?”

While we were playing, up walked Chris and Al. So there was no better way I could have been introduced to Chris than jamming with David Grisman.

Peeples: Chris told me it was Bill Bryson who turned him on to you; he said, “You gotta see this kid! He’s amazing! He’s red-hot!”

Jorgenson: Yeah, that’s right. I didn’t know it then, but Bill had already laid the groundwork, and then Chris saw me play, so it worked out well.

At that time, Bernie decided he wanted to do something different, so he quit playing with Chris and there was a spot open.

I was living in Anaheim when Chris called and asked me to come up to Ventura and play with him a little bit. That was my first visit to Ventura, and I thought, “I really like it up here; maybe one day I’ll live here.” Fast forward to 2012 and I did move to Ventura, so it’s all down to that meeting in 1985.

We’d done a couple of tours as that lineup [Hillman, Perkins, Bryson, and Jorgenson] when Dan Fogelberg called Chris and asked him, “Would you open for me and back me up?”

He and Herb Pedersen had done “High Country Snows” with Dan, which had come out in the spring [of 1985]. And since Herb had been such a big part of the album, Chris asked him to come on the tour instead of Al. So, that’s when the four of us started playing together, in the summer of that year.

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Dan had been playing selected dates at big venues around the country, with a larger band. Chris was playing bass in that one and David Grisman was playing mandolin. Then when Dan toured in the summer, he wanted a smaller band to back him up, so that’s what we did.

Jorgenson in Cheatin’ Hearts & Desert Roses

Peeples: Now, before the Fogelberg album, Chris and Herb had recorded “Morning Sky” and “Desert Rose” in 1982 and 1984. Tell me how the Desert Rose Band came to be.

Jorgenson: Well, before that time, I was friends with Bill, and he also was in a band with me – I had a band called the Cheatin’ Hearts. It was Bill Bryson, Steve Duncan [ex-Stone Canyon Band with Rick Nelson] on drums, “Sneaky” Pete [Kleinow] on pedal steel, a singer named Kittra Moore, and Bob Knight. It was the same kind of lineup as Desert Rose Band would be, except the Hearts also had a girl singer.

I’d been creating that kind of music, but when I started playing with Chris, it was an acoustic quartet. He was also bringing in some new songs he’d written, like “Leave This Town,” “Love Reunited,” “Midnight Heart,” and “One Step Forward.”

When I heard those, I thought, “These don’t sound like acoustic songs. They need to be with a full band, with drums and electric guitar and pedal steel and whatever.”

[As in early ’88, when the young band appeared on “Austin City Limits”:]

I mentioned that to Chris and he wasn’t interested. I can see why, in hindsight, because he’d been in all those bands for so many years, and now he was happily playing acoustic music again. I kept on about it without trying to be a pest — and he still wasn’t interested and still wasn’t interested.

But I really heard the sound in my head. It would marry some classic California country-rock with some classic British guitar, and incorporate the Rickenbacker 12-string, pedal steel, and the bluegrass harmonies.

So I made a demo of a couple of songs where I played all the instruments and sang the parts, just to show Chris what I was hearing. I got him to sing the lead vocal on one so he could really hear it. I think after hearing what I heard, he was like, “OK, all right, I see how this could work. Let’s try it.”

We did a couple of gigs using some friends of Herb’s on drums and pedal steel that didn’t work out so well, so I lobbied for Steve Duncan and JayDee Maness [ex-International Submarine Band member with Gram Parsons and a featured player on The Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” in 1968]. The first gig with them was at Trancas in Malibu. I think the second gig was at the Palomino, and we started getting record company interest almost immediately.

Passel of Palomino Pals

Peeples: There’s that classic photo of the band sitting with your gear out in front of the Palomino on Lankershim in North Hollywood.

Jorgenson: Yes; that was taken by the fantastic Western photographer Jay Dusard. He did our first album cover and then took that shot in front of the Palomino. I think on the marquee it says, “Keith Richards’ Birthday Party” and “The Ventures,” the eclectic nature of the Palomino at the time. For me and Steve and Bill and JayDee especially, it was a cool thing because we’d played there so much.

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The Desert Rose Band unloads for a late-’80s gig at the world-famous Palomino nightclub in North Hollywood, California. From left: JayDee Maness; Herb Pedersen; Chris Hillman; John Jorgenson; Bill Bryson; and Steve Duncan. Photo: Jay Dusard.

The first time I’d played the Palomino was with a New Wave band in 1979 or 1980. But the first time I went there, surprisingly, was to see a version of the Flying Burrito Brothers in the ‘70s sometime. Chris was no longer part of it then. I didn’t really know much about them; I just wanted to see “Sneaky” Pete, with whom I would later be in a band.

During the break, the house band invited somebody to come up and sit in on pedal steel. He’d just played the solo on Ray Stevens’ big hit version of “Misty.” That was JayDee Maness.

So, the very first time I attended the Palomino, I also saw and heard two legendary pedal steel players I ended up being in bands with down the road.

It’s pretty crazy when I think back on all these different things. You couldn’t make this stuff up, really.

Peeples: In his book [titled “Time Between” after the first song he wrote for The Byrds, appearing on “Younger Than Yesterday” in 1967], Chris refers to Desert Rose Band as the pinnacle of his career, both musically and personally and for a lot of reasons: The songwriting, the musicianship, the camaraderie between the band members, the lack of drama, and the success all rolled into one were far more than he’d achieved in any of his previous groups.

Jorgenson: Well, of course, I love hearing that because if I’m immodest about it, the band was my idea and I really pushed for it. So, for him to feel that way about it feels really good.

At the time, I remember feeling really proud that, “OK, this idea I had, people actually like it!” I understand he also feels that way because, in all of these other bands he was in, he wasn’t usually the primary singer or the primary songwriter. He would either be a co-leader with somebody like Roger McGuinn or Gram Parsons or J.D. Souther or Richie Furay. Here he was, the primary songwriter and lead singer.

Desert Rose Band had nine Top 10 singles, five of them went No. 1. That might be more chart success even than The Byrds, perhaps; I don’t know.

Peeples: That’s true…

Jorgenson: Be it maybe that country is a smaller marketplace than rock music. But, yeah, for DRB to be Chris’s personal pinnacle, I’m really proud of that.

When I hear live tapes or see video clips of the band from back then, it really was a stunning ensemble, from the polish of our vocals and skill on the instruments and the tones everyone had. It really, really was a very, very good band.

Peeples: John, it’s a perfect segue to my next question, about the band’s performance on “Austin City Limits” [first broadcast in 1988]. All of those things were on display.

Jorgenson: I wouldn’t say we were 100 percent fully formed yet, but we were very close. We ended up getting a little bit better equipment, the instruments and things, probably four or five months later than that, but everybody definitely had their legs by that time and it was still new enough where there was a lot of that early enthusiasm.

Peeples: Yeah, you guys seemed to be really, really excited about playing this music together on “ACL.”

Jorgenson: Yes. Of course, I’d watched “Austin City Limits” from afar as a young musician in California, and thought, “One day, maybe I could be on there.” So, to realize that goal was fantastic, and to be there with a band I was really proud of, and bring my mix into that style of music, was really exciting.

Brad Paisley told me he wore out his videotape of that show. Another thing that’s kind of funny is the guitar I was playing on that show – I ended up giving to him, not even realizing he’d probably paid more attention to that guitar than anybody else in the world. So now he’s the owner of the guitar that I’m playing on that clip, and he treasures it.

Peeples: What was it, and what was so remarkable about it?

Jorgenson: It was a G&L A-S-A-T, or, ASAT, as they called it. Leo Fender gave me that guitar.

Before that, I was playing a Fender Telecaster, and I really loved that guitar so much. I would carry around this other guitar with me and try it in soundchecks, but always thought, “Oh, if I play it on the show, I’ll be missing my other guitar.” But one day, I tried it, and was like, “Wow! That just sounds great.”

Leo had done a couple of things to the pickups and the bridge that even made it more responsive, and so, that was the model of guitar. They made me a silver sparkle one, and that’s the one I ended up playing most through Desert Rose Band, ‘cause I wanted the bling, you know? But the ASAT was just a plain wood guitar, and it sounded fantastic, and as I said, Brad had watched that video so much, the guitar was iconic to him.

Peeples: Speaking of bling, the Burritos were famous for their Nudie suits and you guys also were into dressing well for the stage.

Jorgenson: Oh, yeah, we liked to do that. It was a nod to the traditional country people we liked, like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and also a tip of the hat to Chris’ history in the Flying Burrito Brothers. My inclusion of the Rickenbacker 12-string into the Desert Rose Band was a bit of a nod to The Byrds. I think everybody was very aware of Chris’s history and the [musical] things that were important to him, and I was happy to try to make sure to include those into the band.

Peeples: Well, looking back at DRB now, what would you say would be your favorite DRB album and why would that be?

Jorgenson: Probably “Running,” the second album. I really love the “Running” album. By that time, we were fully formed, hadn’t been an entity long enough for any dissatisfaction to set in or anything like that. Of the songs, I think [the title song] is one of Chris’s best songs.

Peeples: Why is that? Let’s talk about “Running” for a moment, what it meant to him to perform that in front of people. It was very personal…

Jorgenson: Chris of course mentions in his book his father’s suicide when [Chris] was a teenager, and as anyone can imagine, that would be a huge, huge impact on anyone’s life. But [suicide] wasn’t something talked about very much at that time. So, for Chris to sing it about it and express it musically in a song was really powerful. To me, the more personal and powerful the song was, the more the band was able to get behind it with emotion. Musically, “Running” also bridged some of that Byrds sound with country, a little bit of British rock, and the harmonies; it just had everything.

Another song on that album I was really proud of is “Homeless.” We didn’t play that live very much because it just seemed like maybe a little bit of a downer of a subject for a live show. And country audiences at that time were probably not really interested in introspective or thoughtful lyrics. But as a guitarist, I was really proud of my playing on it; it was different, not run-of-the-mill country playing; it had a mood to it.

There were a lot of good songs on that album: “Summer Wind” and “She Don’t Love Nobody.” “I Still Believe in You.” “Hello Trouble,” which a lot of people tell me has their favorite guitar solo of all time. So, yeah, there’s a lot of nice elements in that album.

Anger Management & Abatement

Peeples: Chris wrote about the anger management issue he had and how it affected him personally and professionally. He recounted a few beefs with bandmates, some fistfights even, occasionally, along the way.

You were in Desert Rose Band with him a bit later in his career, so he’d been through a lot of tumultuous stuff by that time. But I’m curious to know what his demeanor was like during the DRB period, and if any of that anger showed up, and what you guys did to perhaps help him get through whatever issue he was having.

Jorgenson: Um, yeah, it would show up from time to time, but I wasn’t really aware of that kind of issue at that time. I was young and green, so I would just take it upon myself to try to make everything as easy as possible for him: get there early and try to get the monitors working well so he could hear himself sing and wouldn’t blow out his voice. Different things like that.

For better or worse, he was the mouthpiece for the band, and it served all of us for him to be in his best mood to speak with radio people and the audience and whatever. I just tried to be as supportive as I could and try to do for him what I would want someone to do for me in the same position.

Peeples: Can you remember anything in particular that triggered him, that created a scene? Not necessarily creating a scene, but tension within the group or…

Jorgenson: No, there wasn’t really any of that kind of stuff in the group, as he even mentioned. There weren’t wild characters like Crosby has been known to be – I’ve seen that – or Gram Parsons or whoever. All the DRB members were pretty solid and professional, especially by that time.

Jealous Rednecks and Shady Club Owners

I remember one time we were in Mississippi, in Tupelo, Mississippi, playing at a venue, and literally, we were billed underneath Ginger the Bear. You would pay five dollars to wrestle Ginger the Bear.

Peeples: Uh-oh.

Jorgenson: When we pulled in there for soundcheck, there were guys there who were waiting for us. They saw us as these interlopers from California who were gonna steal their girls or something. They kept trying to trip us up. So [the band’s trouble] was more stuff like that.

I remember Chris was a lot more aware. You could see what they were doing. He was smart, though. He made sure we didn’t talk to any of those people and got out of there quick.

One time in Hickory, North Carolina, we had finished our show, and the owner of the venue told us we had to play more, but Chris was like, “No, this is the contract. We’re done.” And he said, “Well, you know, my brother-in-law’s the sheriff in the town, and blah blah…” Very intimidating. We had to load up as quickly as possible and get the heck out of there. And we did get pulled over getting out of town.

There was some adventure, yeah. One time I remember there was a band opening for us, and they just wouldn’t get off-stage. They were supposed to play for 30 minutes and ended up playing more than an hour-fifteen or something.

And that really got Chris mad because it’s disrespectful and it was our audience. The artist will remain nameless.

All Good Things Must Pass

Peeples: What was your feeling toward the end?

Jorgenson: I left in 1991, I believe, a couple of years before Chris decided to stop. We were recording an album called “True Love” and I wasn’t happy with the production, the direction.

Tony Brown was the producer, who I had worked for many times with other artists, and he was the right producer on those, but I didn’t feel like he was the right producer for our band. I think there was a conscious effort to try to revert back to an earlier sound, revert back to the first album, as opposed to pushing forward, and I’m always a pushing-forward kind of musician.

Also, I realized at that time, country music and country radio had really turned much harder, to Brooks & Dunn, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black. It was the time of the hats. And Desert Rose Band was not at the center of that. When our records were doing well, there was a progressive element happening. That had shifted away. I wanted to push my guitar playing, get more progressive, and there just wasn’t room for that. So, country just wasn’t the format for that for me anymore.

JayDee was actually the first one to leave the band, even before that album was made. Steve Duncan and I left in November [1991].

Ironically, the two of us and JayDee ended up playing on a country television show called “Hot Country Nights” for a season on NBC. Steve ended up playing with me in The Hellecasters for a number of years, too. And then, of course, Herb is a part of J2B2, my bluegrass band.

We’ve had some Desert Rose Band reunion tours with all of the original members, which was pretty amazing, as late as in 2014, I think it was, and unbelievably, the band sounded as good as it ever had.

Peeples: I think that’s because you had all continued to work and be active as musicians, so it was no real stretch to recall the groove.

Jorgenson: Yeah, that’s true. Each player and singer could play and sing as well as ever. It’s so unusual for a group to reunite and have the music sound the same or the same quality level. I was really proud of that.

I’ve played with Chris and Herb quite often over the years too, as either a trio or in a quartet. When Bill was still alive [Bryson died in 2017], we’d still do acoustic shows, and there are some shows planned with Herb, Chris, and me to promote his book [see Hillman’s website for upcoming dates]. Of course, they were originally scheduled for last year and rescheduled a few times.

Peeples: I’m looking forward to the Thousand Oaks shows with the three of you and Mark Fain at the end of September; I’ll be there for sure.

Jorgenson: That’ll be nice, I’m looking forward to that, too; [the Scherr Forum Theatre] is always a good venue. I don’t live far from Chris at all, so we see each other socially, we get together to play sometimes. Herb comes up [from L.A.] and we all play. So, it’s a really long relationship that I’m really happy about.

I’m glad Chris took a chance on this young, unknown musician back in 1985. From the Desert Rose Band performing at the Roxy in 1988, ’87 or ’88 – that’s when Elton John came to see us. Then he remembered me from that show and asked me to come and play with him on tour for a number of years. So, lots of things happened from that initial meeting.

[Check out this jam at the end of “Levon,” from Elton John’s concert in Munich on July 5, 2019, featuring Jorgenson on double-necked guitar:]

It’s kind of funny: My wife says we’re very much like siblings. We can argue and be angry with each other and whatever, but at the end of the day, we’ll always be there for each other.

Peeples: I asked Chris what it is about him and Herb that’s so simpatico, and he said, “Well, we’re both California wiseguys.”

Jorgenson: I would agree with that. [chuckles]

Peeples: I love Herb’s sense of humor. It’s so droll and low-key. You don’t necessarily see it comin’.

Jorgenson: No, and I was a fan of Herb’s for many years before I knew him. From his picture and the sound of his voice and his music, I made up my own version of what his personality would be like. And it did not match the real one. I wouldn’t have thought “California wiseguy.”

I had his first solo album on vinyl back in the day. So to me, he was an artist. I knew he was also a very successful supportive sideman, but I was a fan of his as an artist, too.

Peeples: Yeah, “Southwest” is one of my favorite albums also.

Jorgenson: That’s the one I’m talking about.


Bidin’ the Time with Tom Petty

Peeples: Speaking of Herb, let’s fast forward to 2017 and talk about the “Bidin’ My Time” sessions he and Tom Petty produced with Chris, and how you came into the sessions to help out with the arrangements.

Jorgenson: Well, Herb had been requested, I think through Tom Leadon, Bernie’s brother. Tom was part of Mudcrutch, with Tom Petty. Their original band was gonna do some recording and go out on tour. Tom [Leadon] had asked Herb to borrow a banjo, then changed his mind, saying, “Why should I borrow a banjo? Why don’t you just come up and play?” So, Herb played on some of the Mudcrutch recordings and ended up singing on some, too.

Then when it was time to tour, they thought it’d be a good idea to have him on stage with them. So, that’s how Herb got involved with Tom Petty.

It was kind of funny because I was really close friends with Howie Epstein, Tom Petty’s bass player for many years, and through knowing him, I got to be friends with [drummer] Stan Lynch and [keyboardist] Benmont Tench. So, I was pretty aware of the Heartbreakers.

Once and once during a Byrds concert I was playing with Chris, Roger [McGuinn], David [Crosby], and Steve Duncan, Tom came and sat in. Another time when I was playing with Roger at the Troubadour, Tom came and sat in. So, I was probably more familiar with all those guys than Herb. But, of course, as soon as they started touring, they got to know each other well.

jorgensenI can’t remember if it might have been Herb’s idea to get Tom involved in an album with Chris, and Herb put the whole deal together and pitched it to the record company. If I remember right, the three of us had been playing together a fair amount of the time, and Chris liked to have my involvement in the arrangements of his songs, ‘cause I’d always done that, especially during the Desert Rose Band days, and he liked what I would bring to the arrangements. So, I guess that’s how that happened.

When we went into the studio we recorded a lot of the instrumental parts together. Chris did a lot of lead vocals just live while we were playing.

And Tom was a joy to work [with], such a great guy. Obviously, he understood how the artist felt and knew when to jump in and say something encouraging or when to say, “Hey, I think we might do this song later,” if it wasn’t getting anywhere. He instinctively knew how to do that really well without hurting anybody’s feelings, to make the artist – in this case, Chris – comfortable. I’d been a fan of Tom’s for a long time so it was really fun to work with him.

I’ll share a little story about him that I really like: Since we were there to work on Chris’ album, I didn’t want to change the subject or bring up other stuff very much, to take anything away from the work.

But one day, I said, “Hey, Tom, I was watching this Beatles documentary,” when the three surviving Beatles at the time got together to re-record along with Lennon’s vocals, “and there was a clip where George Harrison played this slide guitar.” And when he picked up that slide, it just immediately, it had his sound, and it was kind of amazing.

Peeples:Free as a Bird,” sounds like…

Jorgenson: Yeah. And I said to Tom, “When you were doing the Traveling Wilburys sessions, did you ever notice and pay attention to when he would…” And Tom interrupted me and said, “I paid attention to everything during those sessions. When George would play a slide part, even if somebody else set up the amp, set up the guitar, and set the tones and everything like that, as soon as it got into George’s hands, boom, it was that magical, magical slide tone that he had.”

But I just loved the enthusiasm that, even though Tom was part of the Traveling Wilburys, he was still a fan at heart and was taking everything in the same way you or I would if we were a fly on the wall.

Peeples: In Chris’s book there’s this great photo of Herb, Tom, David Crosby, and Chris, where Herb is talking to David, who’s sitting on a couch, with his cup of coffee sitting on a nearby conga drum. Talking with Herb recently I asked, “What are you saying to Crosby in this photo? What are you talking about?”

“I’m saying to him, ‘Be careful with your coffee there, Dave!'” he said. I wish I could have seen Herb’s face, ‘cause I’m sure it was deadpan.

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Herb Pedersen, Tom Petty, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman in the studio during the “Bidin’ My Time” sessions, 2017. Photo by Josh Jove, courtesy of Chris Hillman.

I said, “Yeah, right. Really?” I bit. And he said, “No, actually we were…” then told me they were actually talking about a vocal harmony part for “Bells of Rhymney.” But that’s so Herb. He wanted to wind me up immediately.

Jorgenson: Oh, of course. That was taken at Tom’s studio. We recorded at a different place called the Clubhouse, which is where they keep a lot of their gear and stuff, and for some of the sessions, they were at Tom’s house. I went up one day to add a guitar part. And Tom had a really, really rare book about Beatles recording sessions.

Peeples: By Brian Kehew, titled “Recording The Beatles”?

Jorgenson: Yes, exactly. I’d never seen it, and Tom brought it out in the studio and we were looking at it and just being a couple of fans, talking about all this stuff. And Herb comes over the talkback and says, “You know, try to get some work done here. You guys will have to do your Beatle thing later.” [laughs]

At the time, I thought, “Yeah, there’ll be some time when Tom and I will sit down and just go over all of our Beatles stuff that we’re interested in. Then we’ll have a great long conversation.” Sadly, that never happened.

John Jorgenson, Chris Hillman, Mark Fain, and Herb Pedersen at the Troubadour, West Hollywood, California, October 23, 2017. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

Tribute to Tom Petty at the Troubadour

Peeples: Chris writes about how the Troubadour gig you guys played [October 23, 2017] had to be bumped a week because, as originally scheduled, it wound up being the day set for his funeral. That was a great show.

Jorgenson: That’s right. The Troubadour show was really interesting. Since it was local, I was supposed to bring my own keyboard, because I was playing piano on a couple of songs. But I was so unused to bringing my own keyboard that I completely forgot about it. We were at the Troubadour at soundcheck and somebody said, “Well, where do you want to set your keyboard?” and I went, “Oh, my God.”

So, fortunately, Chinner, one of Tom Petty’s guitar techs, his head assistant, was there to help us that day, and he arranged for somebody to drive to Van Nuys and get one of Benmont’s keyboards that I could use, in Friday afternoon traffic, which was insane.

The other thing I remember about that show is I had a television show in Nashville the next morning to sing with Harry Stinson and Beth Hooker, and it was planned long before the show got changed. So, I literally had to run out of the Troubadour and go immediately to LAX and take a red-eye to get to Nashville in time to do that show. There was a whole other level of stress and interest, I guess you’d say, on my part.

chris hillman
Chris Hillman, age 5, on a trail ride near his home in Rancho Santa Fe in northern San Diego County. Photo: Courtesy the author.

Learn Anything New?

Peeples: I asked Herb, “Did you read Chris’s book?”

“Nah, I lived it,” he said [laughs]. But then we had a really nice talk about it. What’s your take on “Time Between,” after reading it?

Jorgenson: Well, I knew how hard Chris worked on it, and I could tell it was very, very crafted and edited really well. I know his daughter helped him with the editing, and I thought it was very clearly written and well done. It flowed well.

As someone who’s known him 30-some years, I still learned things about him I didn’t know, and that was really fun for me. That doesn’t usually happen.

Peeples: Such as?

Jorgenson: Oh, I didn’t really know how much of a horseman he was in his young days in San Diego County. I didn’t know what that was like there in those days.

I didn’t know all the other details of his adventures growing up and his early musical training, like, taking a train all the way up to San Francisco to get a mandolin lesson, or sleeping in somebody’s backroom in Tijuana – the kind of steps that led to him being asked to join The Byrds.

I think there’s a time for everyone who eventually becomes successful in music, the couple of years before that happens. A lot of things have to go right for you to end up in that spot to be asked to be in whatever band.

Peeples: And Herb, too. Just before The Byrds were happening, Chris and Herb were scufflin’ in Hollywood just trying to get by. Had crappy day jobs; Chris writes in the book about playing a local dive and having to play all this horrible music just to pay the bills till he could get something else, and then BAM!

Jorgenson: Exactly, yes, that part was interesting to me, ‘cause I’m kind of a musicologist and like to see the path that takes somebody from nowhere to famous.

So, it was nice; I learned a little history of California, I learned a few more things about my longtime friend, and was able to say to him, sincerely, “Job well done.” I thought he did a great job of including a lot of information without slamming anyone. So that’s my take on his book.

Shakin’ Off the Rust

Peeples: Now fast-forwarding to the pandemic, you and Herb and Chris finally got together again got together on November 17, 2020, the day “Time Between” was published [also Gene Clark’s birthday], and streamed a video performance of a few tunes, and you were a little rusty, weren’t you?

Jorgenson: Oh, horribly rusty. I’m not the kind of person who can sit by myself and practice every day. I did that in my youth, but since I became a touring musician, basically I would keep in shape by playing and performing, not practicing at home. So, yeah, my skills are very rusty. I won’t speak for Herb and Chris, but I think Herb stays in shape better somehow.

Peeples: Herb has been working with Jack Tempchin on some sessions, I understand… have you played on that at all?

Jorgenson: Yeah, he’s been producing some of Jack’s songs. I’ve been there to do a couple of guitar tracks, and I’ve done some other stuff for Jack as well.

More Gigs, Audiobooks & Archives

Peeples: Now, aside from the J2B2 shows in late July, and Chris’s Thousand Oaks shows in September, what else is on the horizon?

Jorgenson: Well, J2B2 also has a couple of shows coming up later in August in Colorado and some up in Montana. And hopefully, my gypsy jazz quintet has got a couple of things coming up.

I’ve been doing a lot of work here at home. Over the years, I’ve got amassed tapes, 8-track tapes, 16-track tapes, 24-track tapes, cassette tapes, DAT tapes, all these different formats, so I’ve been transferring all of that. You mentioned Brian Kehew, who did the Beatles recording book – he’s got a company that does that and I’ve used him to transfer some of my formats.

Within all that stuff are the early demos I did of the Desert Rose Band songs before the band existed. I have demos of The Hellecasters before The Hellecasters existed. I’ve got material from the Cheatin’ Hearts, the band I had with Steve Duncan and Bill Bryson and “Sneaky” Pete.

So I’ve got a lot of cool material, and my plan is to share that on my own artist app that will be available later this year. All my music will be available to people who download the app, which is pretty cool.

I also did an audiobook for my wife’s book, “Witch Hairs: Mirth, Miracles, Mayhem & Music” by Dixie Gamble, which came out in 2019.

Of course, her ability to promote it at bookstores with readings and signings stopped [when the pandemic hit]. So, we created an audiobook with an accompanying album full of songs by a lot of our friends including Rodney Crowell, Harry Stinson, Beth Hooker, and Mary Ann Kennedy, and myself. In the audio version, we were able to insert the songs following the chapters they were written for.

That’s available on I’d never made an audiobook before, so actually, now since I’ve done that, Chris has asked me about possibly helping him with narrating his audiobook, so that might be something that will come in the future.

Peeples: Well, John, thank you so much for sharing your recollections and impressions.

Jorgenson: You’re very welcome, and I look forward to talking to you in the future. Take care, Stephen.

Peeples: You too, my friend.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Find out more about John Jorgenson at his official website.

Special thanks to Connie Pappas-Hillman and Cary Baker/Conqueroo, and to Rory Aronsky for the transcription.

Grammy nominee Stephen K. Peeples is a multi-media writer-producer who was raised by career newspaper journalists and music-lovers in Miami and Los Angeles. He earned a Grammy nomination as co-producer of the “Monterey International Pop Festival” box set with Lou Adler and Geoff Gans (Rhino/MIPF, 1992); Peeples also wrote the liner notes booklet. • Peeples was the original, award-winning producer of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series for Westwood One from 1988-1990, and writer/producer of hundreds of WW1 programs in the preceding five years. • His first music industry gig was as an Associate Editor at Cash Box magazine in Hollywood in 1975. He went on to be a Media Relations-PR executive for Capitol Records (1977-1980), Elektra/Asylum Records (1980-1983), and Rhino Entertainment (1992-1998). He also wrote liner notes for nearly a dozen albums, including “Les Paul: The Legend & The Legacy,” Capitol Records’ acclaimed 4-CD box set (1991). • Moving online, Peeples was Rhino’s first web editor (1996-1998), then elevated to content editor of Warner Music Group websites (1998-2001). • Based in the Santa Clarita Valley just north of L.A., he was the award-winning Online Editor for The Signal newspaper’s website from 2007-2011, and wrote-hosted-co-produced SCVTV’s WAVE-nominated “House Blend” local music TV show from 2010-2015 (archived online and still airing in reruns). • The Santa Clarita journalist was most recently News Editor at SCVTV’s and SVP/New Media for Rare Cool Stuff Unltd. As of summer 2021, he was developing a biography of notorious Texas Artlaw Boyd Elder. • For more info and original stories, visit Peeples’ website at exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews, subscribe to his YouTube channel.

Article: John Jorgenson on His Bluegrass Band, Herb Pedersen & Chris Hillman
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Category: News and Reviews
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