The Hillmen

The Hillmen

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Before there were the Byrds, the Bluegrass Cardinals, and the Desert Rose Band, there were the Hillmen, a young and earnest bluegrass band with a taste for the high and lonesome sound of Bill Monroe and the faux-folk lyrics of Bob Dylan. Like many young musicians who discovered the world of folk music in the mid-'60s, they combined a deep respect for tradition with a forward-looking sense of exploration; in a few years bands like the New Grass Alliance and the Seldom Scene would take a similar approach into more adventuresome territory, but the early work of the Hillmen helped to blaze the trail. This album is a reissue of recordings made in 1963 and 1964, and while other bands were doing the same sort of thing with a bit more panache (the Kentucky Colonels and the Country Gentlemen both come to mind as more exciting contemporaries of the Hillmen), there's no denying the freshness, enthusiasm, and skill in evidence on this recording. Mandolinist Chris Hillman (who would later come to country-rock prominence as a founding member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Desert Rose Band) shows off some impressive chops on instrumentals like "Blue Grass Chopper" and "Wheel Hoss," while future country star Vern Gosdin shows himself to be a fine if not earthshaking bluegrass singer. His bass-playing brother, Rex, stands out as a high tenor and shines on the gospel standard "Goin' Up." Don Parmley picks the banjo in a straightforward Scruggs style that veers into melodic Bill Keith territory from time to time and prefigures his future work with the Bluegrass Cardinals. The band covers "Barbara Allen," a British folk song that Joan Baez had recently made popular in the U.S., and two Dylan tunes; those song choices and a somewhat fuzzy recorded sound combine to make this album something of a period piece, but it's a fun one. Fans of Gosdin and Hillman, especially, will get a solid retro kick out of this disc.

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