Many musicians have had life-changing moments in their childhoods when a particular artist, band or a song sparks a sonic epiphany and inspires them to pursue music as a career. For the young Chris ‘CJ’ Hillman, such a moment occurred when he heard Tom Petty’s debut solo album, Full Moon Fever.
“I heard the album as a young child,” he says via a Zoom link from his new home in Altrincham, Cheshire on a Monday afternoon in February. “My dad bought it new in 1989, so it was always around. I think this album directly inspired me to become a musician and has always been there throughout my career, as with a lot of Petty’s music. Looking back, I guess it was the jangly guitars, great songs and album artwork that inspired me.”
The sight of Petty’s Rickenbacker guitar on the front cover also entranced Hillman. However, it was with another instrument – the pedal steel guitar – where he would really make his mark.
Over the last decade, Hillman has established himself as one of the UK’s leading Americana session musicians, recording and touring with artists such as Billy Bragg, Ethan Johns, Yola, Laura Marling and Robert Vincent. As the global live music industry opens back up, his star is firmly in the ascendant.
Chris Hillman grew up in Stoke-on-Trent, where his father worked in the Potteries industry. It was his dad’s interest in bands such as the Eagles and Poco that in turn sparked young Chris’s passion for 60s and 70s country bands, and the pedal steel guitar. “I always loved the sound,” he recalls. “I always knew of the sound from when I was young.”
He started playing guitar at the age of nine and by his teens, he was shaping up into a guitarist of real note. He undertook a BTEC course in Music at the University of Salford and started playing with numerous rock bands. He says:
“I started listening to heavier music for a while, but then discovered Jenny Lewis and her band while in college. They had a lap steel player in the band and after seeing them live in Manchester, I decided I wanted to make the leap from six-string guitar to steel guitar.”
When his 21st birthday came around, Hillman decided on a pedal steel guitar as a present: “I was listening to a lot of Daniel Lanois at the time. It was so interesting hearing the ambient nature of it and it also had that kind of country tone to it.”
Out On Tour
The move to pedal steel would transform his career. By 2010, Hillman was living in Chorlton, Manchester, teaching one-to-one guitar tuition from home and doing a lot of “wedding type gigs”. But his real ambition was to go out on a major tour with an artist or band who wrote their own material.
Fortune came knocking in 2012, when he was working with Canadian singer Gabriel Minkin, and they supported a band called The Dreaming Spires at the Betsey Trotwood pub, in Clerkenwell, London. The Dreaming Spires were fronted by American singer-songwriter, Sid Griffin, who got chatting to Hillman and mentioned that he had a friend who was looking for a pedal steel player. Hillman said he was interested and sent over some examples of his playing for Griffin to pass on.
Weeks later, out of the blue, Hillman received a call. “It turned out it was Billy Bragg,” he recalls, still sounding just as excited a decade on. Bragg was looking for a pedal steel player for a forthcoming tour of the US, Canada, Europe and Australia to promote his 2013 album Tooth & Nail. Hillman would also contribute Dobro, guitar and mandolin. Within weeks, he was packing his case and embarking on a tour that exceeded his wildest dreams. He recalls:
“We started in Colorado. We did the first gig there, the Gothic Theatre and then down to Albuquerque. And then Mesa, Arizona and then we went to LA… and then it was all up the West Coast. Across down through Iowa, down to, like, Nashville and then we kind of rounded up back into Canada through New York and everything. And Bill was great. He’d be like, you know, ‘check this out, check that out’.”
The tour continued through Europe and Australia, with highlights including the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury and the Sydney Opera House. Hillman reminiscences:
“It was just like a year of ticking everything off that you’d ever wanted to do."
As the newest addition to the band he was, by his own admission, very much the novice. “Instantly, I felt like I was trying to keep up. But we used to record all the rehearsals, so I’d go back and then I’d be overly self-critical and just be like, ‘right, what doesn’t feel quite right?’. With that band, it was really more like a behind-the-beat kind of feel. Once that clicked, I was okay.”
The Right Thing
When asked about his pedal steel inspirations, Hillman cites Buddy Emmons, who instilled in him a desire to do a “pedal steel guitar jazz thing”. But the pedal steel player he really idolises, he says, is Greg Leisz. As fate would have it, Leisz played pedal steel on Bragg’s Tooth & Nail album, so when Hillman was brought in for the tour, the parts he had to learn were Leisz’s: “To me, he is like the perfect pedal steel player – he just plays the right thing at the right time.”
It’s a description that could just as easily be applied to Hillman himself. His playing is a masterclass in how to serve a song, adding melodies and textures that enliven and enhance. Whether he’s playing an NPR Tiny Desk Concert in Washington DC with Billy Bragg on lap Dobro slide, contributing a soaring, impassioned pedal steel solo on Robert Vincent’s rousing rendition of So in Love on the revamped Old Grey Whistle Test, or demonstrating how to play a B-Bender-type lick on a Telecaster via his Patreon page, Hillman is a skilful, empathetic musician. So much so, he was awarded the Instrumentalist of the Year at the Americana Music Association (UK) Awards in both 2017 and 2019.
His work with Billy Bragg really established Hillman as a session musician of note and he never looked back. By then, he was calling himself ‘CJ’ rather than ‘Chris’.
“I use CJ so I don’t get mistaken for Chris Hillman from The Byrds – which still happens on a regular basis, even though there’s an age difference of 43 years,” he says.
Via Billy Bragg, Hillman met Joe Purdy and returned to Los Angeles, recording two albums – Eagle Rock Fire and Who Will Be Next? – with the American singer-songwriter and touring extensively. In 2014 and 2015, he also accompanied Purdy on the Cayamo Cruise, a live music event in the Caribbean on a cruise ship crammed with A-list stars from the country music scene.
In 2017, a meeting with producer, engineer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Johns at the UK Americana Awards led to Hillman joining the house band and Johns’ own act, the Black-Eyed Dogs. Johns would also call on Hillman when he produced Laura Marling’s 2020 album, Song for Our Daughter.“They wanted something different,” recalls Hillman.
“It wasn’t ‘turn up and do a kind of country thing’, it was ‘just be you’. There’s a lot of people who are exploring different avenues with the pedal steel, and it’s great because I think if we all just kind of sat around playing country music, it wouldn’t move on.”
In recent years, Hillman’s playing has also graced the Grammy-nominated music of Bristol born singer-songwriter Yola Carter. “It’s great to see an artist go from doing small gigs... she’s the first artist I’ve played with where I’ve seen the whole career trajectory.”
Playing For The Song
When asked what makes a good pedal steel player, Hillman cites empathy for the song and the importance of listening. He says:
“I think what makes a steel player is knowing when not to play, definitely”.
While guitarists will generally be kept busy playing chords when not playing solos or licks, pedal steel entails restraint and moments where “you just sit there doing nothing”, he says.
“It’s so tempting [to think] ‘oh, I’ll just add a little bit.’ And then sometimes also, people might look at you like, ‘why are you not playing anything?’.
“But it’s just about using your ears and, you know, playing to the music. And also, just working hard at it, really. It’s easy to get complacent and yes, you can. You’ve always got to be looking and pushing yourself on.”
Meeting Johnny Marr
Despite being known for pedal steel work, Hillman is still equally enthused by the electric guitar. “I take my Rickenbacker on tour all the time,” he says. “It was always kind of like, ‘play pedal steel like Greg Leisz and play guitar like Johnny Marr’.”
Soon after joining Billy Bragg’s band, Hillman met Johnny Marr, by chance, while browsing for vinyl in Kingbee Records in Chorlton, Manchester. As Hillman flicked through the albums, something in his peripheral vision caught his eye. “I knew it was Johnny Marr because of his shoes,” he laughs. “I think they might have been his signature-brand PF Flyers. They just looked much cooler than anybody else’s shoes that I knew. I looked up and it was him.
“I had met Johnny briefly [before] at Salford Uni when he was there as an honorary Professor. I had gone down with my Rickenbacker six-string which he briefly played, which was mind-blowing as an 18-year-old.
“He said he remembered meeting me and was pleased to hear I was working with Billy Bragg. He produced Billy’s Don’t Try This at Home album, so we talked about that for a little bit. He gave me a few pointers and was asking how Billy was. I remember asking him about that riff on Sexuality and he said, ‘oh yeah, I had a kind of slapback thing going on’".