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Members include Chris Hillman (acoustic guitar and vocals); Herb Pedersen (guitar and vocals); John Jorgenson (lead guitar); Steve Duncan (drums); Bill Bryson (bass); and J. D. Maness (steel guitar). Addresses: Agent --Chuck Morris Entertainment Agency, 4155 E. Jewel, Suite 412, Denver, CO 80222.
The resurgent interest in rowdy, foot-stomping country music has proven a boon for the Desert Rose Band, a group of veteran performers in the honky tonk vein. The band's personnel roster reads like a "Who's Who" of country-rock--some of its members come from watershed groups like the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, while others have backed up entertainers as varied as Buck Owens, Fats Domino, Clint Eastwood, and Linda Ronstadt. Desert Rose owes its growing popularity to the vibrant Bakersfield brand of country music, the same California-based sound that spawned Owens, Merle Haggard, and Dwight Yoakam. "I'm not necessarily breaking in new ground," says bandleader Chris Hillman, "but I feel I am doing it better."
The Desert Rose Band presents a more or less natural evolution from the earliest country-rock acts of the late 1960s. This is not surprising, since band founder Hillman and steel guitar player J. D. Maness both played pioneering roles in the movement. Hillman grew up in California--miles from bluegrass country--but even as a young teen he loved hillbilly music. In 1963 he took his first professional job, playing mandolin in a bluegrass band. Maness played a traditional country instrument, steel guitar, but in the mid-1960s he joined a quasi-rock band led by Gram Parsons, the International Submarine Band. That group made its first recordings in 1967 and was heralded as one of the first outfits to merge country and rock influences.
Gram Parsons was the charismatic leader of the country-rock fusion. He joined the rock group the Byrds in 1968. Hillman was also a member of the Byrds at the time, and together he and Parsons urged the group to infuse its work with more country sound. In 1969 the Byrds released Sweetheart of the Rodeo, widely considered the seminal country-rock album ( Rolling Stone magazine lists it as one of the best 100 albums of the last twenty years). The Byrds were the first rock group to be invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. Soon after that performance Parsons and Hillman left to form their own band, the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Hillman was an associate not only of Parsons but of David Crosby and Steven Stills, among others. The times were wild and wooly in that musical environment, so even as the Flying Burrito Brothers were cutting an album that would garner praise for years, the members were taking drugs and living life at high speed. Parsons succumbed to the lifestyle in 1973, dying of a drug-related heart attack while still in his mid-twenties. Hillman was left without a band, but only briefly. His talent afforded him session work with a number of other country artists--like Maness, he was never unemployed.
"I look at the Desert Rose Band as a highly evolved version of the Flying Burrito Brothers," Hillman told the Lexington Herald-Leader. "By 'highly evolved,' I mean I've got some really good players and singers to work with." The band formed inauspiciously in 1985 from a nucleus of session musicians who had secured work with Dan Fogelberg. After touring with Fogelberg--and helping him with a bluegrass-influenced album--Hillman, guitarist John Jorgenson and guitarist-vocalist Herb Pedersen found work at the Palomino Club in Los Angeles. There they were discovered by an executive for Curb Records and offered a recording contract. Once the record company signed them, Hillman, Jorgenson, and Pedersen were able to recruit other top-quality session musicians to round out the ensemble. Billed as the Desert Rose Band, the group incorporated Maness on steel guitar, Bill Bryson on bass, and Steve Duncan on drums. They cut their debut album in 1987.
Because Hillman and Maness were relatively well known in the country music industry, the Desert Rose Band might have received more publicity than other fledgling groups. Quality counts, however, and the band's work inched into the country Top 40 on its own strength. Arizona Republic contributor Andrew Means calls the Desert Rose Band sound "essentially a familiar format--crisp vignettes from the pedal steel and lead guitar, balanced vocal harmonies and starched tempos." While there is indeed little innovation in the Desert Rose work to date, the musicians are of such high professional calibre, and their enthusiasm for the project is so high, that the band has drawn a following almost overnight. Akron Beacon Journal critic Pam Parrish put it succinctly when she noted that the music of the Desert Rose Band "makes you want to pull your car to the side of the highway, jump out and dance on the roof."
California is giving Nashville a run for its money music-wise, thanks to groups like the Desert Rose Band. Hillman, the group's spokesman, claims that his band is "at the pinnacle.... The best thing is to watch us in person." Having placed two singles--"Ashes of Love" and "Love Reunited"--in the country Top 40 in 1987, the Desert Rose Band seems poised to blossom as a 1990s supergroup. Hillman told the Houston Post: "I'm overjoyed to be out here again, playing music. It's a good time, because some great things are happening in country music--we've got great lyrics, great songs again, and real country is coming back.... For me, it's an exciting time and I think you're gonna hear a lot more out of this band."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Desert Rose Band's Career
Band formed in Los Angeles, Calif., in 1985, signed with the Curb label, 1986. Released first album, The Desert Rose Band, 1987; had two country Top 40 singles, "Ashes of Love" and "Love Reunited."
- Malone, Bill C., Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
- Akron Beacon Journal, March 29, 1987.
- Arizona Republic, September 2, 1987.
- Fresno Bee, August 16, 1987; August 21, 1987.
- Houston Post, August 8, 1987.
- Lexington Herald-Leader, May 24, 1987.
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