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Like many Amer­i­cans, Chris Hill­man can tell you ex­actly where he was when some of the most tragic mo­ments in the na­tion’s his­tory un­folded.

The South­ern Cal­i­for­nian singer/gui­tarist/bassist/man­dolin player was just 18 when Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dal­las, and de­spite the shock rip­pling through the coun­try, he and his blue­grass band played their sched­uled gig that night be­fore an au­di­ence of one. Five years later, Hill­man, by then a found­ing mem­ber of the Byrds, had just played a ben­e­fit for Robert F. Kennedy’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign when news came of his as­sas­si­na­tion in Los An­ge­les.

All those tragedies were dwarfed, how­ever, by 9/11. Hill­man watched the ter­ror at­tacks in New York City, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and the skies above Penn­syl­va­nia on Sept. 11, 2001, play out in hor­rific real time on tele­vi­sion. He had gone to the gym that morn­ing, but when the first plane hit the World Trade Cen­ter, he turned around, went home, and watched with the rest of the world.

“It was dev­as­tat­ing,” says Hill­man. “9/11 was al­most such a shock, it’s hard to be­lieve that it hap­pened. But it did hap­pen, and here we are to­day in this quag­mire. But we keep mov­ing, keep per­se­ver­ing, keep go­ing.”

For Hill­man, that means re­build­ing. On Sun­day, just a week be­fore the 15th an­niver­sary of 9/11, Hill­man will join long­time mu­si­cal part­ner Herb Ped­er­sen and his own Agape Trio at a ben­e­fit in Mem­phis for one of the lesser-known ca­su­al­ties of the World Trade Cen­ter at­tacks.

For mem­bers of the Greek Orthodox faith, the dev­as­tat­ing losses of that day were com­pounded by the an­ni­hi­la­tion of St. Ni­cholas Greek Orthodox Church. The his­toric house of wor­ship stood across the street from the World Trade Cen­ter and was crushed when the cen­ter’s south tower col­lapsed. It was the only build­ing not part of the World Trade Cen­ter com­plex to be de­stroyed in the at­tacks that day.

“(St. Ni­cholas’) was close to El­lis Is­land where im­mi­grants would dis­em­bark to New York City,” says Fa­ther Si­mon Thomas of Mem­phis’ An­nun­ci­a­tion Greek Orthodox Church. The 107-year-old An­nun­ci­a­tion, best known for its annual Greek fes­ti­val, is host­ing the ben­e­fit at Malco’s Par­adiso movie theater, which is owned by the Tashie fam­ily, who are mem­bers of the church. “Im­mi­grants would come off, and one of the first things they would do is go With Chris Hill­man and Herb Ped­er­sen and the Agape Trio.

4 p.m. Sun­day, Malco Par­adiso, 584 S. Men­den­hall. Tick­ets: $10-$50; avail­able on­line at, chrishill­, and by phone at 901-327-8177.

to St. Ni­cholas’ and light a can­dle to give thanks for the safe pas­sage.”

Now, 15 years af­ter it was felled, St. Ni­cholas’ is com­ing back. Last year, the con­gre­ga­tion, which cel­e­brates its cen­ten­nial an­niver­sary this year, be­gan con­struc­tion on the St. Ni­cholas Na­tional Shrine at the World Trade Cen­ter across the street from the church’s orig­i­nal lo­ca­tion. (The old par­cel was taken to build a ve­hi­cle se­cu­rity cen­ter for the 9/11 Trib­ute Cen­ter and sur­round­ing me­mo­ri­als.) The shrine will be both a work­ing church and a non­de­nom­i­na­tional be­reave­ment cen­ter. Built with Greek mar­ble that came from the same vein used to build the Parthenon, the shrine will have a strik­ing de­sign that will Roots-mu­sic duo Chris Hill­man and Herb Ped­er­sen per­form Sun­day at the Malco Par­adiso.

glow at night. It is ex­pected to be com­plete by next year at a cost of $50 mil­lion, in­clud­ing a $15 mil­lion en­dow­ment to fi­nance its op­er­a­tions.

To help fund the project, Hill­man, who fol­lowed his wife into the Greek Orthodox church 20 years ago, has been play­ing a series of ben­e­fit con­certs around the coun­try.

“It’s a very per­sonal cause for me,” says Hill­man. “When­ever I can do one of these, that’s my way of con­tribut­ing.”

Hill­man’s faith is a lit­tle­known side to one of the most cel­e­brated ca­reers in Amer­i­can mu­sic. Raised out­side of San Diego, Hill­man fell in love with the man­dolin as a teen and was soon a ma­jor player on the re­gion’s blue­grass scene where he first en­coun­tered fel­low Ped­er­sen in 1963.

“Herb and I both had an ad­van­tage in that we were both at a very young age … able to play with acts like the Golden State Boys (later known as the Hill­men), made up of guys from the South­east who knew the mu­sic first hand,” says Hill­man.

In 1964, Hill­man was tapped to play bass in a new band called the Byrds. The group was a smash right out of the gate thanks to its first sin­gle, a rock cover of Bob Dy­lan’s “Mr. Tam­bourine Man.” Over the next four years, the band, which also in­cluded Roger Mcguinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby, was one of the top acts in rock with hits like “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Eight Miles High” and their 1968 al­bum “Sweet­heart of the Rodeo” pi­o­neered coun­try rock.

Hill­man left the Byrds shortly af­ter but con­tin­ued his re­mark­able run with stints in such in­flu­en­tial bands as the Fly­ing Bur­rito Broth­ers with “Sweet­heart” band­mate Gram Par­sons and Manas­sas with Stephen Stills. In the ’80s, he fronted the Desert Rose Band, an all-star out­fit fea­tur­ing Ped­er­sen that en­joyed a string of hits on the coun­try charts. Since then, Hill­man, who is in the plan­ning stages of a new al­bum, has bounced among a series of group and solo projects of­ten with Ped­er­sen by his side.

“We’re very much alike,” Hill­man says. “Both Cal­i­for­ni­ans raised in a sim­i­lar way. I’m from South­ern Cal­i­for­nia; he’s from North­ern. He’s a just great guy. He’s like a brother that you like.”

Fa­ther Thomas, who is bring­ing Hill­man to Mem­phis for the ben­e­fit, was the mu­si­cian’s priest in Santa Bar­bara, Cal­i­for­nia, for nine years be­fore mov­ing to Mem­phis last year.

“Chris is a re­ally downto-earth per­son de­spite the things he’s been in­volved with in his life,” says Fa­ther Thomas. “I re­mem­ber once I was bless­ing his house, so we sprin­kle holy wa­ter around all the rooms of his house, and I open the door to his of­fice, and there are all these awards and cer­tifi­cates. There’s the gold record for ‘Turn, Turn, Turn.’ It’s very in­tim­i­dat­ing, but you would never get that from Chris. He knows he’s been blessed, but he gives his bless­ings back.”

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