Original Byrd McGuinn returns to folk roots
Today's music wouldn't be the same without Roger McGuinn
Today’s music wouldn’t be the same without Roger McGuinn. As the leader, singer and lead guitarist of the seminal '60s rock band the Byrds, he broadened the range of pop music, and later, country music as well. Now he’s also making sure our folk music heritage is preserved.
The week before his June 17 concert at the Fox Theatre, McGuinn was at a hotel in Nashville, getting ready to guest at a concert by Marty Stuart, who is a fan. McGuinn, who will turn 70 next month, is a recognized influence on artists such Tom Petty, REM, the Jayhawks and practically any band in the last 40 years with an electric 12-string guitar and a clear tenor voice.
A consummate performer, McGuinn first took to the road as a very young child, accompanying his parents on promotional tours for their humorous book, “Parents Can’t Win.”
“That was a good start. It really gave me a taste for the road and performing,” he said. “One of my earliest performances was when I was 3 years old in a nursery school play. My role was to be a tree and stand there with my arms out.”
“I went to have a hamburger with my parents before the show and my dad asked what I was doing in the play. I said, ‘I’m a tree and I hold my hands out like this’ and he said, ‘A tree?’ I detected the ‘that wasn’t good enough’ disapproval from his tone of voice and facial expression,” McGuinn said.
“When it got to the performance, I broke out of the line of trees and got down on one knee and mimicked playing the banjo like Al Jolson, for which I sorely reprimanded by the teacher. That was the beginning of my career in show business and of course it brought the house down. It was a great applause-getter,” he smiled.
As a teenager, McGuinn studied banjo and guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music in his hometown of Chicago.
“I bring a banjo with me for all my shows and play at least a couple of songs on it,” he noted. “I love the banjo. Two of my influences, Earl Scruggs and Doug Dillard, just passed away, so someone has to pick up the slack.”
Still in his teens, McGuinn moved to New York City where he became a professional songwriter and session musician, playing in Bobby Darin’s band and as a member of the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio, before relocating to Los Angeles and forming the Byrds.
Fame and fortune
In 1965, the Byrds helped create “folk rock” by adding the jingle-jangle of electric guitars to a Bob Dylan song, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” In a time before burly security or respectful fans, the band was highly visual and recognizable, on par with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones among teenagers of the era.
“This was like, ‘tackle you and rip off a souvenir’ fame,” McGuinn said.
“We were pretty famous for a year or so, where they ripped your glasses off your face, steal your license plates off your car and follow you home. It wasn’t quite as bad as Dylan where he had people crawling on his roof. I was totally unprepared for that. There’s no school for fame. I have to say now that it was both pleasant and very alarming at the same time. People say, ‘it would be great to famous,’ but it’s really not great to be that famous. I’m glad to be semi-anonymous now. I can go to the supermarket and nobody bothers me.”
The Byrds always concentrated on creating innovative music, even as their pop stardom faded, cynically chronicled in their song, “So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star.” Their song, “Eight Miles High,” initially banned from radio for supposed drug references, is now recognized as one of the most influential and distinctive songs of the era, featuring McGuinn’s 12-string guitar emulating avant garde jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.
The intense personal dynamic between McGuinn and band member David Crosby was so famous that Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper based their characters in the movie “Easy Rider” on them. Eventually, Crosby was fired/bought out of his share of the band, sailing off to a new alliance with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and sometimes Neil Young.
Already weary of psychedelic music, McGuinn and Chris Hillman, the only original members left by 1968, headed to Nashville, where a session musician named Gram Parsons helped them create “The Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album, a melding of rock and country that would spawn bands like the Eagles and Alabama and set the tone for today’s country music genre.
The Folk Den project
More recently, McGuinn’s interest in digital technology led to his “Folk Den” project. Using a laptop computer, he began recording and posting traditional songs on the Internet, collaborating again with musicians such as Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Odetta, and Joan Baez. The Folk Den website posted its 200th song this month.
“Back in 1995, I detected a lack of interest in the traditional side of folk music so I started using the Internet to promote it and it’s really brought me back to my roots,” he said. “It became not only possible but desirable to use Pro Tools (software) and do it yourself. I don’t see why anyone needs a studio anymore, except for a quiet space.”
His current toy is the latest version of Final Cut, the video editing software.
“I’m in the process of editing a DVD of concert footage,’ he said, “with some interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Baez, and Judy Collins.”
“Because of my involvement with folk music the last 16 years or so, I haven’t been writing a lot of songs,” he said.
“I’ve written a couple, but I don’t really see a big market for it. It’s like that time of my life is over. I’m more a folk singer and I just love that. I don’t really want to be a rock and roll star.”