April 24, 2019 Interview – Roger McGuinn Talks The Byrds, Folk Music + More
The 1960s was a pivotal period in the development of Rock-n-Roll music. Born as more of a dance craze during the 1950s, the 1960s took Rock-n-Roll to the next level, proving it can be more than just fun, but also topical, political, and inspiring. That in mind, right in the thick of it all during the mid-1960s, was an American band by the name of The Byrds. Blending Folk and Rock together, The Byrds success during the period is measured right up there with their contemporaries like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Rolling Stones. Considered highly influential, the band would continue to evolve through the years mixing Rock, Folk, and Country into their sound.
Now, all these years later, the legacy of The Byrds is kept alive by Guitarist/Lead Vocalist Roger McGuinn as he performs around the USA, releases new original solo music, and tells stories of the past. Currently out on the road with his one-man show, McGuinn took the time to chat about his experience in music, his vast influences, working solo, plus much more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in music professionally for nearly 60 years. Co-founding The Byrds, the band would go on to major success through the 1970s. Briefly tell us, how would you describe your journey in music?
Roger McGuinn – My journey has been a wonderful one. It started out in Rock-n-Roll with Elvis Presley, and then I got into Folk music when I was 15. I stayed in Folk music until I was about 21-years-old when I got into The Beatles. I then decided Folk music and Rock-n-Roll would do well together, then we got into Country music around 1967 through 1968. I have been kind of doing that along with Folk music and Rock-n-Roll, mixed up all the different genres ever since.
Cryptic Rock – Very interesting. It has been a musical evolution for you as time passes.
Roger McGuinn – Yes, it has. It’s evolved nicely. Now I’m kind of back to my roots and I do a one-man play. I really tell the story of how I got into it and talk about the different influences I’ve had over the years such as Elvis Presley, Bob Gibson, Pete Seeger, The Everly Brothers, The Beatles, etc. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) last year; it was quite a fun tour with Chris Hillman and Marty Stuart.
Cryptic Rock – That sounds like a wonderful tour! Speaking of The Byrds, as stated, they impacted the Rock scene during the 1960s, and years later earned a place in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. History shows the ’60s to have was a socially turbulent decade in the United States. What was that time like for you and the band?
Roger McGuinn – It was very exciting, I loved the ’60s. The ’60s were kind of a renaissance period where there was a lot of creativity going on and a lot of cross-pollination. It was really a great time to be alive, to be creating, and be making music.
Cryptic Rock – A lot of fantastic music came out of the ’60s. Many would say the dawn of Rock-n-Roll was in the ’50s, but the ’60s formed the genre as we know it.
Roger McGuinn – What happened was the original Rock-n-Roll from the ’50s was more primitive. In the ’60s it became more refined and in fact an art form.
Cryptic Rock – Very true. When The Byrds were dissolved, you would go on to pursue a solo career and have released a number of records through the years. How does it differ for you working solo opposed to as part of a band?
Roger McGuinn – I think there is more artistic freedom as a solo artist. You’re not putting other people’s songs on your record, you’re not putting anything on your record you don’t want to put on it. (Laughs) You don’t have that pressure of dealing with other artists and their temperament.
Cryptic Rock – Understandable. In that regard, you just have to answer only to yourself when putting a record together. Over time you would return to Folk music again with the formation of the Folk Den Project. What inspired this project?
Roger McGuinn – The Folk Den Project is a preservation project to keep the traditional side of Folk music alive. Somewhere along the line traditional music became secondary to singer-songwriting music; I found that an alarming trend, and I wanted to keep the old songs alive. I started doing the Folk Den in November of 1995, and every month I would put out a traditional song with the lyrics, chords, story about the song, and a little picture; it’s on my website.
We decided to do a Treasures from the Folk Den in 2002 with Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Jean Ritchie, Josh White Jr., Odetta, Eliza Carthy, and Tommy Makem. It was really great. I went to their homes, we recorded them there, did harmonies together, etc. For the 10th anniversary of the Folk Den Project we decided to re-record 100 songs; not the MP3 versions that are free on the internet, but full CD quality. For the 20th anniversary we decided to do that again for another separate 100 songs in full CD quality. So we have two box -sets out there with 200 full CD quality Folk songs.
Cryptic Rock – That is fantastic. It’s important to preserve traditional forms of music. It seems, at this point, most forms of popular music are a hybrid.
Roger McGuinn – I agree, everything has kind of run together. It’s interesting, but it’s not the same; there is no pure traditional music out there.
Cryptic Rock – Yes, and it is important to have that as well. You have continued to perform live through the years and you will actually be making a solo appearance in NYC on April 27th. This is your first solo appearance in NYC in quite some time.
Roger McGuinn – Yes, the reason for that is because I only play theaters and we hadn’t found a theater I could play in NYC. That was until recently when I was on the Sweetheart of the Rodeo 50th anniversary tour and John Scher (who produced one of the dates) told me, “I’ve got a theater I just found in town on West 64th Street, The Concert Hall at New York Society for Ethical Culture.” I thought, “Great, we can play a theater in NYC!”
Cryptic Rock – It is great to hear you are coming back to NYC. This is one of a handful of shows you are doing this spring. For those coming out to the shows, what can they expect?
Roger McGuinn – I do a one-man show: I tell stories and setup the songs with stories; it all makes sense and ties into each other. It all ends up one story.
Cryptic Rock – Interesting. It is a musical play with acts, yes?
Roger McGuinn – It’s a musical play, exactly. I’ve been doing it for years, but we change the songs and stories. We try not to do the same things at the same places.
Cryptic Rock – That sounds very interesting. Music itself tells a story, but it’s always fun to hear the stories behind the music and the times they were created. As a songwriter and performer you have collaborated with many other musicians through the years; too many to name all of them. What would you say you have learned from these vast experiences of working with others?
Roger McGuinn – I think I learned a lot from working with Tom Petty and watching him write songs. He was an amazing songwriter; I talk about that in my show when I do one of the songs he and I wrote together.
Cryptic Rock – Very cool. Everyone has something different to offer, everyone has a different way of writing. You can always learn something somewhere.
Roger McGuinn – Yes. I collaborated with Bob Dylan, but sort of by remote control. (Laughs) I tell the story about that too.
Cryptic Rock – It sounds like these will be fantastic shows to check out. We spoke about how popular music has changed a lot through the years. That said, are there any newer artists that you enjoy?
Roger McGuinn – I don’t do a lot of listening to new artists at this point. I listen to Jazz and Classical mostly.
Cryptic Rock – Understood. Have you been approached by any newer artists to collaborate?
Roger McGuinn – No, I haven’t. I haven’t been approached to collaborate with anyone.
Cryptic Rock – That is surprising to hear. With your rich background, someone should absolutely want to pick your brain. You released a new album last year. What can you tell us about this album?
Roger McGuinn – The new CD is called Sweet Memories and you can find that at our website and on Amazon. It’s my stuff, plus I have several tracks that are recreations of The Byrds hits such as “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” and “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” There are also 9 original songs on there.
Cryptic Rock – Fantastic! That album came out last summer, so hopefully people have had a chance to check it out. What inspired you to recreate some of those Byrds’ classics?
Roger McGuinn – The reason I re-recorded some of the hits was because, when we sell CDs at live venues, a lot of people approach my wife asking for the original Byrds’ songs. It’s not cost effective to get them from Sony music; they won’t sell them to you at a cost effective price. So we re-recorded 3 songs to put on this album. They sound just like the originals really.
Cryptic Rock – It is also interesting to re-record older songs since technology has advanced a bit over the years. You spoke about how your influences have shifted over time. Could you tell us little more about your influences?
Roger McGuinn – It was Elvis, then the Folk singers such as Pete Seeger, Josh White, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Maken, Ewan MacColl, Louis Killen, etc. Then for Country music: Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, etc. Also different Jazz musicians like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, etc. Miles Davis got us our first record deal with The Byrds through Columbia.
Cryptic Rock – That is a very diverse mix of influences. What initially attracted you to Folk music as a teenager?
Roger McGuinn – I think I liked the stories and melodies. They were very deep storytelling songs, opposed to just love songs that were popular. Some of the melodies were old Celtic melodies too that resonate with me because I’m from an Irish descent.
Cryptic Rock – The storytelling aspect of Folk music is what makes it so endearing. Last question for you and it’s a little different: what are some of your favorite films?
Roger McGuinn – The first date I went on with my wife was to see Star Wars (1977), and I love that movie. Independence Day (1996) would be another favorite up there. I also love the movie Blast from the Past (1999). Then there are the older movies like Casablanca (1942), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), and also A Christmas Story (1983) with little Ralphie.
Thu 25 Apr 2019 The Colonial Theatre Phoenixville, PA
Sat 27 Apr 2019 NY Society for Ethical Culture-concert Hall New York, NY
Sat 01 Jun 2019 World of Bob Dylan Conference Hyatt Regency Tulsa, OK
Thu 06 Jun 2019 Wildey Theatre Edwardsville, IL
Sat 31 Aug 2019 Camden Opera House Camden, ME
Sat 07 Sep 2019 The Beacon Theatre Hopewell, VA
For more on Roger McGuinn: ibiblio.org | Facebook | Twitter
Purchase Sweet Memories:
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Feature photo credit: John Chiasson