Roger McGuinn is most famous for his instrumental role as founder and leader of The Byrds – one of the most successful, influential and turmoil-ridden bands to ever put a dent in the radio dial. From 1964 to 1973, McGuinn held The Byrds together despite a revolving door of musicians that began in 1968 when the original lineup of Gene Clark, David Crosby and Chris Hillman dissolved due to a clash of egos.
The Byrds pioneered folk-rock with albums such as Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn, Turn, Turn – going electric several months before Bob Dylan actually recorded “Like a Rolling Stone” or plugged in at Newport. The Byrds next monumental step landed them waist-deep in a new genre dubbed “psychedelia” (Fifth Dimension) and then as the vast majority of the rock world followed, McGuinn & Co. plunged into country-rock and laid the foundation for 1970s acts, such as The Eagles, with the classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
McGuinn has always been one step ahead of cultural changes. In 1968, he was one of the first rockers to experiment with the Moog synthesizer that would dominate the pop horizon the following decade. In the early 1970s, he was one of the first mobile phone owners. By the mid-1980s, McGuinn was online, and he has maintained his own extensive Web site since 1994. In 1981, he bought his first computer.
“It was a little 16K color computer (laughs) from the Radio Shack,” McGuinn said via phone from a friend’s house in Ohio. “Eventually I got a modem for it and started getting on Compuserve and getting e-mail.”
McGuinn has been interested in technology since he was a little kid. His latest release, Treasures from the Folk Den, is a stirring collection of traditional folk songs featuring a host of folk luminaries making guest appearances. The album was produced and recorded using a personal computer and home recording equipment by McGuinn and his wife Camilla.
Although McGuinn is best known as a rock pioneer, his roots are based in pure, acoustic folk music.
“The songs (on Folk Den) are songs I grew up with,” McGuinn said.
Due to the vast wealth of folk music, McGuinn still unearths new material five decades after learning his first folk song.
“There are thousands of traditional songs that have been around for centuries, and I haven’t learned them all, so I still run across some I haven’t heard once in a while and it’s a great feeling,” McGuinn said.
The album is a rich stew of British Isle sea chanteys, cowboy songs, blues and Irish drinking songs. McGuinn handles the various styles with balanced aplomb, his strong vocal pipes bellying his 59 years. The legend denies that he uses any secret remedies to keep his voice golden, insisting that it’s a matter of technique.
“The trick is to sing, but not to sing too much,” said McGuinn.Throughout the album, McGuinn harmonizes effortlessly with guests such as Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Odetta and himself.”I love playing and singing with other people,” he said, “I do happen to have a good blend with my own voice, also, which is handy.”
One of the highlights on the collection is “Cane Blues,” which McGuinn sings solo while accompanying himself on 12-string guitar and five-string banjo. Different versions of the song have been recorded by The Band and Chris Smither, but McGuinn’s is markedly different and remarkably more effective.
“It’s my own arrangement,” said McGuinn. “It has slightly different chord changes and a different melody than the original. It’s an old prison blues, chain-gang kind of song from the Delta.”
The man who penned the rock classic, “So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star?” sounded excited to be returning to his folk roots.
“I really loved the folk movement, and I’m glad to get back to it. The rock and roll thing is fun, but the folk music thing is a much simpler time, simpler melodies,” said McGuinn.
Although in the 1960s McGuinn took folk and augmented it with electric guitars to form one of the most popular hybrids of that era, he said folk purists such as Pete Seeger were not angered by his revolutionary arrangements.
“Seeger was always very supportive of The Byrds. He sent me a letter in 1965 when we recorded his song ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ telling me that he liked it a lot. He was never a snob about folk music. He said he loved the chiming-bells sound of the electric 12-string (Rickenbacker),” said McGuinn.
Despite the immense talent of the original Byrds lineup, it took a strange twist of fate involving jazz virtuoso Miles Davis and his agent’s daughter to get The Byrds their first record deal.
“Miles came over to see his agent the day after we played in front of his daughter, who flipped out over us,” said McGuinn. “(Davis) said they must be good, because kids know stuff like that. He called up Colombia Records and got us a record deal on just the strength of his endorsement.”
After his Byrds success, McGuinn went solo in 1973 with his self-titled debut followed by Peace on You (1974). In 1975, he played a starring role in the triumphant Rolling Thunder Revue. Headlined by Dylan, it was a music-based caravan that included artists such as Joan Baez, T-Bone Burnett, poet Allen Ginsberg and various other forms of entertainment akin to the Lollapalooza Tours of the 1990s.
“The Rolling Thunder Revue was wonderful. We went around the country barnstorming from town to town doing these four concerts. It was great,” said McGuinn. “We did a lot of our rehearsals at the Bellevue Hotel over in Clearwater.”
Tired of dragging a band around, fMcguinn went on the road a la Jack Kerouac with wife Camilla playing solo during the 1980s.”It was very romantic, like a long honeymoon,” said McGuinn, who has been married for 23 years.
In 1990, McGuinn released his first album in nearly a decade, the critically acclaimed Back from Rio, which featured the hit single, “King of the Hill,” written by McGuinn and Tom Petty.
The following year, McGuinn and his wife Camilla moved to his current residence in Orlando. Prior to that, they had a place on Indian Rocks Beach.
After nearly 40 years in the spotlight, McGuinn is still invigorated on stage.
“I love performing live. It’s one of my favorite things to do,” said McGuinn with sincere enthusiasm. “We spend about half the year doing it.”
Saturday night, McGuinn will be at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater playing songs from his Byrds days, past solo albums and from his rootsy new collection, Treasures from the Folk Den. He will be playing both electric and acoustic 12-string guitars and will be joined by the rest of the lineup for a grand finale.
- The Wildflower Festival includes: Roger McGuinn, Judy Collins, Richie Havens and Janis Ian on Saturday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, 8 p.m. Call (727) 791-70-60 for tickets/info.