Roger McGuinn: Many of Today's Folk Singers Aren't Playing Folk Songs

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Roger McGuinn has had a somewhat storied career that's moved from folk to rock to country and back. A founding member of the seminal psychedelic band The Byrds, McGuinn's career actually began in folk bands, notably The Chad Mitchell Trio and The Limelighters, along with a stint as guitarist in Bobby Darin's band.

Upon moving to Los Angeles, McGuinn fell in with his future bandmates, bring the folk sensibility to a rock and roll world. His jangly guitar sound was an instant hit and sparked a new direction in popular music.

The Byrds first hit it big covering Bob Dylan--their first record and hit song was "Mr. Tambourine Man--including Dylan songs for most of their albums. The band went country on the now-critically acclaimed Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a failure at the time. McGuinn broke up the band in 1973, embarking on a solo career that eventually led him back to his folk roots. In 1995 he started Folk Den, a series of classic folk songs released on his website. Today, McGuinn tours solo, taking his cue from Pete Seeger and mixing it up on stage.

Up on the Sun caught up with McGuinn at his Florida home to discuss Folk Den, his solo tours, development on the Byrds, and what might have happened had he changed his name (from Jim) to Rocket (an option) instead of Roger.

So, you've been immersed in folk rather seriously since The Byrds disbanded. In the nineties you started recording classic folk songs and putting them online, something you call Folk Den. In 1995 I was listening to a Smithsonian folkways album and it dawned on me that I wasn't hearing a lot of traditional music from folk singers. There are people now who play acoustic instruments and call themselves folk singers, but they aren't playing folk songs. They were playing songs they made up themselves because Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and people after that became singer-songwriters and the trend was to move away from traditional folk. The idea was that if you weren't writing it yourself it wasn't valid. I thought, "What was going to happen to these great traditional songs if nobody plays them?"

Odetta died a couple years ago; Pete Seeger's 94. Somebody's got to hold up that end of it.

I decided to put these songs up on the internet for worldwide distribution for free. It was a great way to keep them alive. I started doing that in November 1995. It's a labor of love, sponsored by University North Carolina-Chapel Hill. I've been doing this for 18 years--twice as long I'd been in Byrds. The Byrds were more popular, no doubt, than Folk Den, but it's been adopted by people around the world.

What was it that made The Byrds such a success? Was it those folk/country roots that helped people gravitate to it? You had rock and folk--two very different outlooks at the time. The timing couldn't have been more perfect. The Beatles had just come out and the folk revival of the 1960s was winding down. There was a combination of folk and rock in the Beatles if you listen closely. They had a folk background as well having been a skiffle band. I picked up on that and ran with it and we got the wonderful sound of folk and rock at the same time. Bob Dylan songs were so kind of beat poetry and played well with the rock and roll set. It was just a lot of the right things at the right time.

The first hit was a Dylan song--was it hard to separate yourselves from that likeness? Even Gene Clark's songwriting in many ways mirrored Dylan. We made a conscious effort at one point not to do any Bob Dylan. We did one album where we did no Bob Dylan songs (Fifth Dimension), but then we got back to them because they were great material and it was better than anything we could write. We tried to stand alone, but it didn't work without a Dylan song.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo is now considered a classic album, the founding album of alternative country. What made you want to do a country record? (Byrds' bassist) Chris Hillman had a bluegrass background and I had a folk one. Earl Scruggs was my banjo inspiration. Chris met Gram Parsons at a bank and brought him over to a rehearsal. Gram had such a love for country music that he inspired us to roll with it. It was a labor of love.

We went to Nashville and loved playing with these great players. (The album) was not well received at the time because it was seen as a betrayal by the rock community. The political statement with country music at the time was kind of right wing. There was this dichotomy between country and rock and a lot of people had a problem with it. We didn't, but it took about 40 years for people to come around to it.

I loved doing it. We had a great time doing it. Gram and Chris and I hung out in the hotel in Nashville, played poker everyday, and recorded at night. It was a great time.

When you broke up The Byrds in 1973 did you feel the band had run its course, or was everyone just ready for solo adventures? David Crosby came out to my house in Malibu and tried to convince me it would be a good idea to get The Byrds back together in the studio. I thought it would be better than having two sets of Byrds (a new band with McGuinn operating under the name, and the band featuring the five original members), so I put the [newer band] I was working with on the shelf and went to see what would happen.

We did that album [Byrds] and it wasn't well received. After that, I thought it was time to go solo. There was always something in the back of my head about going solo and it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Was it hard switching to a solo setting? I have Rickenbacker 12-string, a 7-string Martin signature model, 5-string banjo and 12-string acoustic. It's sort of a format I remember Pete Seeger doing back in the '50s where he'd have a few musical instruments on stage and he'd switch between them. I always liked the contrast.

You play something on the banjo and then you go to the 12-string and it sounds so big. You get the audience involved. It's kind of my business model.

How well do The Byrds songs translate solo? The songs I do are "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Turn! Turn! Turn!," "Eight Miles High, "Feel a Whole Lot Better," "So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star," and sometimes "Chimes of Freedom." They're all recognizable. People get them right away. I'm faithfully true to the key the songs were on the record.

Sounds like a fun time. I just played with Peter Frampton and also B.B. King, but I really prefer what I'm doing--being a troubadour now and playing smaller venues, just playing my own songs and my own instruments. It's a lot of fun and somehow I cobble together a set.

Do you think anything would have been different if you had changed your name to Rocket instead of Roger? If I had been Rocket McGuinn I probably could not have become a folk singer. [Laughs]

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