As much as Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn forever changed the shape of rock ‘n’ roll in its formative years. If Elvis gave rock its dangerous edge and Dylan its poetic soul, McGuinn—as leader and guitar maestro of the Byrds—helped give rock both a heritage and a vocabulary. Coming from the folk tradition, McGuinn and the Byrds arrived on the scene at the right time. Dylan had already revived folk, bringing it to the masses with his rock persona. And even though he had experimented with combining folk and rock on Bringing It All Back Home, the two were still largely seen as separate entities. Enter McGuinn and the Byrds, who adapted and recorded Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” three months prior to his infamous electric set at the Newport Folk Festival. In doing so, the Byrds not only built a bridge between folk and rock, they also connected rock ‘n’ roll to a tradition of music that spanned across centuries rather than a mere decade.
| Roger McGuinn’s discography with the Byrds and as a solo artist is a collection of classics. Here are some of the high(er) points.
Mr. Tambourine Man(Columbia) 1965
Honoring the folk tradition of adapting others’ songs, the Byrds cover American folk songs, but also write some classic originals, proving they’re a force in rock, too. Their cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” spawns folk-rock, and McGuinn’s Rickenbacker jangle is the sound that launches a thousand rock bands.
Turn! Turn! Turn! (Columbia) 1965
The Byrds perfect folk-rock, most impressively by landing God on the pop charts with Pete Seeger’s title track, adapted from the Bible. Here again, they write some beautiful originals, with Gene Clark emerging as an impeccable songsmith.
Fifth Dimension (Columbia) 1966
Unwilling to be labeled and under the spell of John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, the Byrds move away from folk-rock, and unintentionally pioneer another subgenre: psychedelia. Also here is “Mr. Spaceman”, evidence of what future member Gram Parsons will call Cosmic American Music—a blend of country and rock forms.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Columbia) 1968
The father of country-rock and grandfather of alt-country, this album’s influence is impossible to assess. The album will also begin Gram Parsons’ transformation into a mythic—and tragic—figure of Americana.
Roger McGuinn (Columbia) 1973
McGuinn’s first solo effort sees him breaking out of the tired meandering of the late Byrds’ albums. With guest appearances from all of the original Byrds and Bob Dylan, the album shows why McGuinn was the hub of the Byrds: the voice, the guitar, the vision.
Cardiff Rose (Columbia) 1976
After working with Mick Ronson on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, McGuinn decided to let the Spider from Mars produce his next album. A weird combination, yes, but one that worked—Cardiff Rose is, as you might expect, a little rougher-edged than McGuinn’s previous work, but stands as reminder that he did, after all, make a career out of doing the unexpected.
Back from Rio (Arista) 1990
The contributions and guest appearances say it all: Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Elvis Costello, Dave Stewart, Chris Hillman, David Crosby ... McGuinn throws a rock ‘n’ roll party in his honor, and we’re lucky enough to listen. Back from Rio is both a return to form after a decade of silence and a testimony to McGuinn’s mammoth influence.
The Folk Den Project: 1995-2005 (Apple First Productions) 2005
For over a decade, McGuinn has collected, adapted, and recorded traditional folk songs, then posted these songs, their lyrics, their stories, and the chords on his website. In 2005, McGuinn re-recorded these songs and compiled them on this four-CD collection. An archival and historical treasure, it’s also an enjoyable listen.
More than this, though, the Byrds’ sound provided an indispensable template for every rock band that followed, one marked by infectious melodies, impeccable harmonies, and hooks reaching out of every song—even the experimental ones. Not every band that followed would possess the immense talent to make use of this template, of course, but—to this day—when a band displays a mastery of these three essentials, they are often described as sounding “Byrds-y”. Perhaps even more amazing, the Byrds were able to maintain this sound through a litany of genres and subgenres they either pioneered or created. “Mr. Tambourine Man” was immediately dubbed folk-rock, and not wanting to get shoved into a rigid category, the band fled from the label; in the process, they fashioned the psychedelia that would be explored by everyone from the Beatles to Hendrix to the Doors. Yes, “Eight Miles High” preceeded Sgt. Peppers by a year, folks. And when that label became too confining, the Byrds married folk and country to rock on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the landmark album that is often credited with starting country-rock and its offspring, alt-country. In other words, the Byrds created Americana, the sound that—like its home—embraces and encompasses a mixture of influences but is always distinctly American.
McGuinn was the center of this sound. Not only was he the one constant in the Byrd’s ever-evolving lineup, but it was the jingle-jangle of his twelve-string Rickenbacker that became synonymous with Americana. The legacy of his guitar sound is undeniable, as his disciples are plenty: Big Star, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, R.E.M., and just about every alt-country band that ever dared to jangle as well as twang. While the scope of McGuinn’s influence is overwhelming, it’s only natural he would craft such a guitar style. Like everything other aspect of the Byrds’ music, McGuinn’s playing emphasized clarity, melody, and an artisan’s attention to detail.
Four decades after the Byrds began their bewildering career, McGuinn remains a pioneer, forever dedicated to bringing the centuries-old folk tradition to a new generation. For the past decade, he has set out to preserve folk music through the Folk Den Project, a catalogue of traditional folk songs he and his wife, Camilla, have recorded and uploaded to his website. Not only can visitors to the site download the songs free of charge, they can also view the lyrics, chords, and stories behind each song. With a new song posted each month, the website is an archival treasure. McGuinn’s notes not only provide a glimpse into his mind, but also give historical context from a man who has spent his life researching the genre. The goal, McGuinn says, is to keep the music alive by passing it to the next generation. To further that idea, McGuinn and Camilla re-recorded 100 of the tracks from the Folk Den on a four-CD box set titled The Folk Den Project: 1995-2005. With a sound quality much better than the downloads on the website, it is a must-own for fans of music, literature, folklore, and history.
PopMatters recently talked with McGuinn about a new Byrds box set slated to come out in August, the legacy of the Byrds, and his current and future projects.
How did the new Byrds box set come about, and what was your role in its compilation?
Well, it’s been 15 years since the other one, and it’s out of print, the old one, from, when was it—‘90, ‘91?—and the technology has improved so much that they’re able to really get it like you’re in the studio, in the control room. And they found some extra, beautiful live tracks, like the Clarence White stuff, and it’s really wonderful to hear. I think it’s nice to have another one out there. It’s something that was really great when it came out, the original one, and then, of course, it’s off the shelf now, so it’s good to have a new one.
The box set really shows just how much great music you all made as a band. When you see the band’s music compiled, does it—even for a second—surprise you just how prolific you were?
Well, no, because I was there for every inch of it, so I remember a lot of work. I remember doing the work. It’s not like it just happened. I’m very proud of the legacy, and I think it’s a wonderful body of work, and I’m very happy about it.
Why do think so many bands in the past were so prolific? You all were together under a decade and released thirteen albums. Today’s artists take years between releases. Is that just a change in the music industry or a change in the artists?
It’s pretty much a change in the industry. Back then, we had a contract that required an album every six months, and for years we were doing two albums a year. Then everything got much more independent, and artists started recording more where they wanted to, and when they wanted to, so everything’s kind of loose.
Do you see that as a positive change or a negative change?
It’s both. I think because we were under a deadline, we produced more. I’d say it lit the fire under us to get going and do the work. Today, you can be a little more lackadaisical about it, and say, “Well, I’m not happy with the mix. I’m going to wait” and do it again or whatever.
Since the box set is chronological, it shows your progression as a band. Along the way, you all pioneered numerous sounds, from folk-rock to psychedelic rock to country rock. How did all of those different strains of music coalesce into a distinct sound? And why do you think that sound is so enduring?
That’s a big question, but, basically, what happened was just an evolution of influences and experimentation, not wanting to get locked in a box. We were originally dubbed folk-rock, and we thought we should expand from that position. We started dabbling in country, and you’ll find the first experiments with country on the second album - Turn! Turn! Turn! - where we did “Satisfied Mind” and so on. Then, gradually getting into, well, doing a whole album of country, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but before that experimenting with jazz, with a little John Coltrane, and influences of Ravi Shankar and Eastern music. It was just basically our musical tastes and things we were listening to were seeping into what we were doing. In the case of Coltrane and Shankar, we were on a tour with a cassette tape that I had made of Ravi Shankar on one side and John Coltrane on the other. It was at a time when the cassette recorder was a new invention and they didn’t have pre-recorded cassettes on the market, so I dubbed these things on there, and it was the only music we had on a thirty-day tour, so we just listened to the same music over and over again. By the time we got back to L.A. in the studio, we were steeped in it. And that’s what came out in “Eight Miles High” and the flip side, “Why”, of the single. It was basically just things that we did for fun and recreation showed up in our music, and a desire to explore new territory showed up in the music.
Four decades later, the Byrds are still popular, influential, and relevant. Can you think of any other artists that will likewise stand the test of time?
Well, the Beatles hold up pretty well. You can still hear them. Elvis Presley. I love a lot of the older artists. I listen to some of the classic rock stations sometimes and enjoy them. I think what makes the Byrds stand up all these years is the basis in folk music. Folk music, being a timeless art form, is the foundation of the Byrds. We were all from a folk background. We considered ourselves folk singers even when we strapped on electric instruments and dabbled in different things.
What I hear throughout all the Byrds’ music is an emphasis on harmony and melody. Does this come from your folk background?
I believe it does, yeah. That’s one of the things I like best about folk music is the beautiful melodies—and the harmonies—that exist in it. And of course, some of the stories, the story songs.
Speaking of folk, you always come back to folk, and have been working on a project called the Folk Den for over ten years. Could you explain this project?
It came about in November of 1995 when I detected an absence of traditional music in the marketplace. I didn’t hear it on public radio, and I didn’t hear it in coffee houses or in concerts or anywhere because the term folksinger was redefined to me as singer-songwriter. Traditional music wasn’t in. It just wasn’t happening. So, the Internet had just opened up to the public back then, and I was able to record stuff and put it up on the Internet for people to download for free. I thought, “What a great way to get this stuff around the world so that kids can get into it and learn the songs.” I put the lyrics and the chords and a little story about the song and that’s been going on ... I’ve put one up every month since November of 1995. In November of 2005 we decided to release a 100-song, four-CD set that would commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Folk Den on the Internet.
It’s awfully gracious of you to allow people to download the songs from the website.
Well, I want to keep them going. The idea is to preserve the material. I thought it could get lost in the shuffle.
Some of these songs you’ve recorded for the Folk Den were written centuries ago, yet they are still popular today. Why do folk songs endure? Are they like myths in that they encode values and teach lessons?
I think that’s a good evaluation. They’re also very pretty. I pick the ones I like the best, and they usually have pretty melodies or interesting rhythmic patterns. They have interesting modes; some of them are in modal tunings. That’s how they used to spread the news around back in old days before newspapers, radio, and television, and so on. So they all have really interesting things, and they educate, and they amuse, and entertain. I find them really good for all those things.
Going back to the Byrds, you mentioned Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which is credited with starting country-rock, and often cited as starting the modern alt-country movement. What are your thoughts on alt-country and the Byrds’ role in its formation?
I love Jeff Tweedy and Gary Louris and those guys, and I think what they’re doing is wonderful and it’s really good music, and it’s basically folk music to me. I think they’re carrying on the thing we did back in the original days and I’m very happy to hear it.
You mentioned Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, and I see some similarities in their career path and yours—starting out rooted in folk music and experimenting from there. Again, you can see the Byrds’ influence playing out again.
It’s a good feeling for me to see that. It’s very gratifying.
Can you think of any current bands whose music will stand the test of time?
Well, I look at Elvis Costello ... Are you talking about really, really current?
Well, not the pop charts…
No Britney Spears?
No, nothing like that. Here today, gone yesterday.
I think Wilco is going to definitely stand the test of time—no question—and Uncle Tupleo, and the whole No Depression scene, which is now alt-country. I think that’s going to be around a long time.
You said that folk has become singer-songwriter, and…
Yeah, it’s become confused to be anything acoustic, basically.
How would you differentiate the two?
Well, the difference is hundreds-of-years-old songs written by anonymous authors versus songs written in the last few years. I’m not degrading the songs that were written within the last few years—there are some really great songs, and they eventually could become part of the traditional music scene, but they aren’t right now because they aren’t old enough and they aren’t from that background.
Looking back, how would you describe the Byrds’ legacy on rock ‘n’ roll?
I guess you’d have to focus on the main points, which would be that jingle-jangle sound of the Rickenbacker electric twelve-string, the pretty harmonies, the melodies—the folk-based melodies—and combining the folk songs or style of folk songs with the energy of the Beatles, kind of combining the two because that had not been done prior to “Mr. Tambourine Man”. Now some people say it was the Animals, but that was a blues song, but (jokingly pauses), ok, anyway ... We were doing it, then exploring different territories, like country and jazz, and what they called psychedelia, which was really our jazz exploration.
You mention the Beatles, and the two tracks on the box set by the Beefeaters (one of the names the band had before deciding on the Byrds) sound very influenced by the Beatles.
The original Byrds were very much Beatles-influenced, and then we gradually got our own sound. We started mixing things together more.
Just from the first few tracks on the box set—from the Jet Set to the Beefeaters to the Byrds—you can hear a progression.
[Singing in a Beatles-style accent] “Oh yeah ... oh yeah…” and those things, yeah.
Going back to what you’re doing now—you’re a technology aficionado. How has technology changed the way you approach music?
Well, it’s changed the way I record music. I don’t have to go to the big studio anymore. I can fire up a laptop and get the same quality recording that you used to only get in the studio, which is great. I’ve got the new MacBook Pro and I can work it on either Windows or OS X, and run either Pro Tools, or my favorite one is Adobe Audition, and it’s got so many plug-ins that it’s just like a million-dollar studio in a box. It’s just amazing. That technology has democratized recording so that just about anyone can afford a setup like that and record.
It has democratized recording, but it’s also democratized the marketing with what’s going on with MySpace and…
The Internet has done that, right. The Internet has replaced print press and television and, you know, look at Google. It’s just an amazing phenomenon where people are taking their ad money out of TV and putting it into Google. It’s just totally different.
And again, I assume you see these changes as positive?
Yes I do, because it’s positive for the artist because the artists used to have to rely on the big labels, who were ... you know, it was a form of indentured servitude to the big labels and now that isn’t necessary. So I see it as a very positive thing for artists.
Technology does have a lot of benefits for musicians, but when you look at the current state of music, do you think technology can also be a hindrance?
I think there’s an overuse of it, especially in the hip-hop scene and all that—it’s just all tech. Well, there’s some good talking blues in there and some good singing in the background, but I think ... Well, it’s just a matter of taste. I happen to like the pretty melodies and harmonies.
Yeah, I was appalled when Puff Daddy had a hit and the music was nothing but Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” sampled and looped.
U2 looped one of my songs—“You Showed Me”. They used it on “Playboy Mansion”. So yeah, they’re using a lot of ... people are sampling. I don’t mind it, as long as they give credit.
As a legend yourself, you’ve worked with some of rock’s biggest legends. Is there anybody else you would like to collaborate with, it the opportunity arose?
I’m pretty happy the way things are. I’ve done a lot of wonderful collaborations with, like, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, and have gotten to work with Dylan and hang out with the Beatles. It’s been really great. And Pete Seeger—he was one who was on my list, and I finally did get to collaborate with him on a project a couple of years ago called Treasures from the Folk Den, which is a CD on Appleseed Recordings.
Speaking of Tom Petty, were you really the inspiration for his song “The Waiting”?
Well, you know, I told him this, I said ... There was a time when I was talking to him, and we’d just come off the road, and the last gig we did, we had been in the dressing room for seven hours before the show, and it kind of affected the show because our heads were just, we were just totally bummed out from having to wait so long, and I mentioned to him that the waiting was the hardest part. The show was great, and then that song came out, and then after the song came out I reminded him of it, and he said he didn’t remember it. And I said, “Well, wait a minute, I’m not going to sue you. I don’t want any money or anything” [laughing]. And he said, “Well, uhhh, maybe it was in the back of my head.”
Yeah, I think I actually read that in one of his songbooks in the notes for each song.
Yeah, that’s the story on that. And the other thing, he came out with a song called “Century City” and at the time I was living in Century City, and I had just seen him and had that conversation with him prior to those songs.
What new projects do you have in the works?
We have a couple in the pipeline. I’m going to do some more things for the Folk Den, like a Christmas album of 12 tracks from the Folk Den, but they’ll be totally re-recorded and remastered—old traditional Christmas songs. And maybe a blues album from the Folk Den, a sea shanty album, you know what the record companies do when they do compilations in various genres. I have several of those in mind. And then, down the line, there’s another sort of Back from Rio kind of rock album. There will be new material and a full band.
There is one other thing. I went in and designed a guitar for Martin and they’ve made an edition of it. It’s called the Roger McGuinn HD-7—HD like “Hi-Def”—7. It’s a seven-string guitar, but instead of having a string on the top or bottom, it’s got it in the middle, so it emulates the sound of a 12-string guitar in the middle. But the top and bottom is a regular six-string, so you can do blues band from the top and bluegrass riffs on the bottom, but in the middle, if you play up and down the G-string, it sounds like the break in “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”—it’s got that jingle-jangle sound. It’s kind of a Swiss Army knife for the guitar, so I designed it, and Martin made it for me, and it’s an ongoing edition that came out in January called the Roger McGuinn HD-7. You can find pictures of it on my website in the “Press Photos” section.
Finally, what new music are you listening to—or are you?
I have XM and Sirius and I kind of scan the channels and, well, I don’t really know [laughing]. Fountains of Wayne are good, stuff like that. But I don’t listen to a whole lot of new music. I just kind of scan the channels and see what’s out there.
Roger McGuinn - Eight Miles High [Live in 1997]