It’s hard to envision that Roger McGuinn had more to accomplish.
He had already founded the Byrds, one of pop music’s most influential and innovative bands; America’s answer to the British rock invasion of the 1960s.
He had carved out a new sound for the electric guitar by using a 12-string Rickenbacker to merge folk and rock into a distinctive brand of hit music that set the tone for generations of musicians to come.
But in 1995 McGuinn settled on the most unexpected of new musical paths — his past.
“I was listening to a Smithsonian Folkways album of some Woodie Guthrie material, and it struck me that I wasn’t hearing that traditional side of folk music any more from the clubs,” McGuinn told the Listening Room. “You know, all the new folk singers were singer/songwriters doing their own material. And it was good stuff but it wasn’t the traditional stuff I grew up with.”
“And I thought the Internet would be a good way to preserve these old songs by putting them up for people to download free, along with the lyrics and the chords and a little story about the song,” he said. “And I’ve been doing that every month now since November of 1995, so there are about 165 MP3s up there and you can download all the MP3s off my site and I won’t sue you.”
But McGuinn, who is due to take the stage at the Irvington Town Hall Theater on Friday, hasn’t forgotten his bread-and-butter. The former Byrd is firmly attached to the legacy product: He still counts hits like “Turn, Turn, Turn” among his favorite tunes.
“I don’t get tired of singing ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ because I love the song,” he said. “It’s got a great melody and the words are very uplifting. And people love it. People love to sing along on it.”
McGuinn traces his link to folk music to his early years in his native Chicago, where he studied at the Old Town School of Folk Music. He parlayed that love affair into a successful musical career that took him to New York’s Greenwich Village at a time when the genre was exploding — and later to Los Angeles, where he founded the Byrds.
The band grew out of a chance meeting with future bandmate Gene Clark at the Troubadour Cafe in L.A., a musical hotspot that featured a room where guitar picks, strings and other merchandise was sold. The room was called the Folk Den.
“I was doing a solo thing at the Troubadour in L.A., and Gene Clark was out in the audience and I was doing a mix of rock and roll and folk music,” McGuinn said. “It wasn’t going over very well because the folk crowd at that point were kind of, they didn’t like rock and roll. But Gene liked both of them and so he suggested that we get together and write some stuff, and we did.”
“And then David Crosby came in, sang harmony and he took us over to meet Jim Dixon who had a recording studio. And then it just sort of fell into place after that.”
McGuinn came to the band with a resume that already included two folk groups, the Limelighters and the Chad Mitchell Trio. He had also crossed paths with an unlikely benefactor who had a big hand in helping to shape his musical future.
Singer Bobby Darin had hired him in 1962 to add a folk feel to his Las Vegas act, and would later keep McGuinn on as a paid songwriter, setting him up at the Brill Building in New York City. There he would work with Judy Collins, Simon & Garfunkle, and others.
“Bobby had a love of folk music and that’s why he hired me,” McGuinn said. “He put a folk music segment into his Las Vegas show, and he wanted an authentic folk singer to back him up, so that was what my job was.”
“He also directed me to get into rock and roll, because I was in folk music and he thought that was kind of a dead end at that point. And he was right. Right at that point the Beatles came out and I switched over to rock and roll.”
The Beatles did more than influence the music. The Byrds gathered to watch the Beatles’ film “Hard Day’s Night,” prompting McGuinn to rush out and buy the guitars the Fab Four played in the movie. For McGuinn, that meant buying his first Rickenbacker 12-string electric guitar, which John Lennon sported.
“Nobody in America had really had the long-hair look,” he said. “ And we modeled ourselves after the British invasion bands, with the long hair and everything. We even had suits with velvet collars.”
McGuinn rode the Byrds to hit after hit, until deciding to disband the group in 1973 to pursue a solo career. He went on to record as both a solo artist and with other performers, including with former Byrds bandmates Clark, Crosby and Chris Hillman.
The Byrds’ legacy also survived the band’s demise. The Eagles and the Flying Burrito Brothers were among the bands that emerged with a Byrds-influenced sound that evolved into California-based country rock. Rock artists like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fully embraced McGuinn’s songwriting and sound — down to the Rickenbacker guitar.
“It’s a compliment,” McGuinn said. “Tom told me one time — we got to be good friends over the years — and he told me when he was in Mudcrutch, the original band, he wasn’t the lead singer. And he would get up and do some Byrds songs. And then the club owner came backstage one night and said, ‘Hey, you guys. You know that blonde guy that gets up and sings those Byrds songs? You ought to let him do more stuff.’”
But McGuinn isn’t a fan of a Byrds reunion, saying, “I don’t want to be in an oldies band.” He also doesn’t worry if he’s hasn’t gotten the acclaim that his musical achievements would dictate.
He’s found a good place in life: He now tours with his wife and manager, Camilla McGuinn, which he said makes his road trips like a honeymoon.
And he even gets to play the folk songs he grew up loving.
“I’m doing what I love and I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to do what I love for my whole life,” he said. “I’m not going to complain about anything.”
To hear our entire interview with McGuinn click below.
He’ll be at the Irvington Town Hall Theater on Friday with special guest Loretta Hagen. The show is scheduled for 8:30 p.m