His legend and sound are embedded in the American music scene; indeed, his songs are as Americana as they come. His influence spans generations and are as alive and fresh as they were when we first heard them on the radio through our stereo speakers. His footprints are huge and have been followed and copied for the past 50 years.
But for Roger McGuinn, the founder of The Byrds, the iconic 1960s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band, it’s all about his roots.
In fact, that’s what he loves to do these days – to connect intimately with small audiences, McGuinn told this reporter last week just prior to his performance Friday, Sept. 28, at the Ironwood Theatre.
McGuinn brought himself, his wife and his guitars to the Northwoods for his one night sold out show at the theatre. He thinks it was his first time ever in the area – though he wasn’t sure because he has performed literally across the globe.
There isn’t any pretense about McGuinn, who has stayed true to himself, his fans and his music for the past five decades.
Having grown up in Chicago, McGuinn, like so many of his contemporaries, got hooked on music when he heard the sounds of Elvis Presley in the late 1950s.
“I was 13 when [my parents] gave me a transistor radio and that was a game-changer because it meant you could listen to what you wanted to listen to instead of what the family wanted you to listen to. So I tuned into the rock-and-roll station in Chicago, which at the time was WJJD. I heard Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ and it made me want to get a guitar and made me want to play music,” he said.
McGuinn’s musical journey began with his first guitar, a Harmony F-hole “... and the action was so high that I couldn’t play it,” McGuinn said. “After about a year or so, I think they bought me a Kay.”
He attended the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, a private school started by a couple of folk singers who wanted to “teach people about the traditional music scene.” He knew at a very young age that it was music he wanted to pursue.
And that’s what he’s done. Along the way, he’s played alongside just about every music legend one might name in a single sitting. Living the dream, McGuinn wouldn’t give up those memories for anything.
He continues to do what he’s always loved to do – play the music he’s composed and honor his past by playing and promoting the music he learned so many years ago on his first guitars and banjos.
But over the past couple of decades he’s realized that there’s more to life than making records and touring with a band.
“David Crosby always talks about doing it [reforming The Byrds], and says ‘it’s too bad Roger doesn’t want to do it,’ but I don’t. I’m happy doing what I’m doing, which is traveling with my wife around the world and playing concerts in theatres and performing arts centers. That’s better than traveling with what they call the big time band scene with the buses and trucks and playing in stadiums or whatever. I’ve had my fill of that. I did that for years and years and we did alright at it, but it’s not something I really want to do now.”
During the 1970s and ‘80s, he did the “big time” scene and recorded for Columbia Records – and in fact his records from those days are highly acclaimed and considered by many to be some of his best work.
Back to folk
But it was in the mid-1990s that he realized he had been missing something – his roots. That’s when he started the Folk Den: Roger McGuinn in the Folk Tradition, a website where once a month he posts a folk tune that’s downloadable at no cost. He even posts the lyrics and chords for those who might want to try to sing and play along.
“I decided to put folk music up on the Internet for free download because people weren’t playing the old folk songs anymore. So, I thought I would save them by putting them up for free download. It’s kind of a labor of love ... I love folk music, I love all the stories, they’re all personal human interest stories.”
He does it not only because he loves the beauty of the folk music that formed the foundation of his own compositions, but also because he wants to share what he feels are the tunes that have made American music great.
“A folk singer named Bob Gibson came to my high school and played a set of folk songs and I was impressed with that ... so I learned how to play the banjo and 12-string guitar ... I started with Elvis and went on to folk music after that.”
In that spirit, McGuinn continues the storytelling that his predecessors brought to the stage and his live performances are much more than just a rendition of song after song.
His “Evening with Roger McGuinn” is just that – it’s a personal experience that brings back the feeling of the old-time family get-together where there’s good food, laughter and at some point the instruments come out and the air is filled with the tunes of life.
From the moment McGuinn struck the first chords of “My Back Pages” unseen backstage of the Ironwood Theatre and then walked on stage to the microphone, one knew this was something special.
Playing his 12-string Rickenbacker, McGuinn sang and strummed that first song as effortlessly as any musician caught in the moment.
As a performer, McGuinn said that nerves are “something that never goes away completely, although it’s not the sort of ab-pressing thing that it used to be when I was starting out. Now, it’s like a little edge that you get and I think that’s a good thing to have when you go on stage.”
Certainly he wasn’t nervous on this night. He knows exactly what he’s doing because he’s done it so many times before.
When he finished “My Back Pages,” McGuinn took his seat at center stage, surrounded by his instruments, and carried the audience not only through his life’s musical catalogue, but brought the listener into his world. He shares stories about how he became involved in music and how the world of music took him in, enveloped him, connected him and completed him.
He tells about meeting The Beatles; he describes how Bob Dylan requested he write the song that would become the “Ballad of Easy Rider;” he shows how his music evolved into what was a work in progress by introducing the listener to each of his instruments, almost like a proud father boasting about the accomplishments of his children.
In addition to his iconic Rickenbacker 12-string that gave The Byrds their “jingle-jangle” vibrations, McGuinn also talks extensively about how his Martin 12-string acoustic, five string banjo and his custom Martin seven string have played huge roles in the development of his musicality.
Playing two 40-minute sets, the 70-year-old McGuinn shows no signs of slowing down. His energy and passion for the music is not lost, nor does it wane.
His love of life, his love of his experiences, his love of relating to an audience drives him to connect – and connect he does.
In addition to a healthy dose of Byrds tunes sprinkled throughout and across his performance, McGuinn also plays songs from the Columbia recordings he produced, as well as some of the folk and traditional songs he has recorded and offered through his online Folk Den.
Needless to say, McGuinn hasn’t lost any of his skills as a musician, nor has he lost touch with his past or his humanity.
Behind the curtain
Having the opportunity to meet the man backstage after the show, he was as pleasant and humble as one would expect, shaking hands and greeting the small group fortunate enough to say hello to the legend.
But like the man who entertains for nearly 90 minutes on the stage, he’s also approachable and friendly backstage.
As he wound his instrument chords and carefully put away the small number of electronics he uses in his show, he talks in his quiet voice and politely answers questions.
One man brought him a picture of the members of McGuinn’s 50th high school reunion – a reunion McGuinn wasn’t able to attend. As he looks over the faces peering out from the photograph, he talks briefly with the man about his days in Chicago as a youth and the streets he frequented.
When I asked him about the fact that he not only played alone on stage, but that he seemed to be the only roadie backstage, he quietly said, “It’s just me and my wife and she’s busy selling CDs, so it’s just me back here.”
When asked, he also told us about his first 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar. “It was stolen when we were at Fordham University back in 1965. Someone came in with an empty case and left with my guitar.”
Ironically, that same guitar – at least what they say is that same guitar – is now on sale online for $750,000.
“I’m not buying it back,” McGuinn said matter of factly.
He doesn’t need to.
What he has given back to his fans in joy, tradition and appreciation goes well beyond an instrument. The love of what he does flows through him, out his fingertips and into the hearts and minds of his listeners in ways that won’t soon be forgotten.
As he appropriately opens each of his shows with “My Back Pages,” he goes on to tell the story, chapter by chapter, of his entire life – his back pages.
And coming full circle, he concludes each performance with his favorite song, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” reiterating life’s cyclical and harmonious tones. He brings his listeners full circle and leaves them with a wave and a tip of his hat, only to pack up his humble belongings and roll on to another venue and another evening.
Raymond T. Rivard may be reached at email@example.com.