It took more than 30 years for Roger McGuinn’s musical journey to reach full circle – from folk music back to folk music, with a lengthy break serving as a founding father of folk-rock that led to his 1991 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as the leader of The Byrds, one of the most influential bands in modern musical history. His 2001 Appleseed CD, Treasures from the Folk Den, full of traditional favorites and special guests from Roger’s early years, was voted a Grammy finalist as “Best Traditional Folk Album.”
Jim McGuinn, later known as Roger, was already a veteran of the New York and Los Angeles music scenes when he co-founded the group that would become The Byrds with Gene Clark and David Crosby in 1964.
Born in Chicago, the teenaged McGuinn studied banjo and guitar at the city’s Old Town School of Folk Music and was already making home recordings of his music during his final days in high school. Appearances at local folk clubs led to an invitation to tour as an accompanist with the popular Limeliters folk group, and within a few weeks of graduation, he joined the group in Los Angeles and helped record their Tonight: In Person album.
McGuinn next joined the Chad Mitchell Trio, touring and recording with them for the next 2-1/2 years. While performing in L.A. in 1962, McGuinn received a surprise backstage visitor – pop singer/songwriter Bobby Darin hired him as a backing musician and lured him to New York with a job offer at Darin's publishing company in the legendary Brill Building. The duo even cowrote and recorded a rare surf music single, “Beach Ball,” under the name The City Surfers, in 1963.
After racking up credits as a sideman and arranger for Hoyt Axton, the Irish Rovers, Judy Collins, and Tom and Jerry (later known as Simon and Garfunkel), by the end of 1963 McGuinn was ready to chase the rock ’n’ roll dream – he had heard the Beatles and recognized the direction in which pop music was moving. Moving back to California, he began performing folk songs with a rock beat at Los Angeles clubs. Playing at the Troubadour club, he was approached by another folkie-turning-rocker, singer-songwriter Gene Clark, a former member of the New Christy Minstrels. “McGuinn and I started picking together in the Troubadour bar, which was called 'The Folk Den' at the time,” according to Clark (now deceased). They were soon heard by another musician ready to change with the times, David Crosby, who added his unique concepts of harmony and dissonance to their sound, thereby completing the core of one of the most influential bands of the Sixties.
Initially known as the Jet Set, the trio was inspired to expand the sound and line-up of their band by the "British Invasion" of rock groups (and a viewing of the Beatles’ movie, “A Hard Day’s Night”). Conga drummer Mike Clarke was drafted as drummer (primarily for his resemblance to the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones), bluegrass mandolinist Chris Hillman was persuaded to take up the bass guitar, and the purchase of electric instruments and a drum kit solidified the transformation. The jangle of McGuinn's electric Rickenbacker 12-string guitar was to become an influential trademark still heard to this day in the music of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, REM, Elvis Costello and countless others.
After a false-start single for Elektra in 1964 under the name "The Beefeaters," the band changed its name to The Byrds and was signed by Columbia Records in January 1965. With a group of studio musicians and McGuinn providing the instrumentation, McGuinn, Clark and Crosby harmonized on the Bob Dylan song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which became a Number One single within six months and helped codify the new "folk-rock" genre. Suddenly there was a new wave of groups performing contemporary folk and “protest” songs (many written by Dylan, who was spurred to “go electric” after hearing The Byrds perform his songs) with alternately sparkling or grouchy electric musical backing.
For the next several years, The Byrds were regarded as “the American Beatles,” releasing a string of successful and influential albums and singles, including “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the proto-psychedelic “Eight Miles High” and “My Back Pages” (another Dylan song). Along with pioneering folk-rock and psychedelia, the band was also one of the first to experiment with the Moog synthesizer and other electronic devices. But the group’s personal stability started to crumble, as Gene Clark, David Crosby and Michael Clarke eventually left the nest.
By the end of 1967, only McGuinn and Hillman remained from the original line-up. New recruits Gram Parsons (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and the extraordinary country/bluegrass guitarist Clarence White helped move the group into its next trend-setting phase, country rock, which was to dominate the music scene for years to come.
As the group gradually ran out of inspiration, McGuinn disbanded The Byrds in 1973 and embarked on a solo career. He released a series of solo albums that often included former bandmates, revivals of some of the best latter-day Byrds songs, and a version of Dylan’s “Knockin' On Heaven's Door” that became his live encore for years.
In late 1975 and early 1976, McGuinn accompanied Dylan and a band of musical gypsies (Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bob Neuwirth, T Bone Burnett, Joni Mitchell and many more) known as the Rolling Thunder Revue on a national tour that subsequently inspired one of Roger's finest albums, Cardiff Rose, which featured many of the Revue’s musicians.
In 1977, McGuinn, Gene Clark and Chris Hillman took part in a European tour that saw each performing separately with his own band and then, at some shows, uniting for a set of Byrds songs. Back in the States, the three continued to play together in various combinations; the closest thing to a full scale Byrds reunion came in San Francisco in February 1978, when David Crosby joined the trio onstage at the Boardinghouse for much of their set. Inspired by the reunion, McGuinn, Clark and Hillman toured and recorded in 1978-79, yielding a self-titled album that spawned the minor hit, “Don't You Write Her Off,” a McGuinn composition. Gene Clark opted out of the group for health reasons in 1979, but McGuinn and Hillman released two subsequent albums as a duo and performed together into early 1981.
When McGuinn and Hillman parted company, Roger started to tour as a solo act, usually performing acoustically, and has continued to tour on his own since then (although he accompanied Tom Petty and Bob Dylan on a 1987 European tour as an opening act and guest frontman).
After recording a handful of tracks with Crosby and Hillman for the 1989 Byrds box set released by Sony, McGuinn began work on his first solo album in years. Back from Rio, issued by Arista in 1991, wound up selling 500,000 copies, supported by Roger's extensive touring with a band and appearances on numerous radio and TV shows. His next album, 1996's Live from Mars, was culled from performances over the last few years and also included two studio tracks recorded with the Byrds-influenced band the Jayhawks.
As far back as 1994, the technologically minded McGuinn began recording a series of traditional folk songs and uploading them onto the Internet site folkden.com, part of his home page – http://mcguinn.com. Since then, he has posted a new solo recording of an old folk song each month, complete with lyrics, guitar tablature, personal reminiscences and even illustrative artwork. McGuinn’s album on Appleseed Recordings, Treasures from the Folk Den, grew out of this practice, as he re-recorded 18 Folk Den songs with many of his musical heroes: Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Odetta, Jean Ritchie, Tommy Makem and Josh White, Jr.
Roger also performs “Bells of Rhymney” on Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger and “Dink’s Song” from Treasures from the Folk Den appears on our Sowing the Seeds – The 10th Anniversary 2-CD compilation.