Gary James' Interview With Roger McGuinn of
Roger McGuinn is the former leader of The Byrds and a 1991 inductee into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
The Byrds shot to fame in the mid 1960s with a song called "Mr. Tambourine Man". They were widely regarded as The American Beatles.
Still singing, still recording and sounding better than ever, Roger McGuinn had just released a CD called "Treasures From The Folk Den" (Appleseed Recordings) when we caught up with him.
Q - Roger, why did you decide to record a CD of folk standards?
A - Back around 1992 I got concerned that the traditional side of Folk music was getting lost in the shuffle. The music business being what it was, being narrow in scope and the new breed of Folk singers, basically singer / songwriters who were doing their own material and neglecting the traditional side. So, I thought I would do something about it. In '95, I had a website, so I decided to open a section of the website called The Folk Den. I promised to put up every month a recording of a traditional song along with the lyrics and chord changes and a little story of what it was about and a picture. I've done that every month since November, 1995. A couple of years ago a friend of mine who runs a Folk label said "This is great, but not everybody gets online. Why don't we do a CD we can sell the old-fashion way, in the record stores." To sweeten the deal, he said "Let's get Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Odetta..." the people I grew up listening to, to help me out. I thought great! So, I went around to their homes with my 64 track digital software and good microphones and got a really good studio quality result and we made it into a CD.
Q - Was it easy to get these people to come onboard?
A - Once I got Pete Seeger. He was the kingpin. Once we got Pete Seeger to agree to do it, then everybody else of course went along because he's The Big Guy in Folk music. He's got the respectability. He's got the recognition.
Q - I would say the Golden Age of Folk music was probably the late 50s, early 60s.
A - Right. That's true.
Q - And the British Invasion brought it to a close?
A - Right. The Beatles. The Beatles supplanted Folk music as the main, popular form of music, especially in the United States. And then, we went along with that, being in The Byrds. We were Beatle enthusiasts. We combined The Beatles and Folk music and came up with what they called Folk Rock.
Q - Were you happy with that term?
A - No.
Q - What would you have preferred?
A - Well, we didn't want to be locked into a specific genre. We wanted to experiment with different musical areas...and we did. So, we started out combining Folk and Rock, but later went on with Country and Jazz, and all kinds of different things.
Q - Would it have been better to call The Byrds a Pop group? You were popular on the Top 40 charts on AM radio.
A - Yeah. We were a Boy Band. (laughs)
Q - Who were you trying to reach with the CD "Treasures From The Folk Den", the people who enjoy Folk music or the people who were never introduced to it?
A - Well, actually, I didn't worry about targeting it or marketing it. My main concern was to preserve the songs and to give a tribute to the people who helped me out with it...Pete Seeger, Odetta and the old guard of Folk music. To give them kind of a spotlight. So, it was a combination of the two. The reason it was called "Treasures" is these people are treasures, as well as the songs. We thought of calling it "Living Treasures", but there's some other site called "Living Treasures". It's a religious thing and so we didn't want to get confused with that.
Q - You recorded for C.B.S. Records didn't you?
A - Yeah.
Q - Your label now is Appleseed.
A - Right.
Q - Are they in a position to properly promote the CD?
A - Well no, not really. They don't have the clout that a big label has, but the big labels aren't really interested in Folk music. (laughs) Jim Musselman has good distribution world-wide. He's got affiliations with international distributors, so the album did get out there.
Q - You were hired by Bobby Darin as a backing musician.
A - Yeah.
Q - Does that mean you went on the road with him or were you involved with studio work?
A - Both. Actually, I went on the road with him mostly. He hired me as a Folk singer to back him up on the acoustic set in the middle of his show. We did about three or four traditional songs.
Q - How were you traveling then?
A - We traveled by air.
Q - For the recording of "Mr. Tambourine Man", The Byrds used studio musicians. Is that correct?
A - Only on the first single. Only on the one song.
Q - Why use studio musicians at all? The Byrds were not The Monkees.
A - The band was a fledgling band. The drummer had never played drums before. The bass player had been a mandolin player and was just learning the bass. I was the only musician allowed on the track, the band track, because I'd had about five years experience as a studio musician. So, I was really the only one qualified to do it at the time.
Q - In 1973, you dis-banded The Byrds because the group ran out of inspiration. What kind of inspiration were you looking for?
A - Well, I don't know where you got that it ran out of inspiration. That sounds like a press statement or something. I dis-banded it in 1973 because the original Byrds had gotten back together for Asylum Records at the time. I had a touring band on the road. There were two sets of Byrds going on. So, I dis-banded the touring band and we were maybe going to go out with the original band if the record we did on Asylum did very well, but it didn't. So, we just decided to go our separate ways.
Q - Your first name is Jim, Roger, is that correct?
A - Yeah.
Q - Was it George Harrison who called you Roger?
A - No, no. (laughs) George always called me Jim, even when I changed my name to Roger.
Q - Where did Roger come from?
A - A guru from Indonesia. There was a spiritual movement going on in the 60s and I experimented with it. I thought I'd try this optional name change that was supposed to make you vibrate better with the universe. So, I sent in to Indonesia to get new name and he sent me back the letter "R". He said pick ten names that start with an "R". So, I picked names out of science fiction like Rocket. (laughs) And Roger was one of 'em 'cause it's a two way radio word...Roger that. OK, so he sent me the name Roger and it was the only real name in the batch of ten. I decided to use it as a stage name. So, I changed my middle name from Joseph to Roger, and my legal name is still James. And George Harrison always called me Jim.
Q - So, let me see if I understand this...you legally changed your name then?
A - Yeah. I went down to the L.A. City Hall and changed my middle name from Joseph to Roger. I became James Roger McGuinn, but I dropped the James.
Q - Did changing your name help your career?
A - Well, you know, I don't think it made a lot of difference. I think if I stayed Jim McGuinn, I would've been in the same position I'm in. I don't think I soared to great heights just because I changed my name to Roger. (laughs) It was an experiment and don't think it made any difference one way or the other.
Q - Do you still practice the teachings of your guru?
A - No. In 1978, I returned to my Christian roots.
Q - If you had to do it all over again, would you have chosen the life of a musician?
A - Yeah.
Q - Was it all it was cracked up to be?
A - It was great. It still is great. As the running joke goes among musicians, it beats working. (laughs) That's a joke, because it is a lot of work. A tremendous amount of work, but also very pleasurable. I feel very blessed and fortunate to have been able to make a living doing what I love.