From Folk to Flyte

An Interview With Roger McGuinn

The Byrds, considered by many to be "America's first supergroup," crashed the pop charts in 1965 at the end of the Folk Revival. Not surprisingly, their music, although electric and heavily Beatles-influenced, evidenced traces of a Folk Revival heritage. Possibly more than any other musical entity, The Byrds defined the mid-'60s term "folk-rock."

How did they hit? The band started with (Jim) Roger McGuinn, who just a few years before had been accompanying The Limeliters, The Chad Mitchell Trio and Bobby Darin on guitar and banjo. He began writing songs with Gene Clark, and a youngster named David Crosby took a keen interest in the music they were coming up with. Add producer Jim Dickson, bluegrass mandolinist-turned-bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke . . . and the rest is history.

As you probably know, the Internet contains a wealth of Byrds information. (You might want to start here if you haven't discovered it yet.) We thought it would be of further interest to folk enthusiasts to ask Roger McGuinn, a Chicago native now living in Orlando, FL, about his musical roots and the evolution of the band he cofounded. An avid Internaut, Roger provided this e-mail interview in stages between 27 September and 4 October 1996. - Dan Harmon

DH: What was your musical upbringing? Surely you didn't just "happen" into the Old Town School of Folk Music to check out the scene, when there were so many other things a boy could get into, growing up in Chicago. How old were you when you enrolled, and what specific folk education did you come away with from Old Town?

ROGER: I was first turned on to music by Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel." I asked for a guitar for my 14th birthday and got one.

After learning a few licks, I took my new instrument to high school and discovered that the girls liked me better, so I kept on playing it.

My music teacher played some guitar herself and invited one of her friends to play for us. His name was Bob Gibson. I loved what he was doing and asked my teacher what kind of music that was. She told me it was folk music and that there was a new school in Chicago that taught it. So I enrolled in the Old Town School of Folk Music and learned how to play the 12-string guitar and the 5-string banjo. They gave me a good background in the folklore and origins of the songs.

DH: Immediately after high school graduation, you relocated to California to accompany The Limeliters. What's the story behind that connection? Had they heard you play in Chicago?

ROGER: After a while at the Old Town School, I got good enough to get a job playing folk songs at a coffeehouse on Rush Street in Chicago for 10 dollars a night. When I'd finish the evening at the coffeehouse, I'd go down to the place where all the professional folk singers played: The Gate of Horn.

One night there was a jam session going on at The Gate of Horn. There were The Limeliters and Theodore Bikel. They had a lot of guitars going and asked me to play my banjo. At 5 o'clock in the morning, Alex Hassilev of the Limeliters asked me if I wanted a job playing for them. "Yes!" I said, and he gave me an album and told me to learn the songs and meet them at 1 o'clock the next afternoon for an audition.

So I took the album home and stayed up the rest of the night learning the songs. The next day I met them and got through the audition. Alex said, "Great! You got the job. When can you start?"

"I get out of high school in June," I said sheepishly.

"High school!" Alex asked in disbelief. "Didn't we meet you in a bar last night?"

I told them how the bartender let me in because I played music and didn't make any trouble.

In June they sent a plane ticket and I flew to Los Angeles to record Tonight in Person with them for RCA Records.

DH: Did The Gate of Horn as a pro folk venue date to the late 1940s/early '50s with performances by people like Guthrie and Cisco Houston and Leadbelly and The Weavers, or did it come into being later, with the big folk surge in the late '50s?

ROGER: The Gate of Horn was founded in the late '50s. The first concert I remember there was a benefit for Big Bill, who was ill at the time.

DH: How long were you with The Limeliters, and what prompted you to throw in with The Chad Mitchell Trio, then with Bobby Darin?

ROGER: The Limeliters and I played for two weeks at the Ash Grove in LA and the Hollywood Bowl. I joined them in the recording studio to finish up the album, and that was the end of my work with them.

I headed up to San Francisco and hung around the Hungry i, where I met a lot of folksingers and had a great time.

One evening I got a call at the Hungry i. It was Frank Freid in Chicago. He was a concert promoter but somehow he was working for Chad Mitchell. Chad had been in a trio and was looking to replace a member who had left and get the group going again. Frank asked me to fly to New York and meet Chad. So I went to New York and got together with him and we got the trio going. I was the accompanist. We played together for about two years.

After a tour of South America, we got a job at the Crescendo on Sunset Strip in Hollywood, opening up for Lenny Bruce. Bobby Darin had come to see Lenny and saw The Chad Mitchell Trio. He liked what I was doing, and after the show he came backstage and asked me to work for him. He offered me twice the salary The Chad Mitchell Trio was paying, and I took it.

DH: I'm guessing that by the time the commercial folk boom was at its peak in 1962-63, Jim McGuinn had seen the handwriting on the wall and already was wondering what would come next, in terms of his own musical career and development. Did you think it would be beach music at that point?

ROGER: I first saw the Beatles on television in 1963, in New York. It was the clip with all the screaming girls. I loved the music! I got it right away and started playing folk songs with a Beatle beat down in Greenwich Village.

One day as I was walking down Bleeker Street, a concert promoter and his friends saw me and said, "What we need is four of him." At that point I knew I was onto something. After a few weeks of playing in the Village, I flew to Los Angeles and got a gig opening up for Roger Miller and Hoyt Axton. I was doing pretty much the same kind of music: folk songs with a Beatle beat. One guy in the audience came backstage after my show and said, "I think we should write some songs together." His name was Gene Clark.

Gene and I wrote a few songs and would play them in the front room of The Troubadour. One day this chubby little guy walked in and started singing a great harmony part. He wanted to be in our band. I said, "David, we don't really have a band." He said, "Oh, please! I know this guy who has a recording studio we can use for free."

So we let David Crosby join our band. He took us over to meet his friend Jim Dickson, who was an engineer/producer at World Pacific Studios in Hollywood. Jim was one of the first guys to recycle. He had some old recording tape that was all cut together and wasn't good enough to make real records with, but was fine for demos.

DH: Your vocal style was and remains unique. A Dylan influence is apparent . . . who else? Did it undergo radical changes between your teen-age years and your emergence as a pre-Byrds soloist, and then as a Byrds leader?

ROGER: My first vocal influence was rock-a-billy, i.e., Elvis, Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins - the whole Sun Records sound.

When the late Bob Gibson came to my high school and played for us, I converted to folk. Gibson and Pete Seeger were the biggest influences on my vocal style at that point. I didn't get into Dylan until after The Byrds were formed and we were given "Mr. Tambourine Man" as an assignment to learn. Jim Dickson knew it would be a hit. We weren't so sure.

DH: Although inspired by The Beatles and influenced by them, in terms of physical appearance, The Byrds never seemed to make an effort to imitate The Beatles' sound; you seemed very content placing slow country drawls in a wild new rock context. Was that true even during the formative months, when you and Gene Clark and David Crosby (The Jet Set) were in the process of crafting what would become The Byrds' sound? Was it a conscious decision on the part of you three? ("We want to become part of The Beatles musical movement, but we need to take care to avoid sounding like them. . . .")

ROGER: If you listen to the very early Byrds recordings on, say, Preflyte, you can hear a pronounced Beatles sound. We moved away from that gradually, after getting into Dylan material. We weren't thinking of making a new musical style at the time; we were just trying to keep a beat.

DH: What other groups, if any, were using 12-string electric guitars at that time? Was that your idea? Who were your influences in 12-string acoustic and 12-string electric - or did you essentially work out your own style with the electric, based on previous acoustic explorations with guitar and banjo?

ROGER: The Seekers and The Searchers had put out records with a 12-string-like sound. I think they were actually using overdubbed 6-string guitars. Needles and Pins was a big influence on the 12-string sound. I used the pattern for "Feel A Whole Lot Better."

Later, I developed my own style based on the banjo roll.

DH: Has any other successful band, to your knowledge, hired a drummer based entirely on the way he looked? (Michael Clarke didn't even own a drum set when you recruited him.) Do you think your approach to putting together a supergroup might work in 1997?

ROGER: Maybe the Monkees were formed for looks and not musical ability. Otherwise, I guess there weren't any other bands who took that approach. We just didn't know any real rock musicians, being folkies.

DH: Had you not been inspired to dramatically overhaul Dylan's original arrangement of "Mr. Tambourine Man" in 1964, there very possibly would never have been a Columbia recording contract - and The Byrds may have died abornin'. What gave you that musical idea? What were you own first impressions of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and its prospects for strengthening The Byrds' repertoire?

ROGER: Jim Dickson had become our manager. He realized the importance of getting us a radio hit with our first single. The Columbia deal was for one single record only. If we didn't get a hit, we were back on the street!

Jim had overheard some record producers talking about a Dylan song that Dylan wasn't able to use because someone was singing out of tune on the track. So Dickson wrote to Dylan's publisher in New York and had them send a demo of "Mr. Tambourine Man" to California.

We listened to the demo in the studio, and Crosby said, "I don't like it, man! It's got that folkie 2-4 beat and it's too long! Radio is never going to play a song like that!"

David had a valid point. Folk music had been out of favor in the Top 40 for a while. Only British music was making the charts, and the songs were short - about 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

I had an idea of how to save "Mr. Tambourine Man." I'd been playing around with some Bach licks on the 12-string and thought, "What if I put an intro like this . . . and we change it to a Beatle beat?!"

It worked! We got a Number One hit and were allowed to record the rest of the album!

DH: What were your classical music influences? Do you enjoy baroque?

ROGER: Bach, Bethoven, Mozart, Dvorak were my main classical influences. Yes, I love baroque, and especially the harpsichord!

DH: For The Byrds in 1965, was it essentially a matter of having "the right sound at the right time?" If so, why did the band's Elektra single of just months before ("It Won't Be Wrong") fail to make the charts? Failure - and then boom, boom, boom! "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Eight Miles High," "Turn, Turn, Turn". . . . Why the incredible rush of success at that moment in musical history?

ROGER: Our sound wasn't quite formed by the time we recorded the single for Elektra. It was close, but it took Terry Melcher and his knowledge of the studio scene and beach music to give The Byrds the winning edge.

DH: Would The Byrds' rendition of "Mr. Tambourine Man" have been a hit if released a year earlier or, say, two years later?

ROGER: That's always hard to guess. I'd say no, based on the songs that were popular both before and after the release of "MTM."

DH: It seems many of the key folkies of the early `60s who later were to play prominent roles in the evolution of folk-rock/country-rock ran in the same circles, even before you collaborated on anything. You, Gene Clark, David Crosby; John Philips, Barry McGuire, John Stewart, Scott McKenzie; perhaps Doug and Rodney Dillard. What was the common denominator? Was it a certain locale, a round of listening rooms you all played before you became famous rockers? Same agents and producers?

ROGER: That's three questions, but yes, it was a ripe musical environment in Los Angeles at The Troubadour, in New York at all the coffeehouses in the Village, in San Francisco up and down North Beach, and at Old Town in Chicago. We'd all fly around from club to club and play folksongs. Then The Beatles hit and changed the whole game.

There weren't many who didn't achieve some degree of success from that circle.

DH: In 1968 - just four years after the original five Byrds had united and only three years after "Mr. Tambourine Man" had stormed the charts - it was down to you and a revolving corps of replacements. How could there have been such instability in such a hot band?

ROGER: The very fact that we had such a great degree of success, so soon, was our downfall. The pressure was enormous! It made us fight with each other.

DH: The move into The Byrds' country-rock era seemed natural enough for your own style of music. Was Gram Parsons the primary catalyst for that shift? Was it the result of an overall quest by the band for fresh territory?

ROGER: We had begun to experiment with country music as early as the second album with "Satisfied Mind." When Gram came along, we merely expanded our exploration into that area. Did you ever notice how much "Hickory Wind" sounds like "Satisfied Mind?"

DH: What has been your primary objective as a solo performer during the post-Byrds years?

ROGER: I just love to get up there and make people happy with my music.

DH: Many - probably most - fans know Roger McGuinn as cofounder of The Byrds. The band lasted nine years; you've since worked solo roughly twice that long, interspliced with duo/trio "afterflyte" reunions. While you have to be very proud of the former robe of fame, are you simultaneously disappointed that you're not yet "Roger McGuinn, individual" in the minds of many of these fans - and may never be?

ROGER: It's all just a matter of hits. If I had made hit records under my own name, you wouldn't be asking that question. Of course, I would like to have had such a hit, but that hasn't been my primary objective. In fact, I haven't even attached much importance to recording. Touring and playing live for people is what makes me happy.

DH: Tell us briefly about your home life and how you manage to keep it stable as a professional musician, often on the road?

ROGER: I spend a lot of time on the Internet, which I can do from anywhere. So my life at home is much as it is on the road.

DH: At the time you changed your name to Roger, were you practicing an Eastern religion?

ROGER: I was searching for God. He found me later when I accepted Jesus.

DH: When and how did the conversion to Christianity take place? How has that impacted your later music? Any words of advice for a Christian trying to make it in the secular music industry?

ROGER: After the Rolling Thunder Review, I bottomed out. I'd been doing a lot of drugs and alcohol and was not feeling very well. I had a crushing feeling on my chest. One night I prayed with a jazz musician to accept Jesus. It didn't happen right away, but later that month I asked Him into my heart. The heavy feeling left immediately and has been gone for 19 years now!

To young Christian musicians, I would say to listen to the Lord and do what He wants you to do with your gift. In my case, I received that I should stay where I was when I was called.

DH: When you guys recorded songs like "I Am a Pilgrim," "Jesus Is Just Alright" and "The Christian Life," did those come before your actual conversion? If so, what was the motive behind recording them?

ROGER: We just recorded those songs for their musical value at the time. Chris was responsible for the early ones. Gene Parsons found "Jesus Is Just Alright" on an Art Reynolds album.

DH: It's obvious, after all these years, that you never really abandoned your love and respect for traditional folk music, although you've refused to be restricted by any acoustic conventions. Is your heart in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [The Byrds were inducted in 1991] or in your Folk Den project on the Web?

ROGER: I love all kinds of music: rock, folk, classical, jazz, Cajun, gospel, country. There are really no delineations in music anymore for me. If it's good, I like it!

DH: If Roger McGuinn were told by the Lord he could sing one more song and then he must die, what song would it be? What instrument?

ROGER: "Turn, Turn, Turn" on the Rickenbacker 12-string (LOUD).

DH: You've worked closely with so many great musicians who died young: Gene Clark, Gram Parsons, Clarence White, Michael Clarke. Here you are today, 54 and going strong. Do those tragic past relationships help instill in you a special sense of purpose for your own life and music?

ROGER: I feel blessed to have been able to work with such great musicians! As for purpose, I give that to the Lord.

DH: What's the status of your autobiography?

ROGER: It's still a work in progress.

DH: Is promoting the new instructional videotape [The 12-String Guitar of Roger McGuinn] your priority project at the moment?

ROGER: No, I'm now involved in producing my next CD, Live From Mars, for Hollywood Records, to be released in November 1996.

DH: Can you tell us about the new CD? Is Hollywood your own new record label?

ROGER: Hollywood Records is a division of the Walt Disney Company.

Live From Mars is a compilation of DAT recordings from various venues over the last two years. The tapes were digitally edited into what sounds like a live gig. There is no way of knowing exactly where they are all from, and hence the title.

There will be two bonus studio tracks we recorded in Minneapolis with former members of the Jayhawks. I'm not sure we'll be able to use their name because of a legal dispute, but the tracks sound great anyway.

We got Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) from Mystery Science Theater 3000 to write the liner notes, and we used the robots and the man on the cover, pointing up at me on a movie screen. The idea was to give the album a whimsical spin to go with the title.

This is more than a live album. It's kind of a one-man play, like The Life of Will Rogers, or something. It covers a lot of historical ground. Someone said, "Thanks for playing the soundtrack from my life!" at a recent performance of this show. That made me feel great!

DH: How frequently do you perform nowadays? Always acoustic? Does your wife accompany you?

ROGER: It varies from year to year. Last year my wife and I were on the road 150 days. This year, because of recording, it's been fewer.

I play both the Rickenbacker 12-string and a Martin 12-string in my concerts, and my wife Camilla is my tour manager.