The Byrds, quite unlike any other band in rock apart from the Kinks, were perversely crippled by the staggering success of their out-of-the-box hits. The problem with having an instant classic like “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” to your credit is that it’s damn near impossible to explore brave new territories without losing your fanbase by the wayside. The Beatles and Dylan pulled it off, but when David Crosby, Gene Clark and Chris Hillman jumped ship and Roger McGuinn rebuilt the Byrds from the ground up, the hits quickly trickled away and the group’s later output drowned in the shadow of its former glory. Never mind that albums like Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Untitled and the swansong Farther Along would later influence countless country rock and Americana bands on down the line — and boast in guitarist Clarence White the greatest musician to ever be a part of the group; by and large the Byrds’ chapter in rock history is all about the chime of McGuinn’s Rickenbacker guitar and the close harmonies of the original lineup on “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
It’s time then to set the record straight — and who better for the task than McGuinn himself? Over the last five years, the Hall of Famer has busied himself with rescuing long-forgotten folk songs via his self-maintained online Folk Den (www.mcguinn.com), recording one new song a month and uploading each of them onto the site as MP3s. But he’s also found time to play an active role in Columbia/Legacy’s nearly decade-long Byrds reissue campaign, recently completed with the re-release the live/studio double album Untitled (now with a second Unissued disc), Byrdmaniax and Farther Along, together with the never-before-released Live at the Fillmore. Listening to these albums today reveals the later-day Byrds to be perhaps even more compelling — and contemporary — than the original model. At the very least, they go a long way towards proving that the Clarence White-era Byrds may well have been the best live band in America at the dawn of the Seventies. Farther along, indeed.
While you were working with Columbia on this Byrds reissue series, did any one album really jump out at you?
Well, the Live at the Fillmore, I’d never heard that. We didn’t know that they’d recorded that, and it sat in the can for thirty-some years and nobody knew it was there. The story I heard was the Sony guys were there to record Michael Bloomfield and this all-star band, and they just warmed up the machines on us. They were turning mikes on and off during the performance, because it wasn’t intended to be a release. We had to do a lot gymnastics in the studio to be able to get it to sound right.
Did you feel a stronger bond with the later-day Byrds than you did with the original lineup?
Well, Clarence and I were really good friends. I can’t say that about the other guys [laughs]. But we were a tight unit; we were a really good performing band. I loved being able to go to a venue like the Fillmore and kill the audience. The original Byrds weren’t really able to do that — they were a good recording band, but they couldn’t kill the audience. Thanks to Clarence being the heavy artillery, we were able to get the audience every time.
You remarked in Rolling Stone once that you wish you had dissolved the Byrds a lot sooner than you did.
Yeah, but what I meant by that was just the name. Not to disband that band with Clarence, but to do something more like Clapton did, with his different bands where he renamed them every time instead of trying to hang onto a band name out of safety, for the sake of the commercial value.
What did Clarence White think of the Byrds name?
He loved it. When he came on board, he told me, “I always wanted to be a part of the Byrds.” And in fact, Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons tried to steal him away to get him in the Flying Burrito Brothers, and he wouldn’t go for it, because he wanted to be in the Byrds. I really missed him when we split that thing up. Man, he was at my birthday party on July 13, and on July 14 he got hit by a car [White was killed by a drunk driver in 1973]. It was a year after the Byrds disbanded. And the night of my birthday party we were talking about getting back together and doing some stuff, just me and Clarence.
After Farther Along, you broke up the band to record an album with the original lineup of the Byrds. What do you think of that reunion album?
It’s a very good album, but it didn’t live up to people’s expectations of what we were capable of. And we were a little bit more fragmented than the original band had been as far as cohesiveness and so on. So it wasn’t perfect. But if you listen to it, it’s musically wonderful, and we had a great time making it. We were getting along great in the studio and had a ball. So I have good memories of it. And actually it did sell pretty well. I think it got into the Top 20. It’s out as an import from Elektra Germany. It would be great if Sony could license it here, but I don’t know if it would be financially feasible for them to do that. That’s the only problem with these things.
Let’s fast forward thirty years. What was the genesis of the Folk Den on the Web?
It started in November of ’96. I was listening to a Smithsonian Folkways thing on Woody Guthrie maybe seven or eight years ago, and it occurred to me that some of these traditional songs were in jeopardy because of the commercial music business not playing them anymore. New folk singers are basically singer-songwriters, and they’re not doing the traditional material so much as their own material. So I thought, well, what’s going to happen when Pete Seeger, who’s eighty, and Odetta and some of these other people leave the planet? Are the traditional songs going to go with them? Well, just in case, I’ll do my part by putting one up every month, and I’ve been doing that for the last four years. They’re recorded on my home multi-track. I save the multi-track version, and I reduce them to real audio and MP3, and I put them up on the Web. I’ve also got three volumes of the Folk Den [for sale on disc] on MP3.com, and they’ve sold very well. And I’m going to New York in April and going to Pete Seeger’s house and Jean Ritchie’s house and we’re going to do a Best of the Folk Den CD for Appleseed Records. It’s going to be kind of like what John Lomax did in the Twenties with a wire recorder, only I’m going to take a hard-drive recorder.
You actually went to a folk school. What was the Old Town School of Folk Music like? Is it still around?
It is still there. In fact, it’s grown into this mammoth sort of institution. It was just this little mom and pop thing when I was there. We had three classes — beginner, intermediate and advanced. And they would all join together at the end for a jam session. And they taught us all the folklore behind the songs, and different picking patterns, how to play the banjo. I did that for a couple of years. I loved it.
Do you think your life would have gone down a radically different path had you not gone there?
Well my music would have. I would have stayed with rock. I was first introduced to rockabilly — Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, that kind of thing. Which is pretty close to country in a way, so that kind of explains my being able to switch over to country rock. But folk music took me to another place. It’s changed my style of picking. And I wouldn’t have played the twelve-string.
Speaking of that twelve-string, do see yourself doing another electric album in the near future? Back From Rio was nine years ago.
Actually, I submitted some demos to Hollywood Records at the time we did that Live From Mars album, and they just wanted to do the live album at that time. And then my buddy who was the president at the time left so the politics changed and I left the label. I haven’t been soliciting demos to other labels, but it’s something I could do down the line. I’ve got a lot of tunes, and I still know how to play the Rickenbacker. I was thinking about doing a lost tracks CD on MP3.com in the rock format, just for kicks. I don’t see it as being a big commercial thing if I did it, but there are a lot of fans out there who would like to hear the Rickenbacker.
You still tour as a solo act, but it seems like you’ve always kept a decidedly low profile compared to many of your peers. It’s like whenever the rock royalty gathers for a high publicity event, your seat’s empty.
Well, I don’t have a lot of drive to do that kind of stuff. I don’t see that it’s that gratifying. It’s really basically a lot of work, and it’s jumping through hoops, and who needs it? I live a very pleasant life right now. My favorite thing is the Folk Den and going out on tour. Those two things are keeping me going.
But surely you at least got an invite to be a Travelling Wilbury…
Well the closest thing I got to an offer is when I was recording Back From Rio I was staying at a friend’s house in Bel Air, and George [Harrison] offered for me to come over and live at the house where they were recording their album. But I was busy writing songs and I already had a place to stay. If I had gone over and stayed at the mansion that they were renting, something might have happened, because that’s how that whole thing came together — it was just sort of who happened to be around. And I knew that at the time, but it never really jelled. That was my shot at that, if I had wanted it.
Back before you changed your name from Jim to Roger, you considered adopting the name Ramjet. Ever think what life would be like if you had?
[Laughs] Rockin’ Ramjet McGuinn? I don’t know. I might not have been taken as seriously, if you think I’ve been taken seriously at all. It’s tough to say.