Q&A with Roger McGuinn

The folk-rock legend discusses how music has changed since the ’60s and what it’s like to be on tour more than five decades later.

On March 26, Roger McGuinn performs in Rollins College's Tiedtke Concert Hall. (Photo by Scott Cook) On March 26, Roger McGuinn performs in Rollins College's Tiedtke Concert Hall. (Photo by Scott Cook)

Folk-rock legend Roger McGuinn played to a full house Thursday evening. It was a different sort of playing, though, than immediately springs to mind. The setting for the penultimate performance in the Rollins Winter Park Institute 2014 –15 lineup was the intimate Tiedtke Concert Hall. And the famous frontman for The Byrds—the ’60s band recognized as having invented folk rock—strummed a few songs as he narrated his way through a multimedia stroll down rock ’n’ roll memory lane, complete with old photos, video clips and commentary from icons of the era.

McGuinn opened the evening with “My Back Pages,” explaining that “I open concerts with that because I kind of take people through my back pages.” For many in the audience it must have seemed a sort of  musical version of Facebook’s popular TBT (Throwback Thursday), as they chimed in on “I was so much younger then. I’m older than that now.” For his part, McGuinn was taking a page from one of his early influences, folk singer Bob Gibson, who “told stories and sang songs and got us singing along.”

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

A transistor radio, the cool sounds of Elvis Presley, and the present of a guitar on his 14th birthday eventually would lead the Chicago kid down a career path from which there’s been no turning back.  From the Limeliters to the Chad Mitchell Trio to backup for Bobby Darin to the Byrds to the launch of a solo career in 1973, McGuinn’s musical journey has had a lasting impact. The Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

At 72, McGuinn is still rocking the music world. He keeps a full touring schedule. This year’s dates include trips to Japan and Hawaii. His Folk Den project is nearing its 20-year anniversary, and to celebrate the occasion in November, McGuinn says, “It is our plan to put together another 100-song, four-CD set.”  McGuinn adds a song on the first of each month.  The next song’s April 1 appearance on the site marks another special occasion: McGuinn and wife Camilla will be celebrating 37 years of marriage.

The McGuinns have called Central Florida home since 1991. They found their way here from California via McGuinn’s brother-in-law, who received a PhD from Berkeley and was teaching environmental studies in Tampa. All it took was a boat trip punctuated by big, billowy clouds, a sunset over the water, and a “kind of sleepy” feeling, to prompt a move from the West Coast to the east.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

The following are excerpts from a phone conversation before McGuinn’s Rollins appearance.

Dixie Tate: How does today’s music industry compare to the ’60s and ’70s?

Roger McGuinn: It doesn’t really compare. The music industry of the ’60s and ’70s is gone. It doesn’t exist anymore. It collapsed under its own weight. It’s a totally different business now. … All you need is a MacBook Pro and a copy of Pro Tools and you’ve got a recording studio. … It’s a great time for independent musicians.

DT: What do you think about shows such as The Voice or American Idol? Do you watch any of them?

RM: I have watched them. I don’t really like them that much. Somehow those shows smack of cheating. …They don’t pay their dues. They haven’t played in clubs for 10 years. … But the people who do win are really talented. Talent will rise to the top eventually.

DT: Do you still practice?

RM: I do. I practice every day. You have to to keep your skills up.

DT: What do you think of the Central Florida music scene?

RM: I don’t really get involved with the music scene. I just live here.

DT: How would you define your relationship with creativity?

RM: I’m not as creative as I was when I was forced to be creative with The Byrds and had to put out two albums a year. … Frankly, I’m relieved not to have to deal with that.

DT: There are lots of factors that have interrupted musical careers—drugs, ego clashes, poor business decisions, to name a few. What have you learned from the mistakes of others? To what do you attribute your longevity—a career that spans a half century?

RM: I’ve made all those mistakes. Fortunately they weren’t fatal. … They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I don’t really want to be famous … not Katy Perry famous. I want to have enough name recognition to sell out venues. I’m real happy kind of under the radar.

DT: In terms of your success, how would you quantify the mixture of uncontrollable external factors, such as opportunity and luck, and the deliberate actions you’ve taken, such as thoughtful planning and taking risks?

RM: You have to be prepared for opportunities when they arise. Fortunately, I was. I practiced a lot when I was a teenager.

DT: Some of your favorites:

Song?

RM: “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

DT: Byrds’ song?

RM: “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

DT: Artist?

RM: Elvis Presley

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

DT: Group?

RM: I love the Beatles.

DT: Musical decade?

RM: The ’60s. It was filled with creativity. We thought we could change the world.

DT: Performance venue?

RM: London’s Royal Albert Hall

DT: You’re still touring—26 dates between April 24 and July 25, including performances in Japan. Does it ever get old?

RM: It’s something I do and love to do. … It’s great fun. My wife and I go together. It’s not like the old days with a bunch of guys on a bus. It’s like a honeymoon.

DT: Songs such as “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” and “Eight Miles High” have provided much of the soundtrack to the lives of those of a certain age. How does that feel?

RM: I don’t think about it much, but when you put it like that, I’d have to say it’s an honor.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

DT: On the PBS special “John Sebastian Presents: Folk Rewind,” Sebastian said, “The essence of folk music promotes the principles of peace and harmony.”  Do you think that is still the case? How does that compare— if at all—to today’s music?

RM: Yes, folk music still promotes peace and harmony. Comparing folk to today’s music is difficult because there are so many genres.

DT: How does it feel to sing songs like “My Back Pages” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” now?

RM: It still feels great to play “My Back Pages” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” I love them and audiences do, too.

DT: The ’60s were, without a doubt, a transformative time for music. Is there anything in the past five decades that compares? What do you see for the future of music?

RM: So far there hasn’t been a time for music like the ’60s. I don’t know what the future holds.

DT: Who among today’s single recording artists or bands do you listen to?

RM: There are thousands of good artists out there now. Just watch YouTube to find new music. There are too many to pick a few favorites.

DT: How do you choose songs you’ll include on the Folk Den playlist? What makes a particular song an important one to remember?

RM: Songs for the Folk Den just come to me. Sometimes at the last minute. The ones I like have great melodies and stories.

DT: What advice would you give a young Roger McGuinn?

RM: Just hang in there. It’s practice and perseverance. It’s easier in some ways but harder in others because of the competition. It’s a lot more difficult to be heard above all the noise.