As a teenager, Roger McGuinn (who was born Jim McGuinn, but changed his name after a brief conversion to the Subud "spiritual path") began to earn a reputation as a musical prodigy. After training at the Old Town School Of Folk Music in Chicago, McGuinn moved on to Los Angeles and session work with, among other groups, a pre-fame Simon & Garfunkel. But he achieved his greatest fame with The Byrds, with whom he found common territory between folk and rock 'n' roll, then gave that territory a signature sound via his trademark jangly guitar work. The sole constant throughout the group's career, McGuinn led The Byrds through nearly as many stylistic as personnel changes. As original members Gene Clark, David Crosby, and others departed, McGuinn had the good fortune to find memorable replacements like Gram Parsons and Clarence White. Though the band achieved its greatest popular success early on, thanks to hit singles like "Eight Miles High" and "Mr. Tambourine Man," its later efforts, particularly some pioneering country-rock albums, had nearly as much influence. After The Byrds disbanded in the early '70s, McGuinn worked as a solo artist and with fellow ex-Byrds Clark and Chris Hillman. When that lineup fell apart in the early '80s, McGuinn quietly phased into a touring career. His sound, however, could be heard everywhere, particularly in the work of Tom Petty and R.E.M., who took his jangle in different directions. Induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame drew attention back to The Byrds in the early '90s, and in 1990 McGuinn released a new solo album, Back From Rio. Since then, he's returned to his roots: Via the rogermcguinn.com web site and mp3.com, he's launched the Folk Den project, releasing a new recording of a folk song each month since 1995. Treasures From The Folk Den compiles McGuinn's favorite selections to date, and features guest performances by Pete Seeger, Odetta, and Judy Collins, among others. McGuinn recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the Folk Den, the definition and preservation of folk, and The Byrds' legacy.
The Onion: How did you get started on the Folk Den project?
Roger McGuinn: About six years ago, I was listening to a folk album, and I thought it was great stuff. And I realized I hadn't been hearing it on the radio, or anywhere else. Even the new folksingers were all doing their own material. I thought, "Who's going to keep these traditional songs alive when the old guard is gone?" Pete Seeger is 81, and Odetta's 82 now. I thought, "Well, the Internet would be a great way to preserve these songs, because kids get into it, and a whole new generation could find out about them." I know they're available at the Smithsonian. If you want to dig them up, there's a Library Of Congress archive that you can find them in, but most people don't even know that. I thought I'd do my bit in keeping them alive by putting them up. I recorded them in my home studio and transferred them to RealAudio or MP3 format, and put them on the Internet, one a month.
O: You've been doing this since 1995, so you're something of a pioneer in the medium.
RM: Yeah, I've been doing it a long time. I got into computers back in the early '80s, so it was a natural progression of learning about e-mail in the mid-'80s and getting into the Internet when it opened up in the early '90s.
O: What goes into your song selection? How do you choose what song to put up each month?
RM: It's just songs I love. I really don't know from month to month what I'm going to do. I have one due in a couple of days, and I'm not sure what it will be yet. It's just what hits me at the time. There are songs that I love. I went to school for folk music back when I was a teenager, and learned hundreds of songs.
O: You're not really doing research, finding lost songs or anything?
RM: No, the songs I do are pretty common. People who are familiar with traditional music know these songs, for the most part. But I like these songs. I just do the ones I like. I like the melodies, I like the stories. It's usually the melody that grabs me.
O: What's your working definition of folk music?
RM: In my case, I'm not trying to define folk music. I'm trying to preserve the traditional songs. The old ones, usually by anonymous authors and over 100 years old, those kind of songs.
O: Do you think that, in order to reach a wider audience, folk music needs a different interpretation or a more specific definition?
RM: It seems to be anything acoustic nowadays. It's come to mean that. I'd like to see a more precise definition of folk music, to at least include the traditional material or… I don't know. People nitpick over this all the time. You can see it on the Internet: There's an argument going on continually about, "What is folk music?" And I don't really want to get involved in that. It's an endless argument, a "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" kind of argument.
O: What do you think is the current level of appreciation for folk music?
RM: It's very low. It's probably less than 3% of the population that's into it.
O: Do you see that changing at all?
RM: I think so. I think O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the film Songcatcher are good publicity for folk music, and I hope my CD will help in some respect.
O: How did you choose the songs for the first widely commercially available Folk Den CD?
RM: They were usually songs that people on the project wanted. Like, Pete Seeger suggested doing "Dink's Song" and "Alabama Bound." Then Odetta wanted to do "Sail Away Ladies," and so on. So they're songs that complement the guest artist, usually.
O: Are you more comfortable personally as an interpreter or as a songwriter?
RM: Well, I'm very comfortable as a songwriter, but the market for me as a songwriter isn't really there. So I'm doing what I love to do. I have always seen myself as a folk artist, so I'm really happy doing what I'm doing.
O: Your last solo album sold pretty well.
RM: It did, it sold about half a million. That's pretty good. But the market has changed since that time. That was 10 years ago. The market for rock in general has changed.
O: It seemed like the early '90s saw a heightened awareness of your work and The Byrds, what with the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction and the box set.
RM: There was a '60s renaissance going on at that point, a '60s revival, and that's changed now. It's an '80s revival going on now. Boy, the wonderful music of the '80s.
O: The Byrds' influence is widely recognized, and your music is everywhere, but you've never personally achieved the iconic status of some of your peers. Why do you think that is?
RM: I don't know. Maybe I haven't tried hard enough or something. It's not that important to me, really. I like the way it is. It's an easygoing life. My wife and I travel together, and it's a honeymoon. We have a good time.
O: You didn't do any solo albums in the '80s, right?
RM: No, I didn't do anything much. I toured, but again, it was another dry market for what I was doing. There was techno, and all different things were happening then, and I wasn't doing those. I was not relevant to the marketplace. I just kept doing what I did.
O: At the same time, though, the '80s were really the first point where The Byrds' influence was widely recognized.
RM: Yeah, thanks to R.E.M. and Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers.
O: What did you think the first time you heard Tom Petty?
RM: I thought he sounded remarkably like an early Byrds record, like "Chimes Of Freedom" or something. I was kidding my manager—I said, "When did I record that?" And he said, "This isn't you." And I said, "I know, who is that?" So we invited Tom over, and we got to be friends. He's a great guy. He's a wonderful person, as well as a wonderful artist.
O: If you had to pick a favorite Byrds album, which would you choose?
RM: I'd be torn between Notorious Byrd Brothers and maybe Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.
O: Why those two?
RM: Notorious is kind of like Pet Sounds, or something. It's got that continuous flow to it. It's got a lot of good melodies and interesting time signatures, and the lyrics are interesting. It's kind of experimental. Then, Sweetheart is experimental in that it's going back to roots music, and it was certainly not commercial at the time, but later was recognized for being something good.
O: It's interesting that you'd choose Notorious Byrd Brothers. Most people wouldn't necessarily pick it right away.
RM: Well, I think most people would probably pick the first album, the first sound with "Mr. Tambourine Man."
O: When you did Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, it was considered an odd move for a rock band to do country music. I'm sure the decision wasn't very popular with your management.
RM: Management wasn't really paying attention to what we were doing artistically. Our manager at the time was just in it for the money. I don't think he worried about it. Nobody worried about it. We just had fun doing it, so we went ahead and did it. We were kind of disappointed that it didn't sell better, but we felt vindicated 20 years later, when it was regarded as one of the top 200 albums of all time.
O: On the flip side, The Byrds recorded a lot of songs over a very short amount of time. Are there any tracks that you would take back, that you would prefer not to have out there?
RM: I don't really dwell on that. You can't do anything about it, so why think about it?
O: Do your friends call you Roger, or do they call you Jim?
RM: Both, but mostly Roger.