It was 50 years and a few months ago that The Byrds were all over the airwaves with “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star,” a tune penned by group founders Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. It possessed everything that made the celebrated and profoundly influential Los Angeles band great: a strong melodic structure, McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker guitar sound, and seemingly seamless vocal harmony.
But it also contained lyrics that looked somewhat wearily on the increasingly fine lines, in terms of audience perception, separating rock stardom from honest artistry.
Perhaps that was the tip-off. Roughly a generation later — after the release of his 1991 album, “Back to Rio” — McGuinn decided he didn’t want to be a rock ’n’ roll star anymore and returned fully to the folk inspirations of his youth. That led him to the Folk Den in 1995, an online project where he posted solo recordings of folk songs as a way to introduce new audiences to the song traditions he grew up with.
That, in essence, has formed the core of a contented non-rock ’n’ roll life for McGuinn, who returns to Lexington on Monday to celebrate the 900th broadcast of the “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.”
I always wanted to be Pete Seeger when I was a kid.
“I gave up wanting to be a rock ’n’ roll star with my ‘Back to Rio’ album,” McGuinn said during a phone interview a few days before his 75th birthday. “I went, ‘Man, this is just too much trouble. I was turning 50 at that point. That was 25 years ago.
“I always wanted to be Pete Seeger when I was a kid. I used to go to his concerts and watch him perform, tell stories and have different instruments onstage. I just thought that was a great way to work. So that’s what I’ve been doing ever since I quit the rock ’n’ roll business.”
The first two decades of Folk Den postings have been re-recorded and issued on a pair of four-CD sets: 2005’s “The Folk Den Project” and 2016’s “The Folk Den Project: Twentieth Anniversary Edition.” Both volumes contain a total of 200 traditional songs, making McGuinn one of the few artists of his stature (he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 as a member of The Byrds) to prolifically follow the folk tradition of passing down songs to subsequent generations.
“So much of (folk archivist and ethnomusicologst Alan) Lomax’s stuff has now been released on the internet. That’s about 17,000 folk songs, so what I’m doing pales in comparison. But this music is just something I love very much. I really get into these stories and into the lore of the songs and melodies.
“The Folk Den is really a preservation project. I was listening to a Smithsonian Folkways album of traditional songs and went, ‘Wow, the new folk singers and singer-songwriters aren’t really doing traditional songs anymore.’ So I thought I would do something about it by putting recordings up, over time, on the internet. After 10 years, we decided to put out the first four-CD set of 100 songs. After 20 years, we decided to redo another hundred. These aren’t the original tracks that were up on the internet. These are multi-track recordings cut from scratch.”
Of course, McGuinn’s famed tenure with the Byrds is hardly forgotten. He includes the band’s music in his shows and, on occasion, collaborates with his former mates. McGuinn added guitar to a song on Hillman’s upcoming album, “Bidin’ My Time.”
“I played on a song Chris and I wrote that never got recorded called ‘Here She Comes Again.’ His engineer emailed me a Pro Tools session that I put on my Pro Tools rig. I got to do the Rickenbacker rolls that sounded like The Byrds and then emailed it back to him. It’s so cool. I love being able to do that.”
It’s a mom-and-pop operation because it’s just Camilla and I.
But helping out a fellow Byrd doesn’t reverse the fact that McGuinn’s rock ’n’ roll life is long gone. Today, he tours in a Ford Transit conversion van with his wife and manager, Camilla.
“It’s a mom-and-pop operation, because it’s just Camilla and I. We take shifts driving. One person will be in front, the other person in the back on the internet. It’s really a pleasure. It’s kind of like having a private jet, but it’s on the ground. Touring is very, very comfortable.”
The regimen is comfortable enough, in fact, to make touring a pleasure at age 75.
“I didn’t really plan on it,” McGuinn said of being a working and touring musician at a post-retirement age. “I never really thought more than a couple of weeks ahead anyway. It’s a surprise to still be touring, performing and being able to sing and play at this time in my life.”