Music News & Reviews

Out of the limelight, Roger McGuinn is happy with his life, music

Roger McGuinn said he has no appetite for recording a commercial album or reuniting with The Byrds.
Roger McGuinn said he has no appetite for recording a commercial album or reuniting with The Byrds.

Roger McGuinn has worked as a solo concert artist for years, mixing his set list between the folk songs he has loved all his life and the timeless pop works he sang during the '60s and '70s as the principal vocalist and mainstay member of The Byrds.

When he makes an album, he records for a label he runs with his wife, Camilla. Most of his projects are strictly labors of love, including the four-disc, 100-song set of traditional folk tunes he released as The Folk Den Project or the newly released compilation of sea-themed songs, CCD.

In short, the 21st-century McGuinn, 69, leads a quiet but ultra-content artistic life. Regrouping with his remaining Byrd mates? Not interested. An opportunity for a big-budget album with a major label? He'll pass there, too. Playing shows of folk songs and past hits, and recording traditional music in a manner in which he has complete artistic control is all that McGuinn wants. And he couldn't be happier.

"I think I'm in the best place I've ever been," said McGuinn, who performs Friday night at The Grand Theatre in Frankfort. "I'm not enslaved by a big record company that's telling me what to do. We make our own CDs. We have our own label. I mean, what label would let you record 100 folk songs for an album or 23 sailing songs, for that matter? So this is really the best time of my life.

CCD, the album of sea chanteys and sailing tunes, represents a corner of the traditional folk world that McGuinn has long envied. Such songs have popped up regularly on his post-Byrds albums — most directly on his 1976 solo effort Cardiff Rose. Even the record's cover art of a sailing ship on a stormy sea reflects his love of such music.

"This is just a genre that lends itself to doing a specialty album. But I've always had a love of sailing songs. I love the gusto and the camaraderie they have. It just makes you feel good to sing those songs. You get to vicariously be on the seas, smelling all that salt air."

In contrast to McGuinn's archivist-style work at reintroducing and recording numerous genres of traditional folk music — he plans to record folk albums of Christmas music and children's songs next — there is no lasting escape from the band that landed McGuinn in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But the ways that his tenure with The Byrds have inspired succeeding generations of country and rock artists continue to surprise. Take last December, for instance, when country star Marty Stuart invited McGuinn onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry to play with his band.

The Byrds played the Grand Ole Opry once — in 1968, when the band teamed with the late Gram Parsons to produce Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Today, the recording is considered a landmark country album by Americana and alt-country performers and fans. The Opry itself, though, was not impressed at the time. Even though the Byrds members cut their hair to please corporate Nashville's conservative views of appearance and style, the powers that be were not amused. As result, 42 years would pass before McGuinn would play a Byrds song at the Grand Ole Opry.

"There was a stigma in those days in Nashville. We were fairly conservative-looking by the time we got to play the Grand Ole Opry. But by their standards, we had come from that hippie background. So we were suspect as being Communist sympathizers or something. I don't know. But it was uncomfortable.

"It was a lot of fun playing there with Marty. But I don't know if I ever got really emotional about it. I just thought it was fun. Marty always felt The Byrds didn't get a fair shake at the Grand Old Opry the first time."

Stuart isn't the only artist to acknowledge the lasting inspiration of The Byrds' rock and country recordings. Perhaps the most obvious of those disciples would be Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. But McGuinn said he isn't surprised that newer generations of artists, especially country artists, have taken so readily to the band's music.

"It's not surprising because I regard country music as an outgrowth of folk music and all the old songs from England, Ireland. Scotland and Wales. Those songs came over to the South and got distilled before making their way to Nashville and Memphis as country music.

"I grew up listening to country music as part of folk music, so I wasn't surprised by the acceptance. I am happy, though, that the political barrier got broken by the Outlaw guys — people like Willie (Nelson), Waylon (Jennings), David Allen Coe, Kris Kristofferson and others. The perception of country music having this right-wing political agenda got broken down, so I was glad to see that."

Of course, there is always the nagging question as to whether McGuinn might ever tour again with his surviving Byrds brothers, David Crosby and Chris Hillman. Both have said they are open to the idea.

"David and I would love to go out and play a mini-reunion tour with Roger," Hillman said before his June performance at the Lexington Opera House. "But it won't happen. And that's all right."

"I think it would pollute what we did to go out as a band now," McGuinn said. "It would be a money grab, and that's not what I'm in this for. I just like to play for people. I don't need a lot of money to be comfortable."