Roger McGuinn: A troubadour keeps on playing
Saturday evening former Byrds leader Roger McGuinn will take the Michigan Theater stage with his signature jangling guitar, weaving together autobiographical tales with hits from his storied career and classics from the folk canon.
Though he has shared the spotlight with several generations of rock icons ranging from Pete Seeger to Tom Petty, R.E.M. and Wilco, McGuinn says he enjoys nothing more than flying solo.
"I love touring, especially now that my wife and I travel together and it's like a honeymoon," McGuinn, 72, says. "I've had record executives saying, 'Rog, it's kind of like sports guys knowing when to hang up the jock.' But even if I have to be a busker, I'm going to continue doing it."
Despite five decades in the music business and a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, McGuinn is the rare rock star who still seems humbled to have any public interest in his music. Even today, he sounds surprised to have made it beyond the desperate times before The Byrds revolutionized the airwaves in 1965 with their cover of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man."
"I remember gathering 67 pennies and buying a can of sardines one day, and living on a hamburger of the day at the mercy of (Byrds manager) Jim Dickson, who was not rich, but was willing to provide for us for a while," he recalls. "Coming from that level and getting up to No. 1 in 13 countries was quite a rush."
McGuinn led the Byrds through a tumultuous string of personnel changes in the '60s and early '70s — including runs with Gram Parsons, Gene Clark and Clarence White — and scored a series of timeless hits with jaunty rock versions of Dylan tunes and traditional folk songs.
He says brand recognition enticed him to cling to the Byrds moniker long after the rest of the original members had flown the coop, but in the early '70s, a visit from ex-Byrd David Crosby encouraged him to finally leave the band behind.
"He showed up at my house with Elliot Roberts, his manager at the time, and he was quite convincing," McGuinn remembers. "He said, 'Some of the stuff you're doing with these Byrds is pretty good, but some of it isn't.' And I had to agree with him, because I was too democratic. I let everybody have a song on the album whether it was great or not."
Following the dissolution of The Byrds, McGuinn recorded five solo albums for Columbia, and then rejoined former band mates Gene Clark and Chris Hillman for three albums on Capitol. He spent most of the '80s — when young alternative bands like R.E.M. started emulating his guitar style — on a Jack Kerouac inspired adventure, traveling the world with his wife, Camilla, and his acoustic guitar.
McGuinn returned to the studio in 1990 to record one of his most successful LPs, "Back From Rio," which soared to the top of the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart with the help of guest appearances by Tom Petty and Elvis Costello.
In 1995 McGuinn began what he considers his favorite musical enterprise, the Folk Den Project. An admitted "techie" and an early adopter of Pro Tools, McGuinn started self-recording covers of neglected traditional folk songs and releasing a new track for free every month on his website.
"The idea came from listening to a Smithsonian Folkways collection and thinking I'm not really hearing a lot of traditional stuff anymore," he says. "All the new folk singers are doing their own material, but who's going to do all the old cowboy songs and sea chanteys and all the songs I learned at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago? I thought I'd do something about it, and I haven't missed a month since."
With all the creative freedom McGuinn possesses as one of the most revered musicians of his generation and operating without the constraints of a major record label, he says nothing — not even a Byrds reunion — could lure him away from the troubadour lifestyle.
"Andres Segovia was 94 and booked at Carnegie Hall, and he missed the gig only because he died," he says. "Ravi Shankar and Pete Seeger worked until the end. I want to die with my boots on."
Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
An Evening with Roger McGuinn
8 p.m. Saturday
603 E. Liberty,