In 1995, former Byrds leader Roger McGuinn once again found himself on the vanguard of a new musical frontier.
This one wasn’t a stylistic innovation, as The Byrds’ early material had been — first with folk rock on their debut 1965 single, a rocked-out take on Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” then with country folk on the 1968 album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” — but rather a media innovation. That was the year McGuinn, born James Joseph McGuinn III, launched the Folk Den, a series of free Internet downloads of new recordings of some of McGuinn’s favorite traditional folk songs, released on the first of each month with a brief blog detailing the stories behind the songs.
The series, which can be found here, begins its 18th year this month.
At the start, though, the Internet was in its infancy, long before Napster initially popularized music file sharing. A few lucky situations McGuinn found himself in in the early ’90s led him to both the Internet and the computer recording technology that made the Folk Den possible.
“A friend of my wife ... came over with a disc that had, I think it was NetComm on it, and it had all these instructions about how to behave on the Internet — ‘netiquette,’ they used to call it,” McGuinn said recently from his longtime home in Florida. “It had newsgroups on it, and so on, and it showed how to get on there, how to sign up for it, so I did. This was in 1992, which was pretty early on, right after the Internet became public; before that, it was the government and universities that were on it.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
How Much: $34.50
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
“So I was into that, and I knew how to record on computers because, fortunately, my old producer, Terry Melcher, who was The Byrds’ producer on ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ invited me to work on a Beach Boys session. There was a beta copy of Pro Tools that he had and was running on an old Mac, a really, really slow machine by today’s standards. But he had it working and did the whole Beach Boys album [‘Summer in Paradise’] on it, and I thought, wow, you can record on a computer — great.”
Online treasure trove
As downloading music has become more commonplace and computer recording has replaced analog as the norm, recording and releasing songs on Folk Den has become easier. In 2005 McGuinn compiled 100 of these recordings on a four-CD set, “The Folk Den Project,” and since that release he’s posted over 100 more songs which will eventually be compiled in a second set.
But while technology has made recording these songs easier, McGuinn has faced another problem as the project has gone on — he’s running out of obvious choices for songs to record. When the project started, the goal was to record his favorite folk songs in an attempt to keep the music alive.
“Of course, there are thousands and thousands of folk songs that I haven’t done, but I’m a little hard pressed to find one every month now,” McGuinn said. “I think I’ve run out of my favorite ones — there are 200-some songs up there now.”
While some of these songs may show up in McGuinn’s set Saturday night at The Egg, most of the show will focus on a different story — namely, his own. The show takes audiences through McGuinn’s long career, from his early folk days; to The Byrds, the band he formed with David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke in 1964, through his subsequent solo albums after the band’s split in 1973 and up to his modern return to his folk roots.
McGuinn is a frequent visitor to The Egg — he brought this same show to the venue in 2008 and again in 2011. He’s mindful of this and makes sure to tell some new stories alongside the songs everyone expects to hear — “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Eight Miles High,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star” chief among them.
“We keep track of what show we’ve done, my wife and I. We take notes on what shows we’ve done and what elements are in them, the song setlists, stories and jokes and things, and try not to repeat too much,” McGuinn said. “My show is kind of like a one-man play, a one-man show. There will be certain things that will be repeated — it’s kind of autobiographical, in a way. I tell the story of how I got into show business.”
This show will be reflected in an upcoming two-CD, one-DVD set, “Stories, Songs and Friends,” which will feature a live set recorded in Tucson, Ariz., last year in honor of his mother’s 102nd birthday. The DVD is a 45-minute biopic, with interviews of Tom Petty, Joan Baez and Judy Collins, among others.
“I recorded the show for my mother, who at the time was turning 102 — she passed away three days after her 102nd birthday, but she got to hear the concert,” McGuinn said. “I recorded it so that she could hear it, because she was in bed at the time. It turned out to be a good recording, so we decided to use it as a release.”
Learning from a hero
The idea for McGuinn’s troubadour-style show, which features the tenor singer trading off on banjo, acoustic six-string, acoustic 12-string and his signature Rickenbacker electric 12-string, came from one of McGuinn’s heroes, former Weaver Pete Seeger.
“When [Seeger] left The Weavers, the four-piece band he was in, he went out solo,” McGuinn said. “I was not sure how he was going to be able to pull it off by himself. Then I went to see him in concert, and it was amazing, because he had a banjo, his 12-string and six-string acoustic guitars — I think he played a recorder, this wooden flute thing; he got the audience singing the different parts. I remember thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up.’ It keeps it interesting to change the instruments.”
McGuinn has had a foot in both the folk and rock worlds from the very beginning. While “Mr. Tambourine Man” was a revelation in 1965, coming months before Bob Dylan’s famous electric set at the Newport Folk Festival, McGuinn had already had a rock phase and a folk phase.
“I started with Elvis Presley, rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly — I started with that mentality,” McGuinn said. “I got an electric guitar I think when I was 15, so I had an electric guitar early on, before I got into folk. There’s a funny story about that electric, after I got into folk — the two worlds were so separate that I thought I had no use for the electric guitar, so I restrung it as a banjo. I put a nail at the eighth fret and restrung it and learned to play banjo. It was a K-161, the same guitar bluesman Jimmy Reed used.”
While “Mr. Tambourine Man” was an immediate success, the band’s later experiments with country music weren’t as well received initially. Much of the initial backlash was due to the political divide between the genres’ audiences.
“The Vietnam War was raging in 1968, and a lot of people into country music were on the right wing, politically, and people who were into rock were on the left wing,” McGuinn said. “It was almost like saying we had betrayed the left wing — people took it that way and were offended by the country music. It was not a perfect time to do that, but we weren’t thinking politically; we were thinking of our love of the music.”
Today, the influence of “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” can be heard in the modern alt-country movement, in the music of artists such as Wilco and Son Volt.
“It’s almost like the old adage: You can tell the pioneers from the arrows in their back,” McGuinn said.
Reach Gazette reporter Brian McElhiney at 395-3111 or firstname.lastname@example.org.