As the leader of The Byrds in the 1960s, Roger McGuinn helped invent folk-rock, country-rock and psychedelic-rock. And then he reinvented himself. In 1981, he began touring solo, and he hasn’t stopped yet. He comes to New Jersey this week for shows in West Long Branch, Friday (with a workshop there Thursday as well) and Montclair, Saturday.
On his web site, he writes that he got the idea to perform solo from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott when they were both performing on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975. McGuinn writes: “He’d said, ‘You know, Roger, the most fun I ever had, was when I toured with my wife, Polly, in a Land Rover. We just threw the guitar in the back and took off. We played all these nice venues and had a great time barnstorming around the country.’ ”
So that, instead of band tours, became a constant part of McGuinn’s life. Then, in 1995, he launched a project that has a modest-sounding name — the Folk Den — but has turned into a massive undertaking. Through the project, which he calls a “labor of love,” he has recorded new versions of hundreds of folk songs. He does a new post at folkden.com, with a recording and some information about the song, on the first of every month.
His last album, 2013’s Stories, Songs & Friends, was a 2-CD set documenting a Tucson, Ariz. concert during which he played songs from throughout his career and talked about them; the set included a DVD documentary about him featuring interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tom Petty and others. His next release will be a four-CD set collecting highlights of the Folk Den series, in celebration of the project’s 20th anniversary, later this year.
McGuinn, 72, performs at the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, April 24 at 8 p.m., with a “Workshop and Guitar Circle” at the university’s Wilson Auditorium, April 23 at 1 p.m.; $35 for the concert with workshop admission included, $25 for just the workshop; visit monmouth.edu.
He will also be at the auditorium of the Mount Hebron Middle School in Montclair, April 25 at 8 p.m., in a concert presented by the Outpost in the Burbs. $30 in advance, $34 at the door; visit outpostintheburbs.org.
I interviewed McGuinn by phone from his home in Orlanda, Fla., in early April.
Q: So you’ve got two shows up here, and a workshop, too, at Monmouth University. Do you do a lot of those workshops, or is it pretty rare?
A: Well, it’s more than a workshop. It’s kind of a lecture, with some interactive stuff at the end of it. So that part is more like a workshop. I do lectures at universities and sometimes high schools.
Q: I saw the DVD in the Stories, Songs & Friends set, and you’re talking about your career, and demonstrating things on guitar as you go along. Is it like that?
A: Something like that, except it’s got audiovisual stuff, with a lot of film clips of Bobby Darin and Eartha Kitt and the Limeliters — different people I worked with in my career. So there’s a lot of stuff going on.
Q: But the two shows you’ll be doing will be just regular shows.
A: Right. They’ll be concerts like the audio portions of Stories, Songs & Friends. Not exactly like that. We’ve changed it up, so it’s not exactly the same all the time.
Q: I see that on the Folk Den web site, you’re still posting a song on first of every month.
A: Yeah, I post a song every month. I haven’t missed a month since November of 1995, so it’s coming up on the 20th anniversary of it. It’s a matter of preserving the traditional side of folk music. Somewhere along the line, folksingers became singer-songwriters, like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Nanci Griffith and so on. So it became cooler to write those songs than to do the trad stuff. I thought — this is, like, 20 years ago — “What’s going to happen when Odetta or Pete Seeger dies?” Well, they’ve both passed on now. And, “Who’s going to hold up the traditional end of folk music?” So I started to do this.
I was already a techie. I knew how to record at home, and how to put things on the internet for free download. So I started doing that on Folk Den.
Q: Some months, do you have trouble finding a good song to do? Or are there so many songs out there you’ll never run out?
A: There are thousands and thousands of folk songs, and variations of those songs, so no, I don’t think I’ll run out in my lifetime. It’s a labor of love. Sometimes I come up to the 30th or the 31st of the month and I don’t have one in mind, and the inspiration just kind of comes to me. But I’ve never run dry.
Q: I imagine you want to feel, each time, that you’re sharing a song that’s special to you in some way.
A: Exactly. It’s got to be a song I love. It’s got to be a good melody, and a good story.
Q: Anything else going on these days? Any recording, or anything else?
A: On the 10th anniversary of the Folk Den, 10 years ago, I put out a 100-song, four-CD set called The Folk Den Project, and we’re gonna do another one to commemorate the 20th anniversary, with another 100 songs on four CDs — 25 songs on each CD. It will be quite a bit of work, because we’re going to have to go back to the original multitrack recordings, and remix them. It’s not just MP3s we’re putting out. We’re putting out full-CD-quality CDs.
Then we have another project that’s more for fans who come to the venues, who request songs that were on the Byrds albums. … People ask for recordings of songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” but we can’t sell the Sony Music stuff, because they charge too much. If we were to buy from Sony Music and sell it at venues, it wouldn’t be worth it. So we’re re-recording some of the songs, so we’ll own the masters and not have to pay Sony Music.
Q: Do you try to get as close as possible to the originals, or do you try to put new spins on them?
A: In some cases I’m trying to beat the originals. Like, if you listen to the original “Mr. Tambourine Man,” it’s a bit slow, so I sped up the tempo a bit.
Q: Are these available now at shows?
A: No. It’s a work in progress. No deadline.
Q: I know some Byrds vault stuff has come out, over the years, but do you think there’s anything more that might come out, either alternate versions or live recordings?
A: Well, Bob Irwin (from the Sundazed Records) came to my house a couple of years ago and looked through everything I had, and took some tapes with him. So he’s got some stuff that may come out — there was some stuff in the vault that hasn’t seen the light of day yet.
I’m not exactly sure what he’s got, but he seemed happy when he left. He left with a cardboard box full of tapes.
Q: Have you had any communication with him about that, since then?
A: No, he’s pretty busy, and I haven’t heard back from him about what he’s done with that.
Q: I know you just did a bunch of shows in Europe, and now you’ve got a pretty busy schedule of U.S. dates. Is it important to you to keep doing a lot of playing?
A: I love it. It’s just fun. We have an agent in England who does the European stuff, and an agent in the States who does pretty much everything else. We’ve even got some Japan dates coming in. It’s just something I love to do.
Q: I imagine the fact that it’s a one-man show, a pretty simple operation, must keep it enjoyable, to an extent.
A: My wife and I travel together, and it’s like a honeymoon. We just celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary, April 1. It’s a lot of fun. We enjoy traveling around different ways, and I love performing, and Camilla does everything offstage: the lights and the sounds and the stage setup and everything.
Q: The merchandising, too?
A: Yes, she does the merch as well. We call it her lemonade stand.