Roger McGuinn, former leader of The Byrds and 1991 inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, combines his acoustic roots and love of technology on "Treasures from the Folk Den," which became a finalist in 2001's GRAMMY Awards as "Best Traditional Folk Recording."
For this CD, Roger's "studio" was a portable computer with multi-track software, and he traveled the Eastern Seaboard from Florida to Maine to record old friends and early influences Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Jean Ritchie, Tommy Makem and Josh White Jr. in their homes, in borrowed apartments and other informal sites. These modern "field recordings" capture Roger and these musical icons performing 18 traditional songs from their mutual past in the Golden Age of Folk Music - the late Fifties and early Sixties.
The impetus for this project came from Roger's concern that our country was losing its musical past as folk music was being pushed into obsolescence by more contemporary trends. His first step in preserving the songs and style he loved was to record and post his solo versions of favorite folk songs on the "Folk Den" page of his Website(http://mcguinn.com) for free download each month, accompanied by reminiscences, lyrics, guitar tablature, and even evocative illustrations. Several volumes of these recordings were collected and made available for sale by MP3.com, but the songs remained unavailable in stores and for those without computer access.
At the suggestion of Appleseed Recordings president Jim Musselman, Roger decided to re-record many of the Folk Den songs for commercial release, this time enlisting his illustrious musical friends in mostly acoustic duo and trio combinations. Although the 1964 formation and subsequent success of The Byrds and their electrified "folk-rock" simultaneously popularized contemporary songwriters (most notably Bob Dylan) and marginalized traditional folk, most Byrds albums and McGuinn's subsequent solo releases have contained folk-flavored songs from the past(including "John Riley," reprised here as a duet with Judy Collins). With his longtime interest in technology, McGuinn was an early proponent of the Internet and started posting songs on his Website in 1994. And just as his work with The Byrds always pushed the electronic envelope in exciting ways, McGuinn's extensive knowledge and use of digital recording equipment is central to "Treasures from the Folk Den." The music may be timeless, but the means behind it couldn't be more timely.
Jim McGuinn, later known as Roger, was already a veteran of the New York and Los Angeles music scenes when he co-founded the group that would become the Byrds with Gene Clark and David Crosby in 1964. Born in Chicago, the teenaged McGuinn studied banjo and guitar at the city's Old Town School of Folk Music and was already making home recordings of his music during his final days in high school. Appearances at local folk clubs led to an invitation to tour as an accompanist with the popular Limeliters folk group, and within a few weeks of graduation, he joined the group in Los Angeles and helped record their "Tonight: In Person" album.
McGuinn next joined the Chad Mitchell Trio, touring and recording with them for the next 2-1/2 years. While performing in L.A. in 1962, McGuinn received a surprise backstage visitor - pop singer/songwriter Bobby Darin hired him as a backing musician and lured him to New York with a job offer at Darin's publishing company in the legendary Brill Building. The duo even cowrote and recorded a rare surf music single, "Beach Ball," under the name The City Surfers, in 1963
After racking up credits as a sideman and arranger for Hoyt Axton, the Irish Rovers, Judy Collins, and Tom and Jerry (later known as Simon and Garfunkel), by the end of 1963 McGuinn was ready to chase the rock 'n' roll dream - he had heard the Beatles and recognized the direction in which pop music was moving. Moving back to California, he began performing folk songs with a rock beat at Los Angeles clubs. Playing at the Troubadour club, he was approached by another folkie-turning-rocker, singer-songwriter Gene Clark, a former member of the New Christy Minstrels. "McGuinn and I started picking together in the Troubadour bar, which was called 'The Folk Den' at the time," according to Clark. They were soon heard by another musician ready to change with the times, David Crosby, who added his unique concepts of harmony and dissonance to their sound, thereby completing the core of one of the most influential bands of the Sixties.
Initially known as the Jet Set, the trio was inspired to expand the sound and line-up of their band by the "British Invasion" of rock groups (and a viewing of the Beatles' movie, "A Hard Day's Night"). Conga drummer Mike Clarke was drafted as drummer (primarily for his resemblance to the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones), bluegrass mandolinist Chris Hillman was persuaded to take up the bass guitar, and the purchase of electric instruments and a drum kit solidified the transformation. The jangle of McGuinn's electric Rickenbacker 12-string guitar was to become an influential trademark still heard to this day in the music of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, REM, Elvis Costello and countless others.
After a false-start single for Elektra in 1964 under the name "The Beefeaters," the band changed its name to the Byrds and was signed by Columbia Records in January 1965. With a group of studio musicians and McGuinn providing the instrumentation, McGuinn, Clark and Crosby harmonized on the Bob Dylan song "Mr. Tambourine Man," which became a Number One single within six months and helped codify the new "folk-rock" genre. Suddenly there was a new wave of groups performing contemporary folk and "protest" songs (many written by Dylan, who was spurred to "go electric") with alternately sparkling or grouchy electric musical backing.
For the next several years, the Byrds were regarded as "the American Beatles," releasing a string of successful and influential albums and singles, including "Turn, Turn, Turn," the proto-psychedelic "Eight Miles High" and "My Back Pages" (another Dylan song). Along with pioneering folk-rock and psychedelia, the band was also one of the first to experiment with the Moog synthesizer and other electronic devices. But the group's personal stability started to crumble, as Gene Clark, David Crosby and Michael Clarke eventually left the nest.
By the end of 1967, only McGuinn and Hillman remained from the original line-up. New recruits Gram Parsons (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and the extraordinary country/bluegrass guitarist Clarence White helped move the group into its next trend-setting phase, country rock, which was to dominate the music scene for years to come.
As the group gradually ran out of inspiration, McGuinn disbanded the Byrds in 1973 and embarked on a solo career. He released a series of solo albums that often included former bandmates, revivals of some of the best latter-day Byrds songs, and a version of Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" that became his live encore for years.
In late 1975 and early 1976, McGuinn accompanied Dylan and a band of musical gypsies (Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Bob Neuwirth, T Bone Burnett, Joni Mitchell and many more) known as the Rolling Thunder Revue on a national tour that subsequently inspired one of Roger's finest albums, Cardiff Rose, which featured many of the Revue's musicians.
In 1977, McGuinn, Gene Clark and Chris Hillman took part in a European tour that saw each performing separately with his own band and then, at some shows, uniting for a set of Byrds songs. Back in the States, the three continued to play together in various combinations; the closest thing to a full scale Byrds reunion came in San Francisco in February 1978, when David Crosby joined the trio onstage at the Boardinghouse for much of their set.
Inspired by the reunion, McGuinn, Clark and Hillman toured and recorded in 1978-79, yielding a self-titled album that spawned the minor hit, "Don't You Write Her Off," a McGuinn composition. Gene Clark opted out of the group for health reasons in 1979, but McGuinn and Hillman released two subsequent albums as a duo and performed together into early 1981.
When McGuinn and Hillman parted company, Roger started to tour as a solo act, usually performing acoustically, and has continued to tour on his own since then (although he accompanied Tom Petty and Bob Dylan on a 1987 European tour as an opening act and guest frontman).
After recording a handful of tracks with Crosby and Hillman for the 1989 Byrds box set released by Sony, McGuinn began work on his first solo album in years. "Back from Rio," issued by Arista in 1991, wound up selling 500,000 copies, supported by Roger's extensive touring with a band and appearances on numerous radio and TV shows. His next album, 1996's "Live from Mars," was culled from performances over the last few years and also included two studio tracks recorded with the Byrds-influenced band the Jayhawks.
As far back as 1994, the technologically-minded McGuinn began recording a series of traditional folk songs and uploading them onto the Internet site folkden.com, part of his home page - http://mcguinn.com. Since then, he has posted a new solo recording of an old folk song each month, complete with lyrics, guitar tablature, personal reminiscences and even illustrative artwork. McGuinn's new album on Appleseed Recordings, "Treasures from the Folk Den," grew out of this practice, as he rerecorded 18 Folk Den songs with many of his musical heroes: Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Odetta, Jean Ritchie, Tommy Makem and Josh White, Jr.
"Treasures from the Folk Den" was a finalist for the 2001 GRAMMY Award as "Best Traditional Folk Album of the Year," McGuinn's fourth Grammy nomination in his 42-year career.