By George Lenker | Special to The Republican
on May 28, 2014 at 5:01 AM, updated June 06, 2014 at 11:53 AM
When: Friday, 8 p.m.
Where: Academy of Music, Northampton
Cost: $35 and $25
For more info: Call (413) 584-9032 ext.105 or academyofmusictheatre.com
The Byrds had several lead vocalists and if you ever wondered how they decided who would sing a particular song, founder Roger McGuinn has an answer:
“David Crosby, Gene Clark and I used to have to audition for our manger Jim Dixon for lead vocal parts,” he said. “I got the lead on ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ because I threw a little Dylan and John Lennon into it. It was calculated but fun.”
McGuinn, the seminal guitarist, songwriter and founder of The Byrds, will be playing solo at the Academy of Music in Northampton on June 6. He took a few minutes out of his tour in the Midwest a few weeks ago to talk about his career and his latest ventures.
Let’s start with your latest project “Roger McGuinn: Stories, Songs and Friends.” What was the impetus behind that and what made you want to put it out at this time of your career?
It came about kind of naturally. We recorded a concert for my mothers 102nd birthday. And it was recorded by this engineer in Tucson who happens to be married to my son-in-law’s ex-wife. And he recorded it with really high-level audio gear. And when I listened to it I thought it sounded pretty good. So we tweaked it a bit and he mastered it at his place in Tucson.
And a few years before that someone said that they had done some filming for PBS and they’d like to shoot a concert of mine to make it into a DVD and I could use it anyway I wanted. He actually shot several concerts and we cut it together and decide to make it a bonus package and then they went around and interviewed different people like Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez and Judy Collins.
And we just edited that all together and made that the bonus package. And it’s really been a lot of fun. Over the years people have approached me to write an autobiography and I’ve been reluctant to do that because if I really tell the truth people are going to sue me. (Laughs.) I’m joking, but I really don’t want to write a book, so this was like my book.
Talk a little about one of your favorite projects, the Folk Den, which you started in 1995. What made you undertake that project?
I was listening to a Smithsonian Folkways album of traditional music and it dawned on me that all the new folksingers were singer-songwriters who were doing their own stuff. They weren’t doing the the ballads or the cowboy songs or the blues or sea shanties that I loved. I started thinking wondering what was going to happen when Pete Seger died, which now he has. Who was going to carry on the traditional side of folk music?
So I thought I do something about it so I started putting songs up on the Internet. I’m a techie so I knew how to do that and I’ve been doing it since 1995 and I haven’t missed a month.
Speaking of older folk songs or just songs that you didn’t write: You’ve always been unafraid to delve into other people’s material. How do you go about choosing which songs to play–ones you don’t write yourself?
It’s usually a matter of a good melody and a good story in the song. The rhyme scheme has to be good and inside rhymes are good. I look for technical things. It’s mostly whether if I like it. When I heard “Mr. Tambourine Man,” I loved the song but I also knew that it wasn’t commercial in its current form back then. So I applied a 4/4 beat to it like the Beatles would and that made it a hit.
As far as making cover songs into hits: You actually recorded “Jesus is Just Alright”–originally done by The Art Reynolds Singers–and it didn’t go anywhere. But the Doobie Brothers did a version almost exactly the same as yours and had a big hit with it. How do you explain that?
I don’t know, that’s hard to say. (Laughs.) They did it almost identically to us. Doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. I guess it could just be the promotion behind it.
You are known as an innovator and one of your more recent renovations is a new type of seven-string guitar. What was the impetus behind creating that?
My wife Camilla and I were coming back on the Concorde from Paris, back when it was still flying, and they promised they’d treat our luggage with kid gloves. Well, I got to New York and went to the hotel and opened up the guitar case to play a little bit – and I didn’t see it at first but Camilla was behind me and she gasped: The whole back end of the guitar was caved in. It was a 12 string and it was worth thousands of dollars but they only wanted to pay me $250.
So I decided I didn’t want to carry a 12-string and a six-string on airplanes anymore. But I always thought the best part of a 12-string was the doubling of the G string so I went to Dick Boak, a friend at Martin guitars, to make one.
So he did and it was laying around the shop for a couple months and other guitarists came in and played it and liked it so much that they said they wanted one too. So he decided to put into production and it became the Roger McGuinn HD-7. So I’ve been playing in concert for almost 10 years now.