CANANDAIGUA — Roger McGuinn laughed when asked why, in his eighth decade, he is still touring the world, bringing his one-man show to places like the Fort Hill Performing Arts Center, where he will play Saturday night.
“I’m on a mission from God, like in the Blues Brothers movie,” said the legendary musician, who — with David Crosby, Gene Clark and Chris Hillman — created The Byrds, one of the most influential groups of the 1960s. “No, really, we love traveling and telling stories to help keep people’s minds positive. Look, Pete Seeger performed well into his 90s.”
Besides, McGuinn, 80, has a book to promote. He discussed it and his long tenure in the music industry during an interview from his van as his wife, Camilla, was driving him to a gig on Monday. Camilla McGuinn, to whom he has been married since 1978, doubles as his road manager.
“The Byrds 1964-1967” was released Tuesday. It is 400 pages of more than 500 pictures of McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman and the friends they made along the way early in their careers. It is a coffee table collectible art book that also includes a detailed oral history by the trio, chronicling the folk rock roots they dug to form their unforgettable sound. They incorporated influences from everyone from the Beatles to the Beach Boys, and introduced Bob Dylan to a new audience with their monster hit of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
McGuinn said the book was a big project that took years, and he admits it’s not cheap. Printed in Italy, it is available at the usual outlets and through byrdsbook.com starting at $125 (it costs more for autographed copies). Some contain only his signature and Hillman’s; McGuinn said Crosby stopped signing copies after he got paid.
The comment is indicative of the love/hate relationship he has had with a sometimes caustic Crosby over the years.
“David says everybody who’s worked with him hates him, but I don’t hate him,” McGuinn said. “I just don’t want to sing with him again.”
Crosby parted ways with The Byrds in 1967 and later went on to form the super group Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young) with Stephen Stills, who came out of Buffalo Springfield, Graham Nash from the Hollies, and Neil Young, also a member of Buffalo Springfield.
In 2019, Crosby, who was performing with his son, James Raymond, floated the idea of a Byrds reunion with McGuinn and Hillman. The two had teamed up in 2018 for some gigs to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which was The Byrds’ sixth album, released in 1968. By then, Crosby was gone, but word was he was still a little hurt that he wasn’t included in the reunion.
McGuinn said it was not a Byrds reunion and even today, the idea for one is “out of the question.” Crosby says he’s retired now anyway, but McGuinn surmises that if he agreed to a tour, Crosby would eagerly get back on the road.
“I think he would,” McGuinn said, “but it is not going to happen. It’s like when someone suggested to Paul McCartney that he get the Beatles back together, when they were all still alive. He said, ‘You can’t reheat a souffle.’”
The Byrds, McGuinn said, was a moment in time. It was a great moment; he said some of his best memories are of the days when he was in The Byrds and lived in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon near neighbors that included John and Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas. Cass Elliot, part of that group, was a friend too. The canyon, he said, was where the music lived.
“I lived a few different places,” he said. “I had a house on Wonderland Drive.”
He came to California from New York, where he went first after graduating from Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. Seeger, McGuinn said, was a huge influence on his musical trajectory into folk from the time his parents took him to hear Seeger and his group the Weavers in Chicago concert halls.
“I thought, ‘Man, this is great,’” McGuinn said.
He loved Seeger’s enthusiasm, his ability to get audiences singing in three-part harmony, and his talent on the 12-string guitar and the banjo. And Seeger was so selfless, he said. Once he saw him hand over $5,000, money he’d just been paid after a show, to a friend who was down on his luck.
In later years, McGuinn became friends with Seeger and recalled going to his house in Beacon, Dutchess County, to visit with Pete and his wife, Toshi..
“We loved going up there,” McGuinn said. “It was like going to see Santa Claus.”
In New York, McGuinn performed at various coffeehouses on the folk music circuit, where he did gigs with the likes of Judy Collins, the Limeliters, and the Chad Mitchell Trio. He eventually met up with Bobby Darin, who he performed with for a year before Darin became ill. McGuinn did some songwriting for Darin in New York City’s Brill Building after that, where Carole King and Gerry Goffin were writing hits.
That was 1963. The following year, McGuinn was a studio musician in New York, recording with Collins and an innovative duo, Simon & Garfunkel. He also was discovering the Beatles and thinking how he could incorporate their sound in folk music. He fell head over heels in love with the 12-string Rickenbacker guitar that George Harrison played and bought one — it would forever impact his future musical path. He plays one to this day.
After going to California and playing at the legendary Troubador, he met Crosby, Hillman and Gene Clark, another early member of The Byrds (Clark died in 1991). The name The Byrds was kind of an offshoot of the Beatles, who had changed the common spelling of the word to come up with their name. McGuinn said The Byrds was decided upon at a Thanksgiving dinner, probably with some influence from the turkey.
Before Crosby left, the group had huge hits with “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Eight Miles High.” Despite the commercial success, the group itself lasted just nine years, although it had a monumental impact on countless artists that were to come afterward, including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
“I heard his ‘American Girl’ on the radio and I thought it sounded like me,” McGuinn said. “I knew it wasn’t me, but I said to my manager, ‘When did I record that?’ because it sounded so much like me. He said it was Tom Petty, and I said, ‘I want to meet him.’”
It was arranged: McGuinn first saw him at the Bottom Line in New York City. They liked each other immediately. Petty later said that McGuinn and his “jangle rock” from the Rickenbacker, more than anyone else, had a major impact on his music.
“I liked him enough to invite Petty and the Heartbreakers to open for us in 1976,” McGuinn recalled of the rocker who died suddenly in 2017. “There was nobody like Tom Petty.”
Petty was part of the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan in 1988. Dylan is another of McGuinn’s compatriots — he hooked up McGuinn to write the music for the theme song to the movie “Easy Rider.” In 1969, Dylan wrote the words.
McGuinn said he hasn’t spoken with Dylan in a couple of years, but still considers him a friend. He appeared in Dylan’s 1976 movie “Renaldo and Clara,” which was filmed partly during Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review tour.
After leaving The Byrds, McGuinn pretty much worked alone, although he’s shared the stage with many artists. And, except for covid, he never really left the road.
“I did stay home when covid first hit,” he said. “I played a lot of online trivia. Hillman played too.”
One project has been dogging him for more than 50 years, and he’s still at it.
In 1969, he was approached by lyricist Jacques Levy, who’d worked with Dylan on his 1976 album, Desire, and wanted to collaborate with McGuinn on a musical, “Gene Tryp,” a cowboy version based on Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. A handful of songs, like “Chestnut Mare” and “Just a Season,” McGuinn recorded and still incorporates into his performances.
Gene Tryp eventually took place in the late 1990s at Colgate University in Hamilton, where Levy, who died in 2005, was director of the theater program.
The pandemic left McGuinn plenty of free time to work at his home studio near Orlando, Fla. He eventually would like to release an album, but doesn’t have a date yet. He has other ideas for the future too; he would like to work with a symphony orchestra.
McGuinn’s current show, which he said is scripted, is a mix of something Seeger might have done, a Will Rogers storytelling odyssey and Byrds songs thrown in as well. There is even some new music.
He said he has no plans to retire, that he enjoys what he is doing so much and sharing the time with Camilla. McGuinn said he will work until he can’t work anymore.
And the mission from God comment is not far from the truth. He and Camilla have a strong Christian faith, which he said is the driving force in his life. They start each day reading the Bible and praying for their family and friends.