Byrd's-eye view of Roger McGuinn
At 64, the folk rocker and founder of one of rock's most honored bands does all he really wants to do, combining old loves, like making music, with more recent high-tech passions.
By GARY McKECHNIE
Published September 26, 2006
ORLANDO -- Even though Roger McGuinn, a creator of folk rock and founder of the Byrds, turned, turned, turned 64 in July, he's not ready to leave the road. He's having too good a time.
With his wife, Camilla - tour manager, co-writer, driver and roadie - McGuinn is regularly going online to map out upcoming shows. Then they hop in their van and set off on another great American road trip.
Four decades after the Byrds hit the charts with All I Really Want To Do, Turn Turn Turn, Eight Miles High and a cover version of Bob Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man, McGuinn is still artistically satisfied.
This former Pinellas County resident mentions that back in the 1990s he and his friend Dylan were discussing the significance of turning 50 - a feat Dylan had accomplished a year earlier.
"I remember telling Dylan, 'Well, 50's not so bad . . .' "
And Dylan had countered, "Fifty's old, no matter how you look at it."
"So 60 was big, for me," McGuinn said in an interview recently, "but 50 was more momentous.
"It was an age when you thought of grandparents: You had a picture of somebody who was porked out and totally drained and no life in them anymore, and just moping around, and they can't do anything anymore. They're friendly and happy maybe, but they're not physically fit.
"But that's not the case anymore. The fitness fad has gotten people into shape.
"When I turned 50, I didn't have aches and pains, but psychologically I sense I had peaked. I became very happy about where I was."
McGuinn adds, "And I'm still fulfilled in my work. I'm working hard and having a good time."
The well-timed lifestyle of travel and concert dates has been honed over the past 25 years. Roger and Camilla McGuinn pack their van with what they think they'll need, and they follow back roads from gig to gig, small auditoriums or large festivals.
It's not quite roughing it when you consider that their GPS system ensures the McGuinns won't get lost and a DVD player keeps them entertained when they pull over to rest.
And, come nightfall, they check into a Ritz-Carlton or an upscale lodge when they can.
Interestingly, McGuinn says his continuing road trip lifestyle began after a grueling tour.
"I had just come off a tour with Dylan and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and Jack had said, 'Polly and I went out in a Land Rover and threw the guitar in back. It was so much fun. We just barnstormed around the country and played places.'
"I thought that sounded great, because I had been taking buses and trucks and all kinds of equipment on the road with a bunch of guys . . . So I thought, 'I want to do that.'
"So we called our agent at the time and said, 'Can you put some acoustic dates (without a back-up group) out there just to see if we could do that?'
"I was able to get some, and it was so much fun I quit the band. . . . We've been doing this ever since, with a few exceptions.
"We identify with Charles Kuralt, driving around and seeing little places. We love to travel (and) I get a kick out of playing for people . . .
"In fact, it's hard being home because there's household maintenance, responsibilities and chores to do . . . You don't have to worry about the dishes and taking out the garbage. You get spoiled by being on the road for six months a year."
He adds that he'd like to continue their low-stress lifestyle the next 20 years.
"That's the plan," he says with a smile, adding that back in the 1960s he lived in the moment and never thought about growing older.
"I still don't think about it much in the sense that I don't plan to retire. (Andres) Segovia was a good role model. He was 90-something when he was booked in Carnegie Hall . . .
"I've played Carnegie Hall several times, so it's not like that's my quest. I just want to be where I can still play and I'm still going in my older years.
"(Now) my tour schedule . . . is fairly packed. We enjoy doing it. Just keeping into it . . . If you stop or slow down, you lose that edge."
Musically, McGuinn has returned to his roots.
"The things I like are more in terms of acoustic music - songs with lyrics and melodies. And that's kind of coming back to some extent. We went through a phase where melodies weren't important and it was mostly drums and talking, and now we're getting back to this melodic stuff with more lyrical content."
And McGuinn has had those decades to learn thousands of songs - from his days as an accompanist for the Limeliters, the Chad Mitchell Trio and Bobby Darin, and as musical director for Judy Collins' third album. Then he formed the Byrds.
Still, how does he remember all those lyrics and all those chords?
"I don't know," McGuinn concedes, adding, "I don't want to think about that . . . I've found when you think about lyrics, you can actually erase them" from your memory.
Playing music every day matches his exercise regimen. McGuinn looks trim this day in black jeans and shirt and tan cowboy boots. Maybe it's the ab crunches.
"I work out," he says. "I have a recumbent bicycle I ride almost every day. We swim, and we're on a high-protein, low-carb diet. Cholesterol's gone down."
Although he thinks about exercise, he has rarely thought about growing old.
"I don't think of myself as old," he says. "Old is somebody else. If I were doing a job I didn't like, I might feel old . . ."
Still, McGuinn appreciates the perks that come with age.
Says his wife, Camilla: "I would be checking into the hotel and asking for AAA and assorted discounts and finally I'd ask about the AARP rate, explaining that my husband was over 50. Then Roger would walk in, in his jeans and boots, carrying these guitars."
And McGuinn smiles as he recalled asking for the "senior's special" at a Denny's. "The waitress shrugged and said, 'Okay.' She didn't even card me!"
McGuinn said the best thing about aging is "that you've acquired a lot of knowledge and wisdom and a certain peace of mind." The worst aspect of aging, he thinks, is the possible deterioration of health.
"I used to be able to lift up a 60-pound crate, and now I have to think twice before doing it."
A lifetime of achievement includes being named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, and the honor of creating timeless songs.
McGuinn continues to follow his passions, especially his love of folk music. He said he doesn't hammer his viewpoints in his singing because, "I'm not political in that sense, telling people what I think or 'You should be doing this.'. . .
"I've always loved the musical part of folk music more than the political part. In fact, I think folk music existed before political people got involved (and) changed the traditional meaning."
He is still creating music. In 2002 he was nominated for a Grammy award in the category of Best Traditional Folk Album for Treasures from the Folk Den. That album was recorded in the dens and homes of folk singers such as Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Pete Seeger. Its release preceded the surge of "roots" music popularized in the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Creation of the Treasures album is part of McGuinn's other passion: technology. While sitting in his office beneath a row of Roger McGuinn signature model D12-42 RM Martin guitars, his attention turns to the abnormally large Apple computer screen (a gift from friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak).
McGuinn surfs the Net if he's stumped by a question about travel or tour dates or just wants to show off how the technology of yesterday's massive recording studios can now fit into his laptop.
"This computer," he says, working the laptop, "has multitracks. We mix it here, burn the CD and send it off (to be mass-produced) and it becomes a CD for sale."
Gadgets and electronics have long intrigued him. Since 1995, he has been the Web master of his own site (www.rogermcguinn.com) and loves demonstrating the capabilities of the laptops and computers in his office.
"I was considering going into broadcasting school and going into television broadcasting about the time I was hired by the Limeliters when I was 17.
"My dad was a newspaper guy, a writer who (also) produced commercials on TV, and I used to go help him. When he wasn't there, I would go do the productions myself and go to the ABC affiliate in Chicago, and I got into that. I loved the director's job, calling the shots . . . I probably would have done that had I not gotten into music."
But he did get into music and recalls the day in 1964 when he and his folk-singing friends went to see A Hard Day's Night.
"We came out and - this is a true story - David Crosby was swinging around a lamppost like Fred Astaire, saying 'That's it! I want to do that, man!' "
Although his career path took McGuinn into music, in the late 1980s he entertained an offer from one of America's largest high-tech corporations.
"This is funny. (Back then) I was hanging out at Radio Shack so much, this guy probably thought I was unemployed, because I was there when most people are supposed to be working. He had no idea what I did, so he says, 'You know, I could give you this job as manager of the store. It'd pay about $16,000 a year.'
"I was thinking, 'Ahhh . . . I could make that a little quicker.'
"But I still hang out at Radio Shack, Circuit City, Best Buy. They don't know who I am. I'm just a customer."
McGuinn has several scanner radios that are one reason he moved to Orlando. With them, he can eavesdrop on radio transmissions down the road at Walt Disney World.
To demonstrate their ability, he tunes into a conversation between Disney employees discussing the disposal of trash.
McGuinn is aware that his background in folk seems at odds with his high-tech passions.
"People have mentioned there's a certain paradox there - that the old folkie thing and the techie thing don't seem to click, but they do. They work perfectly together.
"That's the great thing about Treasures From the Folk Den. We could hook the computer up and use the highest technology that's available - using new technology to preserve something that's hundreds of years old."
Gary McKechnie is a freelance writer living in Mount Dora.