Plain folk

There are more people outside the club than in it. Dozens of them loiter about as they try to catch a whiff of what's cooking behind those closed doors. They lean against the outside walls, putting their ears to the bricks to hear just a little of what's going on inside the Cactus Café, a folkies' retreat snuggled away on the University of Texas campus. Every now and then, you can hear the crowd singing at the top of its collective lungs: "To everything, turn, turn, turn," they coo, a gospel choir on Sunday morning. "There is a season, turn, turn, turn, and a time for every purpose under heaven." Later, they begin again, their sing-along repertoire consisting of the eternal songs written and co-written by the man on stage, and if not written by him, then made famous by him -- "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Eight Miles High," and, finally, "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star."

It's during that last song that Peter Case, the once and future Plimsoul who ditched "rock" for the troubadour's lament, suddenly turns his head toward the Cactus' closed doors. Case -- whose one big hit, "A Million Miles Away," once flew on borrowed Byrds wings -- is due to go on next. Suddenly, he can't stomach the thought.

"Jesus -- Roger McGuinn, father of country-rock, folk-rock, psychedelic-rock, space-rock," Case says. He turns back around, hangs his head, and then speaks in a tone of voice full of awe and not a little resentment. "Listen to him -- Roger McGuinn, singin' 'So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star.' How the hell am I supposed to follow that?" He pauses, grins, shrugs. "You just can't."

Earlier that day, sitting in the Driskill Hotel, McGuinn insisted he had shown up at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference just to "hang out" and, yeah, pitch a little product: some new Byrds reissues, a folk-song Web site he maintains, and a series of new CDs. During the festival, McGuinn shows up everywhere: sharing stages with the Jayhawks twice in one night, playing by himself at the Cactus, and trading music-biz war stories with Chuck D and Peter Case during one of two panels on which he appears. Yet for some reason, McGuinn travels throughout the conference unmolested, while Patti Smith's and Neil Young's every move and word are recorded by awe-struck journalists. Perhaps McGuinn doesn't carry their cachet because he has released only a handful of solo records, a scant two of which remain in print: 1991's Back From Rio and 1996's Live From Mars. Perhaps he's one of those pioneers people consider past his prime, a hallowed vestige instead of a viable option.

But even if we are foolish enough to assume McGuinn's best days are 30 years behind him, there's no disputing his legacy. The man is responsible, in large part, for two of folk-rock's touchstones: Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn! even now breathe fire while so many albums that came out in the mid-1960s cough up ash. They sound like something Bob Dylan cooked up during an all-night smoke-out/hootenanny with John Lennon. The Byrds borrowed from the Beatles and Dylan and even the Beach Boys, then reshaped pop and folk into their own jingle-jangle image. Theirs was the sound of a 12-string guitar rendered as enormous as any orchestra, of sweet harmonies soaked in bitters, of a back-porch past dressed up in Los Angeles' neon future. And the Byrds would reinvent themselves every few months: 1966's Fifth Dimension was a swirl of psychedelia, and 1968's Sweetheart of the Rodeo, with Gram Parsons on board, gave birth to that bastard known as "country-rock."

Theirs would be a short-lived existence, but their sound would reverberate long past the band's demise. The Byrds were one of those bands that was so influential, they inspired those who had once been their role models. And they would spawn dozens of children, from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to R.E.M. to Uncle Tupelo to Crowded House to the Jayhawks. Listen only to Hüsker Dü's reverential cover of "Eight Miles High"; not even the punks could destroy what McGuinn, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Gene Clark, and Michael Clarke built in 1965.

"I knew what we were doing was, well, important right after The Byrds got popular and we were kinda influencing what the Beatles were doing," McGuinn says, speaking in hushed, modest tones. "I realized that we were doing something that other people were picking up. I think they were drawn to the feel. It's a love of those chord structures and the jingle-jangle thing, the story-songs and the melodies. It's almost the antithesis of what's commercial today. Nowadays, I think of bands like Wilco and Son Volt and the Jayhawks. I feel most comfortable with them and the kind of crossover artists who do rock and country.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky