Listening to “Eight Miles High,” even 40 years after it was an unlikely hit, it still provides a disarming shock; the rolling bass line, atonal guitar break and angelic harmonies are so unlike anything that came before or very little that has appeared since. Very few songs in the pop canon have managed to convey the visceral thrill and unbridled experimentation that the song still communicates.
Predictably, it was derided by the powers that be.
“The record company representative listened to the demo and asked ‘Where’s the single?’” laughs Roger McGuinn, founding singer and guitarist of The Byrds. “She just didn’t get it. We said, ‘That is the single’ and she just shook her head.”
Speaking from his home in Orlando a few days before another solo/acoustic tour, this one including Friday and Saturday night performances at McDavid Studio in Fort Worth, Roger McGuinn is still busy promoting his massive undertaking: The Folk Den Project, an ongoing, online archive of American folk music. The recently released 22 Timeless Tracks is a single disc distillation of the Folk Den set. McGuinn is also pleased with the continued success of There is a Season, the four-CD (and one DVD) Byrds anthology re-released last year.
Along with Bob Dylan, the 66-year-old McGuinn has become the de facto folk archivist of American music, recording hundreds of familiar (“Home on the Range”) as well as obscure numbers (The Argonaut”), musical narratives that cross genres as freely as they do time periods. A hundred of these historically relevant and exceedingly well-played songs are featured on a four-disc set available on McGuinn’s website.
“I took it upon myself to record these songs because I wasn’t hearing them anymore,” says McGuinn. “The new breed of folk singers are good at writing their own songs, but I thought to myself, ‘After Pete Seeger’s gone, who’s going play this stuff?’”
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Just as impressive, but considerably more familiar, is the box set of Byrds material. Over the course of ninety-nine songs, There is a Season tells the band’s story as completely as can be done, starting in 1964 with demos made when the group was known as Jet Set and concluding with Dylan’s “Paths of Victory” from a 1990 reunion gig.
In between is simply some of the most transcendent American music ever made, songs that not only serve as benchmarks for the '60s counter-cultural movement but songs of a wider significance, an influence that was felt on country and alternative rock throughout the ensuing decades.
“It’s a good feeling when you’ve done something worthwhile,” says McGuinn whose modesty can, at least partly, be attributed to a relatively recent conversion to Christianity. “I like the fact that people want to emulate what the Byrds accomplished.”.
McGuinn’s humility aside, it is inconceivable to think about artists such as Tom Petty, Robyn Hitchcock, REM, the Church, Husker Du (whose punk assault on “Eight Miles High” McGuinn admires), and countless others if not for the ringing arpeggios and socially conscious lyrics originally performed under the label “folk rock” by McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and what became a rotating cast of capable sidemen.
“The Byrds were a magnet for talent,” says McGuinn. “It was a very creative time and there was definitely something in the air.”
The Byrds were also significant for exposing a wider audience to the work of Bob Dylan.
“I’ve always had fun covering Dylan,” says McGuinn. “It’s pretty easy to make great songs sound good.”
The box set features over a dozen interpretations of Dylan classics, running the gambit from the familiar chimes of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “My Back Pages” to the less successful, but still engaging, takes on “Lay Lady Lay” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.
In the late '60s, McGuinn took The Byrds into a country direction with the release of the landmark effort Sweetheart of the Rodeo, alienating the band’s core audience, but mimicking the career path Dylan was taking with the release of Nashville Skyline.
“Bob had already gone in that direction,” says McGuinn, “and country was never far removed from any music released by The Byrds.”
Nevertheless, despite critical raves that came decades later, the plunge into straight country, while immensely influential, signaled the end of the band’s popularity.
“Sweetheart fell through the cracks because the hippies thought we had sold out and those on the right thought we were hippies trying to infiltrate their ranks,” says McGuinn with only a hint of sarcasm. “Thirty years later, everyone thinks it’s a wonderful album.”
The '70s would not prove kind to The Byrds as they went through dizzying personnel changes and were relegated to a reputation based more on instrumental competence than on worthwhile material. After the band’s demise, McGuinn would produce several interesting solo efforts (Cardiff Rose being about the best), but the end of The Byrds was not filled with career highlights.
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McGuinn, however, continues to be a presence in popular music, a '60s icon whose music continues to reverberate four decades later. Along with Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band and The Beach Boys, The Byrds, although initially influenced by the British invasion, ended up making music that is uniquely American.
“It feels like the Byrds did something that has been woven into the fabric of American music,” says McGuinn.
How right he is. --Darryl Smyers
Roger McGuinn performs Friday, November 21, and Saturday, November 22, at McDavid Studio in Fort Worth.