Roger McGuinn (04/25/13)

Roger McGuinn
Friday, May 3, 2013 $33/$37 day of show
300 E. Main St.
Carrboro, NC, 27510

I was half kidding when I asked if Roger McGuinn was up for interviews before his show on May 3rd and next thing I knew I was emailing with Camilla, his lovely bride of 35 years (AKA Roger’s manager, road manager, stage manager, roadie, etc.) That was last fall so I had months in which to imagine a conversation AND get really nervous about it.  I was in the music business for years and met hundreds of well-known people, but Roger McGuinn was a Byrd, for cryin’ out loud! If there was a soundtrack to my life, it came from the Byrds. 

Aside from defining and inspiring an era while embracing sounds that would become instantly recognizable and positively American, Roger McGuinn was the connector between folk, rock and country.  He was also a constant at the center of one of the most seminal bands of the 60’s and 70’s that would include a revolving door of equally influential cohorts - David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons, Clarence White, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Gene Parsons, and more. I’m not sure I want to even imagine where music would be today without him, but I’m dead certain that man has some amazing stories to tell.

Camilla directed me to the FAQ’s on Roger’s website and while she didn’t exactly say it, what she meant was  - asked and answered thousands of times, find some new questions.

But I was going for a local angle.  Roger’s favorite project, The Folk Den is hosted here at UNC –Chapel Hill on, a contributor-run, digital library that is a collaborative project of the School of Information and Library Science and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Paul Jones is director of this home to one of the largest “collections of collections” on the Internet.  

“I think that the McGuinn's are a couple that have made some very smart choices doing what they love and sharing that love,” said Jones. “He loves playing but hated the hassles of managing a group as time went on. Now he gives away a song a month, right on time where ever he may be, and plays the shows he cares about going where he and Camilla like to go. He once told me that "touring with Camilla is like a kind of honeymoon at every show" They keep it simple but very high quality. I'm a great fan of both of them. Even someone completely incapable of playing guitar or singing on key (I'm saying me here) can appreciate Roger's commitment to musicianship and his generous spirit.” 

Having heard that Roger had made a guest appearance in his History of Rock class, I reached out to John Covach, rock historian and former Professor of Music Theory at UNC (now Chair of the College of Music at Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester).

“Yes, Roger McGuinn visited my History of Rock at UNC about ten years ago,” said Covach.  “There were 300 or so students in the class at the time and it seemed like they all showed up that day, along with many faculty and staff--the room was filled to capacity.  Roger had two guitars with him; I asked questions, he answered, and then would perform a song or two.  It was a fantastic session and the students demonstrated their appreciation by giving him a standing ovation.  He was overwhelmed by this and I might have even seen a tear in his eye.  It was one of those rare moments in education where everything works out perfectly.  Somebody told me later that he really enjoyed the experience--I know I did!”

Roger and I talked about that visit, along with his collection of transistor radios, visiting the Beatles in LA, folk song collecting, technology, and music. Then he put Camilla on the phone.  If you’re still dying to know the answers to all those asked and answered questions like “why did he change his name from Jim to Roger” go to the website.  It’s all there, plus some.  

This will be the first time I’ve had the opportunity to hear Roger McGuinn perform in person. Color me Eight Miles High (and if you do your homework, you’ll find that it doesn’t mean what you think it does.)  Read the rest of the interview with Roger and Camilla below:


Roger and Camilla McGuinn, April 4, 2013 

DPM:   Good morning, Roger.

RM:  Good morning, Deborah.

DPM:  Let’s jump right in and talk about song collecting and one of your favorite projects, The Folk Den, which just happens to have a local connection.

RM:  I love talking about The Folk Den, and yes, there is a local connection to you.

DPM:   Paul Jones, director of Ibiblio at UNC, works directly with you on getting all the music up on your website, so before talking with you, I asked him how and when you two connected. He remembers it being after your last show here in 1995 and that he contacted you with a better option for hosting The Folk Den. 

RM:  I started the Folk Den in ’95 and it was originally on the University of Arkansas site.  Paul emailed me that he had RealAudio, which at the time was a better format for compressing songs.  I had been using really low quality WAV files because the internet was so young and people had 300 baud modems so you had to keep the file size down. Also, the University of Arkansas was limiting my bandwidth to 6 megabytes and that was all they’d let me have on their servers so I didn’t have enough room to really put anything. So Paul gave me a better deal and lured me away from Arkansas with Real Audio, and I went over to Ibiblio and I’ve been there ever since … for probably 16 years. I think it was about one year after I started The Folk Den, so it would have been ’96.

DPM:  I also asked Paul if there was something I could ask you that you wouldn’t be expecting and he said “ask him about Ashworth’s hot dogs.”  

RM:  Oh, yeah, they’re the best (laughing). My wife, Camilla, grew up in Cary and lived there for years. We always go to Ashworth’s Drug Store in Cary for hot dogs.

DPM:  What makes them the best?

RM:  Well, the fact that they’re made with love. It’s an old soda fountain in a drug store in Cary. They taste great; they have the best chili and the best coleslaw. It’s just a great combination of flavors. 

DPM:  So obviously you guys aren’t vegetarians? (laughing) 

RM:      No.  (laughing) 

DPM:   Back to Ibilblio and The Folk Den … it’s an ongoing project with you guys?

RM:  Oh, yeah, I’ve been putting one song up a month for 17 years.  I haven’t missed a single month.  It just takes about one day a month to do it. I just concentrate on recording the song and building the web page and sticking it up there. 

DPM:   You’ve actually been on campus and have guest-lectured in several classes in the music department at UNC with John Covach, correct?

RM:  Yes, that’s correct. It’s always fun. I love being in school and helping people to realize how good folk music is and just talking about the music business in general. I do lectures in colleges as well.

DPM:  Do the young kids know who you are?

RM:  Yeah, they like it. I get to use my Macintosh and presentation software and that’s different from my regular side so I enjoy that.

DPM:  That’s a perfect segue into my next question.  Where you really just a geek disguised as a musician or a musician disguised as a geek?

RM:  I was both! (laughing) My grandfather was an engineer in Chicago in the 20’s and 30’s and he was involved in some of the bridges that cross the Chicago River. He was obviously into technology and he used to take me to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry every Sunday where I learned how to push buttons and watch things whir and light up, and my eyes would light up. I really got into gadgets at a very early age, probably about ... well, let’s see … I could define spontaneous combustion when I was three years old.  It was really fun to get into technology at an early age, and then I didn’t become interested in music until I was about thirteen. So I was really into tech before I was into music.

DPM:  Technology and folk music are kind of opposite ends of the spectrum.

RM:  It lets you use technology to distribute folk music.

DPM:  What was the first instrument you picked up then?

RM:  Guitar. I was inspired by Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.”

DPM:  And who wasn’t?

RM:  Yeah, I know, it was break-through music because he was synthesizing blues with country music. Rock and roll was new. It was really a great type of thing he was doing.  I don’t think he even realized what he was doing. He’d been listening to a lot of blues and just kind of picked up on it.

DPM:  I know. Unfortunately, his whole calculated personae seemed to just take over who he was musically and I don’t think he did realize it.

RM:  I think the Colonel kind of took him in the wrong direction with all those lousy movies he was making.  I was with the Beatles in L.A. when Elvis invited them over to his house and I asked George if I could tag along. He didn’t think it was appropriate because Elvis had invited the Beatles, so I waited at the Beatles house and when they got back I said “how was it?”  They said “oh, well, it was kind of disappointing” and John said “hey, Elvis, what happened to you? You used to make these great rock and roll records” and Elvis said “well, now I make movies.” (laughing).

DPM:  I work for the North Carolina Folklife Institute where just one of our missions is the preservation and promotion of our states’ traditional arts and cultures – music, art, storytelling, craft, dance, etc.  One of our best selling cd’s is Ballads, Banjo Tunes and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina a compilation of recordings that were made in the early 20th century by folk song collector Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1882 – 1973) who was from Western North Carolina.

RM:  Oh, yes I’m very familiar with his work.

DPM:   So that was a round about way of asking …  when you are performing somewhere are you always keeping your ears open for folk songs that might have originated in that area?

RM:  Sure, I’ve always got my ears open for material that I could use in the Folk Den.

DPM:  How do you go about following up and pursuing that?

RM:  Well, I get most of it off the internet. I go to the Mudcat Café and I get a lot of songs from there.  I remember Mike Seeger used to go down to North Carolina and sit in his hotel room and record off the radio. That was how he collected material.  And, unfortunately, radio doesn’t have a lot of folk music on it anymore, well, maybe some public broadcasting stations do.  But I find that really interesting that Mike, instead of going around like Cecil B. Sharp or Alan Lomax with a tape recorder to the back roads of America, would sit in the hotel room and record off the radio. (laughing)

DPM:  Did you ever do that?

RM:  No, I’ve never done that, but I have listened to local folk songs on the radio when I’ve traveled cross country. For instance, being in Louisiana, I love hearing Cajun music on the radio. So, yes, I’ve got my ears open, but my traveling is pretty intense so we don’t really have a lot of time to go to clubs and things like that.  When we go out on the road, we go from venue to venue and really don’t have a lot of time between.

DPM:  My parents both grew up in rural North Carolina and I remember being aware at an early age that music and songs were the original way that news traveled from place to place.

RM:  Oh, yes, that was the way news was distributed. The original folk singers, the troubadours, would go from town to town and tell of events that had happened and they’d do it in song. Yeah, now we have CNN and Twitter. (laughing)

DPM:  Maybe we need the Folk News where someone would sing the stories again?  I think I’d prefer hearing news that way. 

RM:  Yeah, that would be good.  I’m really happy to hear that you’re involved in the preservation of folk songs and I love what Ibiblio has done. They have a lot of local North Carolina folk songs on Ibiblio as well.

DPM:   North Carolina has a handful of greats - John Coltrane (Hamlet) Nina Simone (Tryon), Blind Boy Fuller (Wadesboro), Thelonius Monk (Rocky Mount), and Doc Watson (Deep Gap). 

RM:  Some of the greats!  I love North Carolina for music. 

DPM:  When you and Camilla are here at the ArtsCenter, I have a book for you.  The second edition of Blue Ridge Music Trails:  A Guide to Music Sites, Artists and Traditions of the Mountains and Foothills (which also includes a CD) just came out this week.

RM:  Oh, thank you, I’d love to hear and read that.

DPM:  I’m sure you know “Tom Dooley,” which was made famous by the Kingston Trio, is a well-known NC folk song that created a controversy over writers’ credits and royalties.  Are you mindful of the people who originally wrote and recorded these things as you go about collecting songs?  By making sure they get credit and any royalties … giving back to them in some way?

RM:  I recorded “Nottamun Town” and gave Jean Ritchie royalties on that. Bob Dylan used her tune for Masters of War and he gave royalties.  So absolutely, I’m mindful of that.  Pete Seeger is an influence too. He wants to give back to the people who originated some of these songs. I think that’s a great thing. 

DPM:  I’ve been listening to, and enjoying, the new album, CCD.  How did you choose to focus on songs about the sea?

RM:  I’ve always loved the sea chanteys and coastal songs. I was first introduced to them back in the 50’s at a Pete Seeger concert in Chicago, probably around ’58 or so.  He did “Reuben Ranzo” and a couple of other chanteys, and explained how the sailors would sing while pushing the capstan around to raise the anchor. He described what chantey’s were and I found it fascinating how they would use songs to synchronize working on a ship.  Also the lore of the whole thing, the camaraderie they all had when they were all singing together just made me feel great. I’ve always loved folk singers like Ewan McCall and A.L. Lloyd and the little bits of humor they put into it.  You can tell by their vocal inflections how they were kind of laughing about something they were singing about. I thought “wow, this is great stuff.”  It just touches me on some sort of human level and I wanted to put that out there and convey it myself.

DPM:  Are you already working on your next one?

RM:   Yeah, well the next one’s a live album from the Tuscon’s Fox Theater. It’s a show I did for my mother’s almost 102 birthday. She was 101 and it was one month before her 102 birthday, which she did have, but she died a couple of days later. So this is kind of a tribute to her and I’m also working on a DVD with comments by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Pete Fornatale and some other people that came to the shows and have seen me work.

DPM:  I just recently had the opportunity to watch Legends of the Canyon, the documentary … you’ve seen it, I’m sure.

RM:  It’s a book, right?

DPM:  I’ve only seen the DVD, but you’re in it, you should watch it. 

RM:  I’d love to see it, is it available on Amazon?

DPM:  Oh, yes  … it’s on Amazon.  It’s about all of y’all - The Byrds,  Crosby, Stills & Nash, Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, etc. - living out there in Laurel Canyon at the same time and the impact you all had on rock music.

RM:  Oh, yeah … the music was great and there was a lot of love going around. A lot of people and music cross-pollinated. It was a great time.

DPM:  Did you ever meet a musical instrument you just couldn’t play or figure out?

RM:  I didn’t spend much time on the sitar. It’s kind of complicated.

DPM:  I’m surprised. You’re so nimble-fingered.

RM:  Well, I just didn’t take the time to get into it, but I always liked the sound of it. What I did was try to emulate it with my Rickenbacker.

DPM:  And you do!  Did you come up with the term “jingle jangle” for the sound of your style of guitar playing?

RM:  No, that was some press guy, I didn’t do that.  It comes from ”Mr. Tambourine Man.

DPM:  Oh, I know …

RM:   Yeah, the “jingle jangle morning, I’ll come following you.”

DPM:  How do you feel about that term. Do you like it?

RM:   It’s fine. I can accept it. It’s appropriate. I mean, it kind of describes my sound, so nothing wrong with it.

DPM:  You are recognizable the minute you start playing, but you know that, right?

RM:  Well, it’s a unique style and it comes from my 5-string banjo work. I learned how to play Scruggs banjo back in the ‘50’s and I applied that to the Rickenbacker.

DPM:  So I put it out there on social media that I was going to be talking to you and asked what everyone would like for me to ask you. 

RM:  That’s a great idea, sort of crowd-source it, right?

DPM:  It’s fun and then brings them along on my adventure of getting to talk to you.  I wanted to share some of those with you.  

My friend Joe Mulherin, from Memphis, wrote:   How cool. Roger and I played with The Band at Woodstock 94. Nice guy, very laid back. But I doubt he'd remember me. I was just the trumpet player. It was a Band + Friends gig, one of several we called the Next Waltzes.

RM:  I remember that gig … who all was there again?

DPM:  Reading from Joe’s question again: “ It was the last version of The Band with a 5-piece horn section playing Band classics and backing up some other acts, too: Hot Tuna, Roger, Bob Weir, Bruce Hornsby. We rehearsed at Levon's and the guys in the horn section stayed there. What impressed me was that Roger knew all the Band material really well and played with us throughout the whole show.”  So that made a big impact on Joe.

RM:  I’m honored, thank you for telling me that. Well, I loved the Band. I always thought they were a great group and I loved their material. I mean, they were Bob Dylan’s band. What could be cooler than that really?

DPM:  I don’t know. YOU’RE the Byrd.

RM:  Yeah (laughing), that’s true. I played with Bob too and love what he does on stage. He’s just always so unpredictable. You never know what key or what time signature he’s going to be in. (laughing)

DPM:  From my friend, Skip Via, a transplanted Chapel Hillian now living in Alaska who is also a guitar playing geek wrote “There is no single phrase in music that goes right through me as powerfully as the first four bars of Mr. Tambourine Man. It defines the entire era, for me. It seemed to have come out of nowhere.“ 

RM:   Wow!  That’s cool to hear. Thank you. 

DPM:  From my brother Lee Wagoner in Hickory:  Ask him if the opening of "Eight Miles High" is supposed to sound like he was missing the right strings.”

RM:  Well, it’s supposed to sound like John Coltrane’s saxophone. (laughing)

DPM:   My friend Danny Jones, who is a musician, producer in Dallas wrote

“To say that I was/am a Byrds fan would be such an understatement! Besides, the real coolness of this is ............he is the one that has the pleasure of being interviewed by You!! Enjoy!”

RM:  Oh, that’s a cool comment. (laughing).

DPM:  One of my own questions is who you were listening to while we were all out here listening to you? 

RM:  Oh, I was listening to everybody that you were probably listening to  … the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan.  Everybody. Ritchie Havens, Jimi Hendrix. I listened to everything. I loved music. I was also listening to classical and jazz. I listened to a lot of that.

DPM:  I think that’s evident in your playing.  What current artists do you listen to today and are there any standouts?

RM:  I listen to XM classical channel a lot. That’s where I’m at. When you make music, music is different from when you’re a consumer. I remember the difference myself and I’m busy making music more than I’m listening to it so … I’m sitting around playing the guitar. I don’t really seek out a lot of music, although I hear it out there. But I’m always analyzing it when I hear it. It’s like work. You hear stuff and you go like “what key is that in” and all the different analytical things you can do and it’s not the same as just kind of letting it flow through your head. (laughing)

DPM:  Does Camilla, your wife, listen to other music other than yours? 

RM:  No. That’s the other thing. She doesn’t like music going on the radio in the car, because one time she had a flat tire and she couldn’t hear it.  So she wants to hear the car sounds to make sure everything’s running right.

DPM:  Do you still collect transistor radios?

RM:  I do, but I haven’t been real active lately. I’ve got hundreds of them now (laughing).  That started because Camilla collects Russell Wright dishware.  Are you familiar with Russell Wright?

DPM:  I am.

RM:  So we go to antique stores and check that out. And I can spot Russell Wright from a long distance and I can usually tell her where it is if she doesn’t find it first. I thought “what can I collect around here” so I started looking and I thought, wow, transistor radios were a big influence on me when I was thirteen, and I got one and that’s where I heard Elvis and it really changed my life.  So I started collecting transistor radios and I have a couple hundred of them now. I’ve got them in boxes in the garage. You can only display so many of them at a time. But I love them. 

DPM:  I remember my first transistor radio and I will never forget one night lying in my bed at night here in Chapel Hill and listening to WLS-AM out of Chicago, I guess it was early 1967 and hearing “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield and it was a big turning point in my life. 

RM:  Do you remember what brand the transistor you had was?

DPM:  I don’t, it was turquoise blue, and I’d bet my parents got it at Sears.

RM:  Ok, it was a Silvertone then.

DPM:  We got everything from Sears.

RM:  Sears was like Amazon back then (laughing).

DPM:  Well, I think I’ve got everything covered on my list. Roger, Thank you so much.

RM:  Ok, well, great.  It was really fun talking to you … a very pleasant conversation!

DPM:    Camilla and I have been emailing for months and I told her I’d talk with her briefly after you and I got done.  Can I talk with her?

RM:   Sure, hang on and I’ll go find her.  See you soon in Chapel Hill.

CM:  Hi Deborah!

DPM:  I’ll ask you the same thing I asked Roger.  What makes Ashworth’s hot dogs so good?

CM:  Oh my goodness, it’s two things.  One it’s a sense memory from my youth, they haven’t changed since I was 8 years old and the other is where else can you get chili and coleslaw on a hot dog?

DPM:  It’s a Carolina Dog, for sure.  The rest of the country doesn’t necessarily have the same respect for a Carolina Dog the way that we do.

CM:   I know, we just had a party here the day before Easter with the neighborhood and it was such a wonderful excuse to make chili slaw dogs.

DPM:  Did you grill them?

CM:  Yes, and toasted the buns on the grill.  With the chili, we’ll buy a round and grind it ourselves so it’s really homemade.  And Roger does the coleslaw and it has to be fine chopped. We had one couple from Canada, one from Mexico, one lady from England, and a guy from Iowa and they were just thrilled when I showed them how to eat them.  They said “oh, this is good!”

DPM:  Do you drive or fly when you travel? 

CM:  We only drive in the US. We have too many instruments ... when you’re carrying three guitars and a banjo it’s too dangerous to put them on an airplane.  But we’ve been doing that a long time and we love it every time we do it, it’s like a honeymoon every single time.   We’re looking forward to going out to California in a few days.

DPM:  So you’ll drive out there then come back here to Chapel Hill?

CM:  I’ve given us seven days to drive out and seven days to get back and we can do that easily. 

DPM:  Do you have some favorite places you stop on the way?

CM:  We have some favorite Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque and in Flagstaff.  We love the road so much that once we get up in the morning and start making time, I don’t start looking for a hotel until about 3pm unless we’re going to have a show, then I always make sure we already have a hotel there.   Because we can get on the internet in the van, I’ll figure out how far we’re going to go … we like to stop before dark typically around 5pm any place we are.  We have certain hotels we stay at that are very consistent - Hilton Garden Inns, Marriott Courtyard, Hampton Inn, Embassy Suites. We call them freeway hotels, but we’ll look for those.

DPM:  How about eating? 

CM:  We go to Google maps and see what restaurants are within walking distance of the hotel because we don’t want to get back in the car after we’ve driven 400 or 500 miles. It’s one of our criteria for where we stay.  People are always surprised when I tell them we like Red Lobster.  We also look for Outback and Olive Garden because they are always consistent, and we like small Mexican restaurants.

DPM:  Has anybody ever recognized Roger sitting in a Red Lobster?

CM:  No. Not at Red Lobster, but one of my favorite stories about someone recognizing Roger is one time we were over at Disney – this was years ago – and we were sitting in the French Pavillon at a sidewalk café and this man and wife walked by and she says to him “oh, that’s Roger McGuinn” and he says “oh, no it’s not.”  I loved it and it just cracked me up.  People get so adamant about who he is and what he looks like.  We’ve lived in Orlando for 20 years and we often go to Costco. There’s one guy there who recognized Roger from the beginning. Costco does not have a big turnover because people love working there, and this guy’s always thrilled to see Roger when he comes in. It’s like they’re good friends now. Every once in awhile someone will recognize him that we’ve ended up having a great time with.   One time we were returning a car in New York City. It was during rush hour and we needed to get to our hotel. I thought it was going to be impossible to get a taxi.  Traffic was totally stopped, and this guy gets out of his car, runs over and shakes Roger’s hand. I’m standing there, and being from the South you just ask, so I said “honey, ask him for a ride.”  So Roger said “can I get a ride” and the guy says “I’d love to take you.”  I told him that our hotel was up near the park and he said “no problem, I’ll take you.”  It was rush hour so it took awhile to get there.  It turned out that he was going to get his tuxedo because he was getting married the next day, but he went out of his way for us to do that.  Another time in New York, we had done a concert for a radio station for Pete Fornatale (when he was alive Roger would do anything Pete asked him to do) and afterward we were starting to walk somewhere. We were carrying just one guitar, Roger’s son was with us and this couple drove by and yelled out “we loved the concert” and again I said “honey, ask them for a ride” and Roger’s son who was going to NYU said “You can’t do that” and we said “oh, sure we can, watch.”  He was horrified. It just didn’t enter into his mind that you can ask somebody something like that in New York City, but being from the South you just know that people are willing to help you.

DPM:  And you’re also giving them a story that they can tell.

CM:  Well, that’s the fun part. We always enjoy being part of people’s stories.

DPM:  Well, you both are now one of my stories! I can’t wait to see the show and welcome you guys back to Chapel Hill.  Thank you so much for taking the time to help set this all up and make it happen.  Drive carefully out there in the world.

CM:  It’s been great talking with you and we’ll see you in Chapel Hill.

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