Byrds' Roger McGuinn gets to root of his music passion at folk conference

Correction: Individual tickets for events are not available for the International Folk Alliance Conference. Off-site venues, however, such as the Hi-Tone and Ardent Studios, have ticketed or free events.

Few musicians can appreciate the value and importance of folk music better than Roger McGuinn. Best known as the leader of the '60s hit-makers the Byrds, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer began his career as folk artist -- and his passion for the genre has long been at the root of his work.

Next week, McGuinn will be in Memphis to perform and give the keynote address at the annual International Folk Alliance Conference. His speech will focus on passing folk music from one generation to the other, and no one has been as committed to that idea as McGuinn.

Folk-rock pioneer Roger McGuinn will be addressing the International Folk Alliance Conference in Memphis this week.

Folk-rock pioneer Roger McGuinn will be addressing the International Folk Alliance Conference in Memphis this week.

The Byrds; (Left to right) David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn.

Sony BMG

The Byrds; (Left to right) David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn.

Ian McLagan

Ian McLagan

A Chicago native, McGuinn began his musical education as a student at the city's Old Town School of Folk Music. From there he got swept up in the early-'60s folk boom, landing in New York City, where he played

with the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell trio. After a stint working for Bobby Darin and as a staff songwriter in the Brill Building, McGuinn made his way to California where he would become the key architect in the merger of folk and rock, the elements that came to define the Byrds sound.

"Well, it was in the air. We picked it up from the Beatles, they were already doing it," says McGuinn. "They'd been a skiffle band and they were doing a lot of folk music chord changes. I remember being in the Village and kind of brainstorming, thinking 'Wow, these guys are using modal 4th and 5th harmonies, and a lot of passing chords' -- things that we used in folk music. I thought this is a great direction. And so (the Byrds) was a conscious decision to go further into that."

McGuinn would be the sole constant member of the Byrds as the band evolved continuously over the next decad, taking stabs at everything from country to space rock, jazz to mountain music. In a sense, McGuinn's entire career -- with the Byrds and solo -- has been an exploration of the musical spectrum.

"When I first started out, the history of music was laid out for me," says McGuinn. "Like the very earliest known music and how that transformed into Celtic music, and how that became Appalachian music, and how that became rockabilly -- and how all those things tie together. Most people probably don't realize that. But there's a chain of events there and I found that idea fascinating "

After keeping a low profile for much of the 1980s, McGuinn re-emerged with a successful comeback album in 1993, called Back from Rio, featuring admirers like Tom Petty and Elvis Costello. But in the mid-'90s, McGuinn decided to step away from the pop market once and for all. "I suppose it was a conscious decision to lean towards the fine arts as opposed to what I was doing before that, the more commercial stuff. I was listening to a lot of NPR and I thought, 'Hey, I want to go there,' " he says, laughing.

McGuinn return to his folk roots spawned an ongoing project called the Folk Den, where he records new tracks monthly and puts the songs on his Web site for free download. McGuinn has since released several CDs and a box set collecting the Folk Den material, including his most recent effort 22 Timeless Tracks.

Although McGuinn has largely left the rock world behind, it hasn't left him behind. The influence of the Byrds jingle-jangle guitar sound -- as defined by McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker playing -- remains profound. One recent high-profile example is rocker Bruce Springsteen's latest record, Working on a Dream, which Springsteen said was heavily inspired by his love for the Byrds.

"I guess I am surprised that the influence has been woven so thoroughly into the fabric of music. I still play (the Rickenbacker) in concert. People won't let me get away from it," says McGuinn, laughing. "It's a great-sounding instrument, that's why people want to emulate it. But even my playing style on the Rickenbacker goes back to my early folk days. The way I play it, is the direct result of playing banjo. So, it's all part of one thing."

McGuinn's decision to re-immerse himself in folk music has also meant expanding his skills as a guitarist. "I have been working harder at it. I've tried consciously to learn new styles. Like the flat picking style that (Byrds guitarist) Clarence White did with 'Black Mountain Rag' and 'Soldier's Joy,' I'm doing that now. I've expanded my repertoire a little bit," he says.

"In general, I do a fairly broad range of material: cowboy songs, sea shanties, the blues, whatever comes to mind," adds McGuinn. "But that's the beauty of folk music: there's an endless supply of songs and avenues to go down."

Although his most recent recording efforts have found him working solo, McGuinn has been collaborating with a handful of artists -- including bluegrass musician David Mansfield and country star Marty Stuart -- on a Christmas album he's hoping to release later this year.

But would McGuinn ever consider making another rock record? "I don't have a great ambition to do it, but it's not out of the question," he says. "I'm just really fulfilled doing what I'm doing with folk music. There's so much there to explore."

-- Bob Mehr: 529-2517

Folk Alliance Conference Highlights

The annual International Folk Alliance Conference will take place Feb. 18 through 22 at the Marriott Memphis Downtown. The deadline for pre-registration for the event is today (Friday) and costs $375 for Folk Alliance members and $750 for non-members.

Roger McGuinn will deliver the keynote address on Thursday morning, kicking off three days of educational panels and musical showcases.

The list of performers and speakers includes John Sebastian, Rodney Crowell, Kathy Mattea, Charlie Louvin, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Albert Lee, Lucy Wainwright Roche, and Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey.

In conjunction with the conference, The Folk Alliance will also present a number of concerts and events that will be open to the public at various venues around town.

The Center for Southern Folklore will host a free performance by Stacey Earle & Mark Stuart with special guests Act of Congress and Deering & Down on Feb. 20.

On Feb. 21 the center will welcome The Ebony Hillbillies along with Valerie June and Andy Cohen. Both shows start at 8 p.m. The Center for Southern Folklore is located 119 S. Main Street. For more information, go to www.southernfolklore.com or call 525-3655.

Elsewhere, the Hi-Tone Café in Midtown offers a pair of shows starting with a Feb. 20 bill featuring the Duhks, Hoots and Hellmouth and 2 Mule Plow. Tickets are $10. The following evening, Small Faces/Faces legend Ian McLagan brings his Bump Band in for a concert. The bill will also include a performance by Jack Oblivian & the Tearjerkers. Tickets for the show cost $12. Doors open at 9 p.m. both nights. The Hi-Tone is located 1913 Poplar Avenue. For more information call 278-8663.

On Feb. 21 at 3 p.m., Ardent Studios will host a creativity workshop featuring banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck and drummer Amir "?uestlove" Thompson of hip-hop band The Roots. The event is free. For more information, call 725-0855.

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