Stories behind the music with Roger McGuinn

A treat for musicians and storytellers alike is coming to the San Juan Community Theater, one night only. Roger McGuinn, Hall of Famer and frontman for The Byrds, will be performing April 16, at 7:30 p.m.

“I’ll be playing a mix of old and new songs, songs from bands I’ve been in over the years, and more of my recent work,” McGuinn said, adding that he will be telling the tales behind the tunes as well.

McGuinn said he prefers playing in theaters because usually the sound is better, and people pay more attention to the music.

“Theaters are more rewarding for the artist. The music is the focus, and you can really feel the audience and interact,” he said. “People usually feel more comfortable.”

McGuinn became fascinated with music while attending the “Latin School of Chicago,” Being exposed to new sounds brought out the desire for his own guitar, and his parents obliged.

In 1957 he enrolled in “Old Town School of Folk music” opening up his ears even further.

Folk music, with their human interest confessionals, appealed to McGuinn he said. Many of the songs came from an array of immigrants and were inspired by real-life stories, like “On Springfield Mountain” which tells the tragic death of Timothy Merrick. Merrick died of a rattlesnake bite the day before his wedding. There is also the famous Alices Restaurant, based on Arlo Guthrie’s experience with the Vietnam draft.

“The stories and melodies are beautiful,” McGuinn said of folk music.

He has experimented with a wide range of musical styles, including rock, but he kept coming back to folk music.

“Folk singing is what I always wanted to do,” McGuinn said.

Since 1995, McGuinn said, he has been working to preserve folksongs, which he calls Folk Den Project. The project started off as a coffee table book, published by the University of North Carolina. Currently, the songs are available to download on the Free Music Archive. He will also be bringing recordings with him to the April 16 concert.

McGuinn has collaborated with everyone from Joni Mitchell to Bob Dylan.

He tells a story about playing in Edinburgh Scottland before Dylan was known worldwide. McGuinn had apparently been bringing Dylan up frequently throughout his show until finally, one Scottish woman belted out “Who is this Bob Dylan you keep talking about?” McGuinn laughed at the memory.

Dylan, he said is like a sibling to him.

“He’s like my older brother, you know how you never catch up to older brother. But, we have a lot of fun together,” McGuinn said.

The two often played basketball together, although McGuinn said he himself wasn’t very good due to having injured a finger. Creative musical ideas were born during these hoop sessions.

“We were playing basketball and Bob says ‘I want to try something new.’ I said ‘oh yeah? Like what?’ ‘I don’t know, something like a circus.’”

And so, the concept for Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” tour was born. McGuinn said it was one of his favorite albums and tour experience. The event included singers and musicians like Joni Mitchell, Ramblin Jack Elliot, drummer Howie Wyeth, violinist Scarlett Riviera among others.

When asked how music has evolved over time, McGuinn explained that in the 60s the music was organic. Popular styles shifted around from what he called thinking music to dance music.Today the songs are not usually as melodic and it is easier to make. Renting a studio, for example, cost thousands of dollars. That isn’t necessary now. Modern music can be recorded on the computer at home.

“The gatekeepers have been removed,” McGuinn continued. “So some of the music [being released today] is really good, but some if it isn’t so good.”

Rather than recorders and producers deciding what gets played, listeners get to choose what they like, and that, McGuinn said, is a positive development.

As far as advice he would give up and coming musicians, McGuinn simply says practice hard, record it on your computer and don’t be afraid to put it together to sell online.

“Music is important for the same reason painting or ballet is important,” McGuinn said. “They are expressions, the language of the soul.”

Tickets for main floor seating are $65 balcony $60 and students are $5. Buy tickets online at, or call the box office at 360-378-3210.

Contributed photo by Roger McGuinn