With his long hair, granny glasses and shimmering, 12-string Rickenbacker, lead singer Roger McGuinn was the epitome of L.A. rock star cool on the Sunset Strip when the Byrds hit it big in the mid-1960s.
The Byrds – whose original lineup included David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke and Chris Hillman, and in a later incarnation added Clarence White and Gram Parsons – played a quantum role in the history of rock music by introducing folk-rock and later country-rock into the pop idiom. The band was also one of Bob Dylan’s great interpreters, and left behind a memorable body of work that propelled it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
The Byrds’ early songs remain a staple on classic-rock radio stations, and their sound has influenced countless rock and alt-country bands. On Tuesday, McGuinn will bring a solo show that looks through those back pages, including a touted solo career, to the Hamburg Palace Theatre. He’ll combine music with stories that take him through his fabled career.
The Byrds are what McGuinn is best known for, but it was just the first of his two acts in music.
For the past 17 years – longer than the life of his former band – McGuinn has put together the Folk Den, an online musical preservation site to resurrect early American folk songs, recording and making them available for free download at www.rogermcguinn.com.
McGuinn’s career has seen the onetime folkie go full circle. His most recent album is “CCD,” a collection of 23 sea shanties that came out in 2011. The album has McGuinn applying the Irish vocal heritage tradition with mandolin and banjo picking together with 12- and seven-string guitars.
“I discovered sea shanties around 1958 in Chicago at a Pete Seeger concert. He did ‘Ruben Ranzo’ (which closes the album) and other sea shanties, and explained the significance of how sailors used the songs to work on the ship and do different tasks. I found them fascinating, and also liked the gusto with which the Clancy Brothers and others sang them,” McGuinn said.
McGuinn said he’s pleased to have helped traditional music make a comeback in recent years.
“I do have that desire to keep traditional music alive, and I’m really happy to see others doing it. I think traditional music is much better off than it was when I started doing the Folk Den project,” McGuinn said.
Spirituality has long played a big role in McGuinn’s life. He and his wife, Camilla, met in the late 1970s, when they were becoming born-again Christians.
“That was a wonderful transition from rock ’n’ roll to a more peaceful life,” McGuinn said, noting the couple start their day praying and reading the Bible.
McGuinn only does theater tours, preferring to avoid the distractions that can occur in clubs. That makes the intimate Hamburg Palace Theatre, which only holds about 600 people, an ideal venue for him.
The show is being presented by Hamburg resident Norm Zintz, who operates a music workshop near the theater at 22 S. Buffalo St. He has assembled an array of guitars and other musical instruments that he allows the public to use at no charge.
“Some people loved the Beatles or the Stones, but my favorite was McGuinn and the Byrds. Roger McGuinn introduced me to the 12-string, and it’s why I’ve specialized in it. I’m also a big fan of the Folk Den project,” Zintz said.
McGuinn, who’s 70, was asked whether he could have predicted that he and Dylan would both be performing in the Buffalo area this month, nearly a half century after the Byrds – with lush harmonies and cascading guitars – had a No. 1 hit in 1965 with Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
“I never would have imagined it. I never thought two months ahead, so obviously I would never have thought about what I’d do when I was 70,” McGuinn said.
He tipped his hat to Dylan, who’s a year older. “He does it more vivaciously, with a greater amount of zeal,” McGuinn laughed.