Top 10 Roger McGuinn Songs

Roger McGuinn Songs

Feature Photo: Eugene Powers / Shutterstock

Before collaborating with a long and impressive roster of recording greats, Roger McGuinn was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois as the son of a journalist and public relations specialist. Technically, he was born James Joseph McGuinn III on July 13, 1942, before he became better known as James Roger McGuinn. This is the same McGuinn that co-founded the Byrds in 1964 with Gene Clark.

In the Beginning

While growing up in Chicago, McGuinn was exposed to the music scene that featured post-WWII blues and the emergence of a new genre called rock and roll. Elvis Presley was the key influencer as “Heartbreak Hotel” triggered the young man to ask his parents for a guitar. Elvis Presley, along with Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins, and Gene Vincent was also credited as the inspiration that fueled McGuinn to embark on a musical career of his own.

At fifteen years old, McGuinn became a student of Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. This is where he learned how to play the five-string banjo and a twelve-string guitar. After he graduated, he performed in coffeehouses and on the folk music circuit. He often performed as a sideman for a variety of folk music artists during this time frame.

Moving Around

Not long after graduation and performing, McGuinn moved to the West Coast before eventually settling in Los Angeles. In 1962, McGuinn was hired by Bobby Darin to serve as his backup guitarist and harmony singer. It was Darin’s desire to add folk music to his recording repertoire. However, a year later Darin retired from singing due to medical issues. Instead of letting McGuinn face the unemployment line, Darin opened T.M. Music in New York City. For thirty-five dollars a week, McGuinn served as a songwriter while there.

1963 not only saw Roger McGuinn work as a songwriter but as a studio musician. He recorded material with Judy Collins and the musical dynamic duo, Simon & Garfunkel. This allow occurred at the same time McGuinn learned about some popular UK band known as the Beatles. McGuinn’s curiosity about Beatlemania’s influence on folk music was further heightened after witnessing George Harrison play a twelve-string Rickenbacker in the movie, A Hard Days Night. It was enough for McGuinn to run off and buy the exact same instrument.

The Byrds

By the time Roger McGuinn was invited to work at a Los Angeles nightclub, he was already playing Beatles songs as part of his own musical act. The fusion of folk and rock McGuinn embedded in his material piqued the interest of fellow Beatles fan, Gene Clark. In July 1964, the two men partnered up as a musical act that would lead to the founding of The Byrds.

As a musician, Roger McGuinn was a genius when it came to mixing the right sounds together in a manner that would produce musical magic. “Eight Miles High” was an example of this. While performing as one of The Byrds, Roger McGuinn engineered the first jingle-jangle sound as an electric guitar player. This technique featured a banjo-style picking style played on the guitar. It was something he learned while he was a folk school student back in Chicago. Because of this, The Byrds turned “Eight Miles High” into a big hit in 1966 and the popularity of psychedelic rock took soared.

While performing with the Byrds, McGuinn’s influence as a musician earned him the status of a god-like guitar hero. It wasn’t easy for The Byrds as “Eight Mile High” met with radio bans due to the supposed references made to recreational drug use. By 1967, the band continued to fade in popularity as the beach music scene began to win over the young and impressionable audience.

Going Solo

Although still a band member with the Byrds, Roger McGuinn also performed as a solo artist. In 1969, he wrote the song “Ballad of Easy Rider,”  with some lyrical help from Bob Dylan. The song was featured in the movie, Easy Rider. The Byrds version was the title track for the movie soundtrack that same year. Also on that soundtrack was McGuinn covering the Dylan classic, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

Prior to Easy Rider, McGuinn was one of the contributors behind Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a 1968 production that triggered the popularity of country rock. It was McGuinn’s genius that originally conceived the blend of various music styles on one album recording but it was the mix of bluegrass, country, and western influences brought forth by Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons that won out.

When The Byrds officially broke up as a band in 1973, Roger McGuinn recorded and released several albums clean through the 1970s. He also collaborated with Bob Dylan in 1973 for the soundtrack of Sam Peckinpah’s movie, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kidd. This included “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Both musicians even toured together during Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue that took place from 1975 until 1976.

Reunions

In 1977, McGuinn released Thunderbyrd before teaming up with former Byrds band members, Gene Clark and Chris Hillman. As a trio, they recorded an album in 1979 that led to several performances on televised rock shows, including The Midnight Special. In what was regarded as the Byrds reunited, complications arose after Clark’s drug addiction affected his reliability. Instead of “City” credited as a full group, it was changed to Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, featuring Gene Clark.

Going into 1981, McGuinn toured a great deal on the road, mostly playing in smaller venues as a solo performer. In 1987, served as the opening act for Bob Dylan, as well as Tom Petty. 1991’s “King of the Hill” was a hit McGuinn and Petty wrote together for McGuinn’s comeback album, Back from Rio.

The Folk Den

Starting in 1995, Roger McGuinn’s Folk Den website utilized the internet to carry on the legacy of folk music by recording a different folk song each month. This led to the CD release Treasures from the Folk Den in 2001. It did earn a 2002 Grammy Award nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album but the win that year went to the 2000 documentary album and concert film, Down from the Mountain instead. In 2005, McGuinn’s Folk Den produced a four-CD box set that featured some of his favorite songs that were featured on his website.

Roger McGuinn Legacy

Before becoming Roger McGuinn, the artist from Chicago originally went by the name of Jim. However, he felt as an aspiring musician looking to make a name for himself it was too plain. In 1967, a spiritual advisor he was associated with suggested going with a name that started with the letter “R.” After rolling off a series of name possibilities, “Roger” stuck out as McGuinn’s fascination with aircraft and science fiction played a role in taking “Joseph” out of his middle name and replace it with the new one.

In 1991, Roger McGuinn, along with the Byrds, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nine years later, he testified in court over the legal matter of artists not receiving royalties for their work that was recorded without the proper authorization on the internet. It was realized the Byrds never received any royalty payments for their musical hits, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” He also issued a statement that he only received partial royalties from streaming sites like MP3.com instead of what he was supposed to get.

As a guitar genius, one of Roger McGuinn’s legacy resides within C.F. Martin’s HD7 Roger McGuinn Signature Edition, an instrument the guitar company claimed was able to capture the iconic jingle-jangle tone.

When it came to Roger McGuinn’s personal life, after three failed marriages and two children, he met and married his fourth wife, Camilla, in 1978. By this time, he left the Subud religion behind in favor of Christianity.

To Roger McGuinn’s credit, he has recorded and released ten studio albums between 1973’s self-titled debut to 2020’s Merry Christmas. He also has ten albums associated with the Folk Den project that spans from 1999 to 2016. Adding to this musical resume includes fifteen compilation/live albums and three collaborated albums. In total, there were only three official solo singles released by McGuinn that made an appearance on the official music charts. However, the legacy of McGuinn’s musical genius extends far beyond what a few songs on the billboards have to say.

Top 10 Roger McGuinn Songs

#10 – The Water is Wide

“The Water is Wide” was a song Roger McGuinn released in 1973 that originally came as a folk song of Scottish origin. 1906 marked the year the lyrics for this song were consolidated and named by Cecil Sharp of southern England. Over the stretch of time, the lyrics would be arranged that would include Christian-related material and blues.

For Roger McGuinn, his 1973 version brought forth his special brand of mixing and matching as he covered this song for his first album as a solo artist. “The Water is Wide” was also covered by the Byrds, which was performed in a concert they held in 1972 but not recorded as a band.

McGuinn’s performance was inspired by Pete Seeger’s after watching him perform the tune in concert while he was still a teenager living in Chicago, Illinois. Seeger was among the key influencers that would have McGuinn invest in a twelve-string guitar himself and follow the musician’s footsteps, doing the same thing.

#9 – Someone to Love

On the US Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, “Someone to Love” became a number twelve hit after it was released as a single in 1991. It came from Roger McGuinn’s comeback album, Back from Rio. This would be the third and final occasion McGuinn released a hit single that would make an official appearance on the US Billboard charting system. The appeal behind this song was the haunting chorus that was performed by McGuinn. “Someone to Love” was about the need to let go of trust issues in order to cross the threshold of what true love has to offer. This was a brilliantly written and performed song that can easily trigger the heartstrings of music-loving romantics.

# 8 – 5 D (Fifth Dimension) (featuring the Byrds)

Written by Roger McGuinn, “5 D (Fifth Dimension)” was a tune that was performed by the Byrds as they lyrically explained Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. McGuinn’s vocal interpretation combined folk and psychedelic rock that was further accentuated by Van Dyke Parks’s baroque organ. This song was released in 1966 as a single that had the fans describe the musical experience as equivalent to a drug high.

For McGuinn, as well as the Byrds, “5 D (Fifth Dimension)” further pushed the envelope as far as their role in the psychedelic rock scene was concerned. Unfortunately for McGuinn and the Byrds, the radio stations were reluctant to have anything to do with this song at first as they felt it shared the same message as “Eight Mile High.” At least the fans who knew better didn’t agree as this song became a cult classic among an audience that appreciated the song’s daring and unique qualities.

#7 – Renaissance Fair (featuring the Byrds)

Composed by Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, “Renaissance Fair” was a song released in 1966 that featured the vibes from summer folk festivals as a baroque pop classic. This was a hippie favorite as the voices of McGuinn and Crosby matched just as well with each other’s as did their guitars. The McGuinn arpeggios rose to the occasion as Crosby’s powerful vocals delivered a tune that also had Chris Hillman show off his bass lines that were truly world-class quality. This song’s highlight was the crystalline ringing from McGuinn’s guitar performance at the start of this short but incredible song.

#6 – Mr. Spaceman (featuring the Byrds)

After Gene Clark’s departure from the Byrds, Roger McGuinn stepped it up by becoming the band’s songwriter. “Mr. Spaceman” offered hints of McGuinn’s fascination with country music. This fascinating song mixed the best of various musical genres of country, folk, and psychedelic rock into a standout favorite. Although “Mr. Spaceman” was first turned into a hit by the Byrds in 1966, it was McGuinn’s deliberate mix of country and rock that would begin country rock as a new style of music that would influence upcoming artists like Marty Stuart to follow suit.

The deliberate off-beat rhythm with catchy lyrics caught on with the Flying Burrito Brothers when they covered this tune in 1985. “Mr. Spaceman” was also among the chosen favorites for Return to the Forbidden Planet, a jukebox musical that earned an Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 1989 and 1990.

#5 – You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (featuring Chris Hillman and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band)

Together, former Byrds bandmates Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman teamed with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to produce the hit single, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” in 1989. This was originally a Bob Dylan classic that was first in 1967, then covered by the Byrds in 1968. This song came shortly after Dylan refrained from making public appearances after experiencing his motorcycle accident in 1966. When McGuinn, Hillman, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performed this in 1989, it became a number six hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. In Canada, it was a number eleven hit on its Country Tracks chart.

Despite Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s involvement, when “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” was released as a single it was credited to McGuinn and Hillman only. The song was actually about the waiting of a bride whom the narrator was scheduled to marry, at least according to Bob Dylan’s original writeup. Although Bob Dylan recorded this first, it was The Byrds who’d be the first to have it released as a single. Dylan’s 1971 tweaked version would come next, then later down the road by McGuinn and Hillman. Of all the recordings, it was 1989’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” that achieved the greatest charting success overall.

#4 – Eight Miles High (featuring the Byrds)

Although “Eight Miles High” was credited to the Byrds, it was the genius of Roger McGuinn that made this song an all-time classic. Without the jingle-jangle influence that came as an accidental discovery while McGuinn’s guitar genius was at work, “Eight Miles High” would not have made the level of impact it did as a song.

This is another cult classic that owes its success to McGuinn’s genius as the lead singer and guitar hero. Even as radio stations were reluctant to play it after it was first released as a single in 1966, this still became a fan favorite thanks to the opening riff and how the rest of the song played itself out as the ultimate example of psychedelic rock. It still managed to peak as high as number four on the US Billboard Hot 100, which proved to the radio stations that not even their best attempt to silence a great song was enough to keep them from listening to it. In the U.K., “Eight Miles High” became a number twenty-four it.

#3 – King of the Hill (featuring Tom Petty)

In 1991, Roger McGuinn made a comeback as a recording artist with the release of his sixth studio album, Back from Rio. “King of the Hill” was a song he co-wrote with Tom Petty who’d also usher in a vocal performance that turned this into a number two hit single on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. For McGuinn, both the song and album represented the best of the man’s work as a world-class musician at the top of his game. In the music video associated with the song, the realities of the corporate rat race added even more drama to one of the deepest songs McGuinn and Petty ever wrote.

#2 – Turn! Turn! Turn! (featuring the Byrds)

Before the Byrds officially came together as a band, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” was a song first written and recorded by Pete Seeger in 1959. This was a musical number that quoted the first eight verses from the third chapter of the Holy Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes. In 1963, two years before the Byrds turned this song into an international hit, Roger McGuinn rearranged it for Judy Collins and her album, Judy Collins 3. It was at this time McGuinn sought to revive this popular folk song after his girlfriend at the time requested the Byrds perform this while on tour.

For McGuinn, performing “Turn! Turn! Turn!” as a standard folk song didn’t seem possible. Instead, the rock influence that stemmed from Mcguinn’s guitar performance became the end result of what became the Byrds’ signature song. “Turn, Turn, Turn” became the perfect hybrid of folk music meeting with rock and roll. Not only did the Byrds establish themselves as pioneers of folk rock thanks to this cult classic but the song itself became a timeless piece that never grows old. On the US Billboard Hot 100, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” rightfully soared it’s way to the top of its official music chart. It also became a number three hit in Canada, as well as the number twenty-six hit in the U.K.

What makes this song even more interesting was the fact McGuinn wasn’t a born-again Christian yet when this was recorded in 1965. It wouldn’t be until twelve years later that he would abandon his previous beliefs in favor of following Jesus Christ. Since then, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” has taken on a whole new meaning for McGuinn who has continued to perform this song to this day.

#1 – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (featuring Bob Dylan)

“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was a Bob Dylan classic that featured Roger McGuinn’s talent as a guitar rock god contributing to this 1973 cult favorite. As talented as Dylan is as a singer-songwriter, without good musicians to back him up with quality instrumental performances, the popularity of some of his best music may have otherwise been overlooked as mediocre. Both Dylan and McGuinn established there was enough star quality in them to launch from ordinary musical artists to super extraordinary. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was a legendary song put together by legendary musicians that continues to remain an all-time cult favorite.

For a song that was designed as a dramatic number for the 1973 film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” did it justice. Would you expect anything less to come from Bob Dylan as a songwriter? Would you expect anything less than the genius of Roger McGuinn as a world-class guitarist? On the US Billboard Hot 100, it was a number twelve hit. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” peaked at number five on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary Songs chart. On a global scale, it was at least a top twenty hit among the nations of Australia, Canada, Ireland, Norway, and the U.K. This song also became certified silver by the British Phonographic Industry, as well as platinum by the Federazione Industria Musicale Italiana from Italy.

Top 10 Roger McGuinn Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022

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