Roger McGuinn performs Saturday at the Camden Opera House. Photo by Bill Kollar

Roger McGuinn never used to talk on stage. Now, he can’t stop talking.

“Back in the ’60s, it was considered uncool to say anything between songs, other than ‘Thank you very much’ and ‘Our next song is blah, blah blah.’ I came out of that school of thought and never learned how to tell stories,” said McGuinn, the founder of the Byrds who performs a solo show Saturday at the Camden Opera House. His live show is a first-person account of his musical life, with each story setting up the next song and each song adding to a narrative arc that begins with early days on the Chicago folk scene and extends through his status as a rock ‘n’ roll survivor and elder statesman.

He travels with his wife, Camilla, and four instruments – 12-string and six-string acoustic guitars, a 12-string electric Rickenbacker and a five-string banjo. Camilla greets fans and sells merchandise, while McGuinn tends to the instruments. “I tell stories between the songs so they all flow together as one big story. It’s an historical event, and it’s a formula that I enjoy, and audiences seems to appreciate it. I don’t seem to do anything else,” he said.

McGuinn, 77, began telling stories after sharing a bill with John Prine in Texas. McGuinn did his usual “Thank you very much” and “The next song is …” and got off the stage. Prine came out, told a bunch of stories, played his songs and the audience laughed all night.

The next day’s review praised Prine for engaging with the audience and criticized McGuinn for not. “The review said, ‘Unless you are a fan of Roger McGuinn, it was pretty boring,’ ” he said. “My wife and I read that review and thought, ‘That’s constructive criticism. That is not just a bad review.’ We cooked up stuff to talk about between songs and the story evolved. We’ve been doing it over 20 years now.”

He has a lot of stories to tell. He spent his early days playing guitar and banjo in the Chicago folk scene before catching on with Bobby Darin, who brought him to New York as a songwriter. When the British Invasion came to America, he began writing folk songs with a rock beat, moved to California and formed the Byrds with Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke, an association that produced one of the great American rock bands and landed McGuinn and his bandmates in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Byrds merged folk and rock, turning a string of Dylan songs into hits, beginning with a version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” that McGuinn helped define in popular culture with an intro that the wrote on his 12-string guitar. The Byrds dropped some of Dylan’s lyrics and streamlined the tune, and it became a No. 1 hit in 1965. Among the interesting stories McGuinn is apt to tell, only a few of the Byrds actually played on that record. McGuinn sang lead and played lead guitar, and Clark and Crosby sang vocal harmonies. The rest of the band members weren’t considered good enough musicians, so session players were brought in. Those session players included drummer Hal Blaine and pianist Leon Russell, and those musicians became known collectively as the Wrecking Crew.

The Byrds disbanded in 1973, and two years later, McGuinn accepted an offer from Dylan to join him on the Rolling Thunder Revue, a monumental tour that Martin Scorsese recently made into a documentary. Mostly because of Dylan’s unusually charged performances, the tour remains a highlight of Dylan’s career. Dylan was in the midst of a wildly creative period, having recently returned to touring after an eight-year hiatus, and he wanted the Rolling Thunder Revue to be a like a circus. Dylan performed in white face paint, and Joan Baez and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott were among the musicians who were part of the tour.

The tour began in New England in fall 1975, with stops in both Augusta and Bangor during Thanksgiving week. McGuinn has no specific memories of the Maine gigs, but has plenty of good things to say about the tour, as well as Scorsese’s recent movie, which features McGuinn prominently. “It was two months of playing little theaters, and people were so appreciative,” he said. “We all got along. We checked our egos at the door. It was a wonderful time and an usually good combination of people and four-and-a-half hour shows. The camaraderie we had was great – and I got to hang out with Joni Mitchell and Kinky Friedman.”

More recently, McGuinn has gone back to his folk roots. He began his Folk Den project in 1995 as a way to stand up for traditional music and help ensure its preservation. Once a month, he records a new song in his home studio and uploads to his Folk Den website to share. His latest, posted Aug. 1, is an Appalachian courting song called “Buffalo Boy” that McGuinn learned in 1957.

He considers his Folk Den project his most important musical legacy. “When I started this project, all the new folk singers were not doing traditional songs. They were doing their own material, and I began to wonder what will happen when Odetta and Pete Seeger die off? Or Tommy Makem? All the people who were keeping the traditional side of folk music alive are gone now. It’s just not fashionable to do traditional songs anymore,” he said.

He’s also recorded a CD of sea shanties, some of which he almost certainly will perform in Camden.


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