Magazine

Bill Staines | New England’s Gifts

I first saw Bill Staines perform at The Folkway in Peterborough, New Hampshire. It was 1979, and my sister, Anita, had come from Boston to visit me in Dublin, where I had just moved. Bill Staines was tall and lean; he wore a cowboy hat with jeans and boots, and his songs were like short […]

By Mel Allen

Oct 22 2015

Troubador

“I write songs so that I can reach people. And if I can write a song that can continue to inspire people, that song will stay around for a long time and will become a folk song.”

Photo Credit : Joel Laino
“I write songs so that I can reach people. And if I can write a song that can continue to inspire people, that song will stay around for a long time and will become a folk song.”
“I write songs so that I can reach people. And if I can write a song that can continue to inspire people, that song will stay around for a long time and will become a folk song.”
Photo Credit : Joel Laino

I first saw Bill Staines perform at The Folkway in Peterborough, New Hampshire. It was 1979, and my sister, Anita, had come from Boston to visit me in Dublin, where I had just moved. Bill Staines was tall and lean; he wore a cowboy hat with jeans and boots, and his songs were like short stories wrapped inside lilting melodies. They stayed with you like fragments of dreams. Many of his contemporaries wrote songs with an edge; his were rounded, smooth. He sang about the country he had already crossed many times over since he’d begun in the ’60s.

He was called Boston’s most engaging performer. He was a national-champion yodeler, for one thing—no doubt the first who had been born and raised in Lexington, Massachusetts. Famous singers were covering his achingly sweet and romantic “Roseville Fair,” which he wrote after seeing two young people dancing by the glow of a campfire at a small-town folk festival. He sang of prairies and mountains and rivers. A Houston Post music critic lamented,“He’s a New Englander … and damn his soul, he writes better cowboy songs than anybody in the Southwest.”

That night he became our favorite performer, and ever after for birthdays and holidays Bill Staines records passed back and forth between my sister and me. He belonged to us both.

It’s a January night 34 years later at the legendary Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York, and Bill Staines is on stage. There are 70 people here, and they know his songs by heart and sing along. A woman behind me says she lives in Alaska and sees him every year when he goes there on his annual pilgrimage. Others say they come here every year when he plays. Think of how you draw closer to a fire on a cold night; Bill Staines tonight is the fire.

He’s nearing 50 years performing; in that time he has driven more than three million miles, written nearly 300 songs, recorded 27 albums. He’s been through 19 cars; his current jeep is closing in on 400,000 miles. On his personal odometer, 70 isn’t far away. He plays nearly all the folk clubs and festivals that remain, and he plays at house concerts, where his fans plunk down maybe $10 to $15 and crowd into someone’s living room and share food. He has driven 20 hours straight to get to a show: “I kept telling myself, ‘Bill you have one hour more left in you,’” he says. This will be one of 225 concerts he’ll play this year; the next night he’ll be at DelRossi’s Trattoria in Dublin, where a waitress gliding by will say softly, “I bet I’ve seen him 20 times.” He’s a touchstone. “It’s like a reunion,” he says. “People haven’t seen each other for a year, and then suddenly they show up at my concert.”

This night in Saratoga Springs, he ends with the same song he’ll end with the next night, possibly the same song he ended with in 1979; then, he’d written it just a year earlier. He called it “River,” and when my sister’s funeral service ended and everyone sidled out into the winter air in Cambridge, it was the song that sent us home:

River, take me along in your sunshine, sing me a song
Ever moving and winding and free
You rolling old river, you changing old river …