Bill Staines has been my hero since 1977. He carries on where Woody left off — carrying on the tradition of stories and characters you wish you knew.
— Nanci Griffith
As far as I know Bill Staines never met the late Merrick Jarrett. Had the two musicians crossed paths, they would have sized up each other approvingly, eye to eye — or rather note to note. I’m sure they would have hit it off.
Like Jarrett, who lived for folk music, Staines lives for folk music. In the age of the singer/songwriter, Staines continues to follow the same traditional path Jarrett traced until his death in December 2005.
So it’s a wonderful thing to have the acclaimed American folk artist appear at Folk Night at the Registry’s 11th annual Merrick Jarrett Concert, held each spring in commemoration of the beloved folksinger who brought music to so many from his Kitchener home for so many years.
Staines emerged on the music scene during the heady folk revival of the 1960s in the Boston-Cambridge area. When the folk bubble burst in the ’70s, he soldiered on, continuing to clock thousands of miles a year throughout North America, playing wherever folk fans gathered, whether coffeehouse, club, school auditorium, church basement, parlour or porch, university campus, concert hall or festival.
I refer to the New England-based artist as a folksinger, a label I think he would approve, because he has always been a fine interpreter of traditional songs composed by unknown writers and passed down through generations, as well as songs written by contemporary folksingers, past and present.
Nonetheless, the majority of the songs he performs are original. He is both a gifted and a prolific songwriter who draws on traditional music as inspiration. Like the most enduring folk songs, his originals are elegant in their simplicity, with melodies that stick and words that penetrate the heart of things that matter. Humour is a familiar tool. His songs charts the thousands of miles he has travelled, spreading songs like seeds planted in rich ground. They give expression to the needs and concerns, the sorrows and joys, the disappointments and aspirations of ordinary people struggling to live with honesty, decency and dignity. We all relate.
His songwriting forms the foundation for the career he has built as an important and influential roots artist spanning half a century. The artists who have covered his songs constitute a Who’s Who of American acoustic music: Peter, Paul & Mary, Tommy Makem & Liam Clancy, The Highwaymen, Mason Williams, Grandpa Jones, Jerry Jeff Walker, Nanci Griffith and Glenn Yarbrough, not to mention Australia’s Priscilla Herdman among others.
Moreover his songs have made their way into anthologies, school music books, church hymnals and campfire songbooks. Eight of his songs were published in Rise Up Singing Songbook. Not surprisingly, he was a regular on Garrison Keillor’s popular public radio show A Prairie Home Companion. His music reflects the aesthetic that defines Keillor’s art.
Staines has 19 albums still available, spanning 1975 through 2012. He recorded seven others, dating back to 1966, no longer available. I have three of his most recent releases in my music library including Journey Home (2004), Old Dogs (2007) and Beneath Some Luck Stars (2012) — all released on Red House Records, one of my favourite American labels. All three are on constant rotation in my home and in my car. They are essential listening, necessary listening.
Staines has also published four songbooks, with another three out of print. Like John McCutcheon, another American folk-based singer/songwriter I greatly admire, Staines has travelled two parallel paths as an adult entertainer and as a family entertainer. After all, a good song knows no age barrier.
Staines is that rare musical bird — a left-handed guitarist, like Paul McCartney. He has an easy, warm baritone that fits like a favourite, faded, flannel shirt. Expect the occasional melodious yodel. He punctuates his concerts with a humour that makes you feel right at home.
Folk Night at the Registry
11th Annual Merrick Jarrett Concert
8 pm May 6
Bill performing one of his most popular songs, Sweet Wyoming Home, at The Fiddle & Bow Society in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Published on YouTube 12 January 2013