Bill Staines Enters 50th Year of Storied Folk Career
Dig into the résumé of folk singer-songwriter Bill Staines and there’s one item that sticks out.
It’s not the fact that he’s now in his 50th year as a professional musician. It’s not that his catalog of songs has been recorded by everyone from Peter, Paul and Mary, to Nanci Griffith, to The Highwaymen. It’s not even the 65,000 miles he drives each year to perform in excess of 200 concerts across the country.
The one item that stands out is the National Yodeling Championship he won in 1975 in Kerrville, Texas.
“I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that experience,” Staines says, laughing, during a telephone interview from his home in Rollinsford, N.H. “I entered this contest almost as a lark and ended up winning it.”
Staines still credits Johnny White & His Country Rhythm Boys for teaching him how to yodel.
“When I was growing up, there was this little honky tonk in Massachusetts called The Maples,” Staines says. “Johnny White & His Country Rhythm Boys used to play there, and Johnny was a fantastic yodeler. You can look him up on YouTube. Johnny was my inspiration. I always say, yodeling is something that’s not hard to do if you can do it. I just happen to have a voice to be able to do it.”
While he might break out the yodel from time to time, mostly to end a set on, literally, a high note, Staines is best known for writing and performing songs such as “Bridges,” “Crossing the Water,” “A Place in the Choir,” “Child of Mine” and “River.”
“I’ve got a couple of new songs, and a couple of new stories,” Staines says of his current tour. “There will be some sing-alongs and audience participation. It’s a real folky show.”
Staines, who grew up in Lexington, Mass., first picked up the guitar in middle school, forming a garage rock band. During a break in rehearsals the mother of one of his band mates decided they should hear The Weavers’ At Carnegie Hall album.
“She said, ‘You guys should really listen to this,'” Staines says. “That was it. That tipped the boat over to folk music and I never looked back.”
After high school, Staines immersed himself in the legendary Boston-Cambridge folk scene in the early 1960s.
“I had a job working for Sears Roebuck for about five years, but I was singing in the coffeehouses at night,” Staines says. “In addition to Club 47 and The Unicorn, there were four or five smaller coffee houses all along Charles Street in Boston. A lot of us played there as we were honing our chops. It was a wonderful musical scene with a lot of musicians around. It was really a special time musically.”
In 1969, Staines injured his back, requiring surgery. Although he had to quit his job at Sears, it also kept him out of Vietnam. Instead, Staines turned to music full time. To date, he has released 26 albums, including two children’s recordings and several compilations. Although his latest release is 2012’s Beneath Some Lucky Star, Staines recently introduced two new songs – “Dharma Bums” and “To Open Water.”
Based on the title of the Jack Kerouac novel, Staines says “Dharma Bums” is “about growing up in the ’60s really where I and a lot of other people traveled a different road than the mainstream populace through music and traveling. That’s what that song is about.”
“To Open Water,” meanwhile, was written for and about his native New England.
“I was down at the ocean one day doing a crossword puzzle and saw a lot of fishing boats going out,” Staines says. ” When I get back to New England, people say to me, ‘Why don’t you do a song about New England?’ So I decided I would do that. I never did finish the puzzle. I wrote this song instead.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The Herald-Palladium newspaper of Saint Joseph, Mich.