I’ve been an admirer of Bill Staines for a great many years. I first heard his name in 1978 when I was 16 and living in Santa Rosa, California. There was a small café and bar in a little strip mall down the road from where I lived called John Barleycorn’s. I played my first open mic there singing John Prine’s “Dear Abby.” One Friday night there was a singer there whose name I have long forgotten, but I was impressed by the fact that he had traveled from Wisconsin in his van and now he was here singing for just a handful of people in this bar. One song he played really blew me away. I asked him who wrote it; he said it was a Bill Staines song, called “Just For Love.” That little encounter etched a permanent place in my being.
It wasn’t until some years later when I moved east that hearing about Bill Staines became commonplace. The Iron Horse Café in Northampton was the major acoustic music venue in Western Massachusetts. There I saw Shawn Colvin, fresh out of New York City, sing for twelve people, John Gorka before his first LP was released, Loudon Wainwright 3rd; and that’s where I first saw Bill Staines. He stood in the back of the room waiting on his introduction, wearing a plaid shirt, jeans, and a cowboy hat, sipping coffee with his guitar on upside down and backwards! Indeed, he played guitar left-handed with the big low strings on the bottom. I remember calling out “Just For Love” from where I sat, but he never did get to it.
It was when I made tracks of my own across the country that I first met Bill. It was at a venue near Goshen, Indiana called LVD’s. He was friendly and warm, and not at all condescending like many semi-famous performers are to their openers. The house was packed with around 120 people, and was one of the larger rooms I had played for at the time. At the end of the night Bill packed his things and drove off further down the road like some cowboy riding off into the night. Likely to sleep in the van at some truck stop a couple hours closer to his next destination.
Early last year, after a concert at Cousin Andy’s I found Vern Crawford had a copy of Bill’s new book, The Tour. This Christmas, Sue bought it for me as a gift, and I spent this month of January savoring it. Bill writes beautifully, and in an easy flowing way he perfectly describes the life of a contemporary troubadour. There are a couple of well-written pieces I’d like to share that have given me insights into why I do what I do. For example, on the nature of “folk music” itself he writes:
I am well aware of how easy it could be to get involved with simple semantics by saying that all music is the music of the people and therefore “folk” music, but many of the songs written today are, rather than songs of the people, songs of the individual performer. They do not have the depth or the universality to make their way in the world much beyond that writer.
I wrote earlier that folk music is a music rich in the human experience and spirit. I cannot stress how important this is, because what is generated out of this source determines how many people can relate to a song and how this song will affect them enough so that it may endure. This depth of spirit springs, and is nourished by, the roots of the living of life. There are those who live to write; and there are those who live to live, and then to write about it.
Another part that really got me was Bill’s talking about David Anram and David’s book Vibrations:
…a musician on stage is nothing more than a conduit through which the music may flow and weave its magic upon the listener. Without the music, a musician has no reason to be onstage.
This is musicianship 101: so very basic and so deeply true.
Bill paints a picture of what the folk scene was like in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. He invites us inside venues like the Café Extempore, Anderson Fair, Café Lena, and he talks about being on Prairie Home Companion in its early days. He shares the rigors of the long miles, and his romance with Alaska. I smiled every time he mentioned a person I know, a venue I’ve played in, or a bit of road I’ve been down. All and all, if you get something out of the essays that I’ve written over the years, Bill will take you one step further with his marvelous book.
I hope you order it - http://www.acousticmusic.com/staines
I’m sure he’ll autograph it for you.
Tell Bill I sent you.