A Conversation with BILL STAINES

Bill Staines talked to us on December 9, 2010 in advance of his January 15th concert for the Susquehanna Folk Music Society. The concert will be held at 7:30 pm at the Fort Hunter Barn in Harrisburg, PA. Further information at susquehannafolk.org

Folkmama: Now you played for Susquehanna Folk a few season ago and I’m just curious about changes since then. Any new CDs, interesting tours?

Staines: Well my last CD Old Dogs has been out for a couple of years and I’m not sure if it was out when I played for Susquehanna Folk. But now I’ve done a children’s book called All Gods Critters, published through Simon and Shuster with illustrations by this fellow Kadir Nelson who is a wonderful artist.

 I’ve been writing and am about ready to start on a new CD. And the group CELTIC THUNDER has picked up on one of my songs. But basically it’s been just a whole lot more of touring.

Folkmama:  Which song is it that Celtic Thunder has picked up?

Staines: “A Place in the Choir”, of course (laughs). The only song I ever wrote.

Folkmama: Well, I have to say that I like that song. It’s certainly one you’ve been identified with.

Staines: You know” A Place in the Choir” came very close to going into the circular file. I was so used to writing pretty ballads and love songs; it was pretty much sort of a cartoon or a doodle. It happened in ten or fifteen minutes. I wasn’t sure I liked it and my wife wasn’t sure she liked it, but then I played it for some folks in Fredonia, New York and they sort of jumped on it. So I said, OK. I won’t throw it away.

Folkmama: I’ve always been impressed with the poetry of your lyrics and the vivid images that they paint. Are your songs autobiographical, and if you so, would you like to share the story behind one or two?

Staines:  Well I think everybody puts a little bit of themselves in whatever song they are writing. I think when I am working on an album this comes through for me because I might write about a train or a relationship or whatever, and then I look at all the songs that I have written and I ask myself what the common thread is. Of course the obvious common thread is that they were all written by one person. And then you kinda have to do a self analysis and where ever you are in your life and your thoughts and your heart becomes the concept for the new recording.

You know I’ve never been a truck driver, but I’ve been on the road and I’ve stopped and truck stops. I may not know anything about truck driving regulations or rules, or drive a truck or anything like that, but I do know the human element of it. So, even though I’ve never been a rodeo rider or a truck driver, I think there is a whole lot of myself in all of the songs.

Folkmama: The bio on your website says that you travel about 65,000 miles and play about 200 gigs a year. Are you still traveling that much?

Staines: The driving is pretty accurate. I think I’m doing between 150 and 175 concerts a year.

Folkmama: As much as you travel, and I’m sure you go back to a lot of venues, you must have some real favorites.

Staines: Well, there are places like Club Passim in Boston. I’ve been playing in that space (it used to be Club 47) since the 60s where Joan Baez started out and Tom Rush and all these other people. And then there are places like Café Lena in Saratoga, NY where I just did a show with a fellow by the name of Jackie Washington, a Porto Rican fellow who I am a huge fan of. He just did all these great songs. I learned the “Black Fly” song from his early recordings and “Little Brown Dog”. Anyway Jackie had performed opening night at Café Lena’s. For the first five months of 2010 they did one concert a month that was billed as a decade concert [in recognition of their 50th anniversary]. They asked me to play in January [for the 60s era] and they asked me who I wanted to split the bill with and I said Jackie Washington, he opened the club. And so they found him, he’s now an actor in L.A. and the local guitar shop flew him out so I got to do this concert with one of my heroes. So, places like Café Lena, Club Passim and I’ve played at Swallowhill out in Denver.

Folkmama: You write about our countries’ different geographical areas. Have you toured in all of them?

 Staines: I’ve played all over. I’ve been booked in 49 states. And then I went to Hawaii in 2004 for a family vacation and I actually walked into a Karaoke Bar and did a karaoke song so that I can say that I’ve sung in all 50 states!

Folkmama: Now for the folks that have not seen you tell them a bit of what they’ll hear at the January 15th Susquehanna Folk concert in Harrisburg?

Staines: Well, I grew up in the 60s and I consider myself a folkie. If there were words to describe it I’d say it’s country folk music without being Country and Western. For me to consider myself as a folk musician, I want my music to be bigger than myself. When you look at songs like “This Land is Your Land” and “Deportee”, they’re bigger than Woody Guthrie. When you look at “Blowing in the Wind” that’s bigger than Bob Dylan. Or the contemporary song “Maryellen Carter” is bigger than Stan Rogers. I strive to bring something of value to people when I am writing. And there is a lot of singalong and story stuff, it’s pretty much a living room kind of thing. I love audience participation. I don’t know what to do if people don’t sing. I say here’s the chorus and nobody sings and it’s like, OK, what do I do for the rest of the night?

Folkmama: Do you still do some yodeling?

Staines: I still do some slow yodeling. But I don’t yodel as fast as I used to. I just can’t quite play the guitar that fast anymore.

Folkmama: I just remember hearing you years ago at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival and you did that song that went faster and faster and in verse you’d be yodeling faster and faster.

Staines: Yes, and my heart would be going, “Ker Plunk, Ker Plunk”.

Folkmama: I just have one more question. Your songs, as I mentioned before, are just so poetic. Are you a big fan of poetry, did you grow up listening to poetry?

Staines: I think it was just my own sensibility. You know, in order to be a good melodist, you listen to people who write great melodies. In order to write great lyrics, you listen to people who wrote good lyrics. I think that listening to people like Pete Seeger and the songs that he wrote back in the 60s and having that sensitivity and perception of life. Having the role models that I had as writers back then was probably what molded me more than anything like listening to poetry. I didn’t really even read books until I was in my late 20s. But listening to people like Gordon Lightfoot and once again Pete Seeger, plus traditional music—there is a lot of really beautiful poetry in traditional music. It was really a blend of all of that.

Lyrics have never been an easy thing for me. You know when I sit down to write lyrics and I have a tune and a first verse, I have to work hard to bring the story forward and bring the values that I want to present to people in my song. I know when I’m stumbling. And I also think, not just for me, but for any writer who has been relatively successful, you’re constantly trying to raise the bar. When you are in the middle of writing a song, you know when it is not quite as good as you know that you can write. So I think there is an editing and filtering process that happens there that is really a lot of work. So when the song is done and you’ve got these really good lyrics to it, there has been a lot of work behind it.

Folkmama: Do you change the songs sometimes after they are written?

Staines: No, I think that happens during the creative process. I will say that I’ve heard other people do my songs and they might have changes a word or changed a line and I’ll end up performing it the way that they do it. And so I can tell when something works a little better than the way that I wrote it.

 Bill Staines CDs and books are available at http://www.acousticmusic.com/staines/bsdisco.htm

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Steep Canyon Rangers Finds Fame as Steve Martin’s Bluegrass Band

Harrisburg, Mt Holly Springs – When comedian, actor, author and bluegrass enthusiast Steve Martin wanted to record a CD of original compositions for the banjo, he chose the likes of Vince Gill, Dolly Parton and Earl Scruggs to accompany him into the studio. When he wanted to takes his show on the road, he chose The Steep Canyon Rangers.

“We first met Steve in my hometown Brevard, North Carolina where his family vacations” said Woody Platt, guitarist and lead vocalist for the group “and Steve being the banjo playing and us having the band, we decided to play a couple of pick-up dates here and there. The combination just really clicked.” In the past two years Steve Martin has done over 60 shows with the group and they plan on an equally ambitious touring schedule next year.

When The Steep Canyon Rangers isn’t touring with Steve Martin, they can be found performing at bluegrass festivals, concert series and even Rock & Roll venues. “We’ve always been willing to play at places that are not traditionally bluegrass venues” says Platt. “Blue grass has the unique ability to really cross generations. We have fans that are very old and we have fans that are very young.” In the ten years that they have been together the group has been nominated for two International Bluegrass Music awards and has played at major Bluegrass festivals such as MerleFest, Telluride and DelFest.

The Steep Canyon Rangers will make two stops in central Pennsylvania in December;  at the Appalachian Brewery’s Abby Bar in Harrisburg on the 10th, and at the Holly Inn in Mt. Holly Springs on the 12th. Audience members can expect to hear exceptional banjo, mandolin and fiddle playing, three and four part harmony, and a repertoire rooted in the bluegrass tradition. “There’s always some humor and we put a lot of energy into our show” says Platt “We usually have a pretty fun time.”

 To find out more about The Steep Canyon Rangers visit their website at http://www.steepcanyon.com/

Concert Details:

The Steep Canyon Rangers perform at The Appalachian Brewery located at 50 N. Cameron Street in Harrisburg on Friday, December 10 at 8 pm. Tickets are $15 in advance and $18 at the door. Tickets and information at http://greenbeltevents.com/ .They also perform at The Holly Inn located at 31 S. Baltimore Avenue in Mt. Holly Springs on Sunday, December 12 at 3 pm. Tickets are $20 in advance and $22 at the door. Tickets and information at www.hollyinn.com.

Concert Review: Greg Brown, Bo Ramsey and Garnet Rogers

By folkmama, 12/07/10

Greg Brown, Bo Ramsey and Garnet Rogers performed in front of a full house on Sunday, December 5, 2010 near Harrisburg, PA for a Susquehanna Folk Music Society concert. Garnet did an opening set, and later joined Greg and Bo for four numbers at the end of the evening.

GARNET ROGERS OPENS

It was a special treat to start of the evening’s concert with one of Canada’s best and most prolific songwriters; Garnet Rogers. A great friend and admirer of Brown’s, he asked Susquehanna Folk if he could share the bill.  Garnet is everything audiences could possibly want in a folk singer—lovely voice, masterful guitar work, lots of humor and terrific lyrics. He’s is also an enthusiastic collector of vintage guitars, all produced before 1944. For his short set he had one end of the stage lined up with a selection of some of his beautiful, antique guitars—each one gleaming and clearly well looked after.

 Garnet opened up his set up with the lovely song Soul Kiss which is a good choice for showing off his stunning baritone voice. The song has the beautiful lyrics “Seal it with a soul kiss. Nothing is as beautiful as this. Soul kiss changed your life. Have mercy on a soul kiss”. After switching guitars (and moods), he lit into the bluesy number Welcome to Hell–a cleverly written  “walking tour” of hell—who’d you see, what you’d hear and whose books you’d be expected to read. Love the last stanza; “You could have been a better guy, not so much of a jerk. Quit your whining here’s your banjo, get to work.”

Last on his set was another slow, beautiful number; this one a song of thanksgiving. He told the audience that he’d recently bought a little house in Nova Scotia (four houses down from where his grandmother used to live) where he could look out and see the cove. The reflective lyric “The small boats outside my window reflect their color to the water, like gaudy gypsy caravans, bright yellow red and blue” is a good example of Garnet’s ability to use words to paint crystal clear images in the listeners’ minds.It was a very strong set from an exceptional performer who Susquehanna Folk hopes to bring back soon for a full evening of music!

GREG BROWN AND BO RAMSEY

After an intermission we welcomed Greg Brown with his sideman, fellow “Iowan” Bo Ramsey. For those that are unfamiliar with Greg Brown in concert, he’s a little difficult to describe. He definitely has a mystique about him, created, in part by his ultra-relaxed persona on stage and his unusual outlook on life. If you are used to those entertainers that jump around and really play to the audience, Greg is certainly on the other end of the spectrum.  Audience members feel such an honesty and intensity from him that it puts them on the edge of their seats and makes them really want to listen–hard. Like Garnet, his songs paint vivid pictures of everyday wonders, fears and struggles.  He brings his music and beautiful poetry to audiences in an unassuming manner which reflects who his is and what he stands for.

He started his set with one of my favorite Iris Dement songs Let the Mystery Be (“But no one knows for sure, and so it’s all the same to me, I think I’ll just let the mystery be”) and continued  with “Freak Flag”—an anthem about being proud of who you are. (“For every soul you can be down. For every child who sees the light and turns around, come on now; let’s let the freak flag fly.”) The next number One Wrong Turn showed off Brown’s gravelly voice. He continued his set with a couple of unnamed rhythm and blues numbers, featuring some nice guitar licks by Bo Ramsey. Then he lit into the humorous Fat Boy Blues (“I looked down in consternation, I couldn’t even see my shoes. Houston we have a situation. I’ve got the fat boy blues”)

Greg did a few more numbers, but like me, the audience was probably getting anxious for one of his off-beat stories, and we weren’t disappointed.  Towards the end of the evening he told a very funny story about the whippoorwills outside of his farm making such an “insane amount of noise” that they should go to see “bird therapists”, even though they were just making all that noise “looking for love.” The lyrics of the Whippoorwill song are quite nice too:  “You are dearer to me than the birds or the stars, Sweeter to me than the hills and the flowers. Long as I have you I can take anything. So let love be home, and let the whippoorwill sing.”

The long night of terrific music ended with Greg, Bo and Garnet performing three songs together. It was quite a memorable concert full of excellent music and good stories. I recommend that you take a listen to Garnet and Greg’s music by checking out the You Tube’s below.

Garnet Rogers, Soul Kiss:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySn-WEePnW4

Garnet Rogers, Welcome to Hell: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_08LRIhTSG0)

Greg Brow, Fat Boy Blues: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqBG-ml3LgI

Greg Brown, Whippoorwill: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyLMOItxlKY