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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