by Sandor Slomovits
The first time you hear Bill Staines sing in his down-to-earth, unpretentious voice, you might be surprised to learn that it's a voice agile and acrobatic enough to have earned him a National Yodeling Championship. That's just one of a number of surprises hidden in the man and his music. He takes the stage dressed aw-shucks casual, yet quotes Shakespeare and makes knowledgeable references to the gods of Greek mythology. He considers himself solidly in the tradition of American folk musicians, yet there is nothing of the "close enough for folk music" quality in either his songwriting or his performances.
His guitar playing is not flashy, but its elegant clarity commands your attention. Few guitarists get as pretty a sound from their instrument, and few songwriters craft such "just right" accompaniments to their songs. He sings with equal affection 150-year-old songs and ones he penned last month.
His traveling-troubadour lifestyle embodies wanderlust. You'd be hard pressed to find a folk venue or festival that he has not played. For much of the last four decades he has been everywhere but home. Yet he's also the epitome of stability and loyalty. He has played the same guitar for nearly forty years and has been married to the same woman for more than thirty. He returns to the clubs and coffeehouses he's played over the years as regularly as the seasons. He meets more people in a year than most of us do in a lifetime, yet he seems able to maintain friendships with many of them.
What shines through most clearly in all of Staines's varied facets, though, is his deep faith in the power of the music he plays to connect and uplift people. That is what his peripatetic life seems to be about. He loves constantly exploring and learning about our country, the land, the rivers, the mountains, the small towns and big cities, and, above all, the people. His gifts, in both senses of the word, are the performances and lovingly crafted songs that reflect who he's met and what he's seen and experienced. His recently published memoir The Tour is filled with stories of those friendships and experiences. It is in equal parts a fascinating personal story and a vivid record of the folk music scene in this country from the 1960s to today.
Bill Staines returns to the Ark on Friday, March 23.
[Review published March 2007]