(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 20, 2008)
If you're anything like me, you have a collection of favorite songs by a variety of musicians. Browse through your library of CDs, old cassette tapes or dusty LPs and you'll likely find only two or three songs on each recording that you absolutely adore. That's pretty much the norm. It's what we've come to expect from most musicians.
But not from Bill Staines.
During his 40-plus-year career, this New England-based songsmith has managed to fill 26 albums with must-hear-again tunes. Of all the musicians I know and love, none compares with Bill Staines in the ability to produce so much consistently beautiful music with meaningful, engaging lyrics. Staines' songs ignite my imagination like no other artist's works can. His gentle melodies and insightful stories flow through my mind long after the music has ended.
I first heard Bill Staines perform on Cape Cod in Massachusetts in the early 1970s. In those days, Ralph and I were among the regulars attending weekly concerts at First Encounter Coffeehouse in Eastham. The venue was a small Unitarian church called Chapel in the Pines -- an intimate and acoustically idyllic setting to listen to the strummed chords and rich harmonies of some of the nation's best talent. During the 17 years we lived on the Cape, we enjoyed performances by local musicians as well as by folk-scene icons such as John Sebastian, Tom Paxton, Kate Wolf and Dave Mallett. But it was the Bill Staines concerts we most anticipated. An evening spent listening to Bill's entertaining stories, mood-inducing songs and upside-down-left-handed guitar picking was guaranteed to put a smile on our faces. We always left wanting more.
I've been thinking a lot about Bill Staines lately as the dates of his Central Florida tour approach. Every few years this traveling troubadour takes a Southern loop through the Sunshine State. While some people who attend his concerts may be hearing his songs for the first time, most, like Ralph and me, are longtime fans. We come because through his music -- so lovingly conceived and prolifically offered -- he has come to feel like family.
You know how some songs trigger memories? That often happens with Staines' music. I remember the first time Ralph and I heard Staines sing "Roseville Fair," a touching story of a couple who met at a county fair and fell in love. We were in the audience at the Eastham coffeehouse. When the song ended, Ralph and I turned to each other with a knowing look -- "this one is a keeper." And it was. We bought the cassette -- CDs had not yet been invented -- and no matter how many times we played that song, it always triggered a sweet and soothing stirring of the heartstrings.
That's how it is with all Bill Staines' songs. He breathes life into the characters he is singing about whether it's a weathered drifter named Rye Whiskey Joe, the ragged philosopher Ol' Pen or, my favorite, the small-town dancing girl Annie Drew.
Although he is New England born and raised, you wouldn't know it from tunes such as "Coyote," "Song for Tingmissartoq" or "My Sweet Wyoming Home." Staines has a way of capturing the essence of a place he is visiting or a time period he finds intriguing.
But his songs of love and family have always meant the most to me. As much poet as songsmith, he writes lyrics that touch upon everyday subjects and ring true in their insightful simplicity. From "Child of Mine" to "Bridges" to "I Must Be Going Home," there's something special in the way Staines captures emotions and wraps them in poignantly melodic packages. There's a universal appeal to this man's work.
This year's concert should be especially exciting because in 2007 Staines released a new album, Old Dogs, three years after his previous album, The Second Million Miles. For longtime fans, this chance to hear new songs by one of our favorite artists is a rare treat.
But you don't have to be an old fan to enjoy his music. Anyone who takes the time to listen can't help but be inspired and impressed by his poetic heart and gentle grace. If you're among those to whom Bill Staines' name is unfamiliar, take advantage of this week's concerts to get to know a truly timeless musician.
Bill Staines will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Craftsman House, 2955 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. For details, call 727-323-ARTS. On Saturday, he will be in Ormond Beach. Details are available at floridafolkmusic.org or by calling 386-437-0185. On Sunday, a 2:30 p.m. concert at Leu Gardens, 1920 N. Forest Ave., Orlando, will be sponsored by the Friends of Florida Folk. Information is available at cffolk.org or by calling 407-679-6426. And Sunday evening, he will appear in Mount Dora. Details are available by calling 352-735-4907.