Bill Staines (Feb. 6, 1947-Dec. 5, 2021) was a true traveling troubadour – a busy singer-songwriter-storyteller who regularly crisscrossed the United States performing in clubs, coffeehouses, and concerts for more than a half century. Eschewing planes for ground travel, he would grab his Martin D-18 acoustic guitar (which he played upside down because he was a southpaw) and hop in his Jeep, covering an average of 65,000 miles every year.
Born in Medford, raised in Lexington, and making his home in recent years in Rollinsford, NH, Staines proudly referred to himself as a folksinger, but his shows covered a wide swath of the genre, ranging from ballads to singalongs to hints of country, and even a bit of yodeling.
Yes, yodeling. In a 2018 MetroWest Daily News interview, Staines said, “There was a country singer Johnny White who had a band called the Country Rhythm Boys. I would see them play at a place called the Maples in Billerica. Johnny did a bunch of yodeling. Yodeling is all about learning the syllables and when to crack your voice and what notes to hit, and my voice sort of cracked naturally. I could control it, and eventually I could do it pretty fast.”
He could also do it well, as he was the winner of the 1975 National Yodeling Championship in Kerrville, Texas.
Yet Staines started out as a rocker. When he was 11, his friend Dick Curtis got a guitar, so Staines got a guitar – a Sears Silvertone three-quarter size model. Soon the two pals, along with Curtis’ younger brother John (later a member of the Pousette-Dart Band) put contact pick-ups on their acoustic guitars, and started up a band. Around that time, the Curtis brothers’ mom – for reasons unknown – suggested that they listen to the album The Weavers at Carnegie Hall and, almost overnight, they made the switch from rock to folk, calling themselves the Green Mountain Boys.
But Staines, a fan of Gordon Lightfoot and Eric Andersen, and already composing his own songs, eventually set out on his own. His first solo paying gig was at The King’s Rook in Ipswich in April of 1965. He was 18.
A self-taught guitarist, he was watching a lot of other performers at the time, and picked up of the fingerpicking style of local folk scene regular Jackie Washington. Before long Staines was playing at Club 47, the Unicorn, and a number of the small clubs that lined Charles Street, and he landed an ongoing gig as the emcee at Club 47’s Sunday Hootenanny.
He got into touring, started recording albums (beginning with Bag of Rainbows in 1966), wrote a number of children’s songs (his albums The Happy Wanderer and One More River won the Parents’ Choice Award), and made appearances on A Prairie Home Companion and Mountain Stage. Best known among his more than 300 songs are “Bridges,” “A Place in the Choir,” and “River.”
For a deeper dive into Bill Staines, check out his 2003 memoir The Tour: A Life Between the Lines.
(by Ed Symkus)