Folk musician Bill Staines swings west for three month-long tours each year, veering out from his New Hampshire homestead to bring original and traditional solo material to Pacific Time Zone audiences. On Tuesday, he alights in Twisp’s Merc Playhouse for a show brokered by local promoter Hank Cramer. Staines’ guitar skills and honeyed voice both enliven traditional folk and animate his original work, rooted in American folk traditions. His songs have been recorded by Fairport Convention, Nanci Griffith and Jerry Jeff Walker, among others, and his composition “A Place in the Choir (All God’s Critters)” has become a children’s music classic. (He’s been heard in unexpected places too: His version of the folk classic “The Fox” popped up as the end-credits music for a particularly grueling episode of “Deadwood.”) He spoke by phone from his Jeep Cherokee tour vehicle, with 341,000 miles on the odometer.
Go! Magazine: How much of your listener base is kids, or parents buying music for their kids?
Bill Staines: I wouldn’t say all that much. I’m not basically a kids performer, and throughout the years, as just about every other adult performer has done, I’ve done a couple of albums — I don’t even call them kids’ albums, they’re more like family albums. You don’t start a kids’ album off with a four-minute version of “Home on the Range.” I do school shows, but I don’t really do them because I’m a kids’ performer. I think because of “The Happy Wanderer” and the “One More River” album, a lot of kids have come on board, but I really perform for adults more than anything.
Go!: Do you see your task as entertainment or education? Are you hoping people learn more about the music you play, or are you hoping that they just absorb and enjoy?
Staines: I guess if it were to come to my reason for being or whatever, it’s really to bring something of value to people. I want to bring people to people. I’ve always been a history nut, I’ve been to Alaska every year since 1981, and I’ve written songs about Alaska miners and flying around Alaska, and I bring those people to other people in the country. I’m not one of those songwriters that sort of wakes up in the morning and says, “I’m a songwriter, so I need to write a song today, so I’m going to write about my coffee cup.” I really have to wait until something of value hits me, and I say, “I need to share this with people.” Music is a way I get my feelings across, and brings stories of people to people, and awareness of people and place and feelings. Really, growing up in the ’60s, in the folk music world, that to me is what folk music is about — a music that’s bigger than any one person, even in the songwriting sense. “This Land Is Your Land” was bigger than Woody Guthrie, and “Rambling Boy” was bigger than Tom Paxton, “If I Had a Hammer” was bigger than Pete Seeger. And these songs were really rich in the human element and the human spirit. That’s what I try and write to. I strive for that, really.
Go!: A lot of your self-written songs could slot right in with some of those traditional tunes you play. I assumed, before I did some research, that “The Fox” was written by you.
What: Bill Staines, folk
Where: Merc Playhouse, 101 Glover St., Twisp
When: 7 p.m. today
Tickets and information: 996-3528
On the Web: acousticmusic.com
Staines: My contemporary music does come from traditional roots. And when I do an album, to this day, I always want to put at least one traditional song on it, because that’s where my roots were. Also, I grew up surrounded by people who wanted people to sing along with them. I think that’s all part of being a folk musician. I love traditional music, and I sing music that sounds traditional, I guess.
Go!: You grew up in the Boston area. How did you get exposed to folk music living in an urban setting?
Staines: Boston in the ’60s was one of the hotbeds of folk music. There was a New York scene that everybody knows about, but in Boston there was the Club 47 and the Unicorn. Dick and Mimi Fariña played there, and Tom Rush and Tim Hardin, Taj Mahal. All these people were living in Boston — Jackie Washington, Joan Baez. It was just a wonderful musical scene to grow up in. … When I was just a little kid, I was playing teenage rock ’n’ roll, and then I heard the “Weavers at Carnegie Hall” album, and I absolutely fell in love with folk music. I started singing in the coffeehouses. When I graduated from high school I went to work for Sears, but I was singing in the coffeehouses at nighttime.
Go!: You didn’t have to go out and find folk music, because based on the time and place where you were, it found you.
Staines: There were two sort of pop scenes in the ’60s. There were the Beach Boys, and then there were the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. They were both Top 40 music. Some people were jocks and went to the dances and listened to the Beach Boys, and there were other people that wore black turtlenecks and Wellington boots to school, and they were the people who listened to Peter, Paul and Mary. And that was my thing. Then, running under that pop music thing, there was also the Fariñas, Judy Collins, Gordon Lightfoot, just a ton of people. These were people who were playing in the coffeehouses.
Go!: You mentioned a temptation to put a traditional song on an album, even when you’re working with mostly new material. Have you encountered all the traditional music there is, and there’s nothing new to surprise you, or do you still come upon very old folk tunes that are new to you?
Staines: Well, I think I know the sources, but I’m not really mining for new traditional material that hasn’t been found before. If I listen to XM Radio, for instance, just the other day I heard somebody doing a blues version of “500 Miles.” It’s a totally different take on the song. I look for songs that are just meaningful to me, really. Sure, there are thousands of traditional songs that I’ve never heard before, but I don’t really go looking for them.
Go!: I read that you play a right-handed guitar, but you play left-handed.
Staines: I play the guitar upside-down. I just turn the right-handed guitar over, so the strings are not reversed.
Go!: I’ve heard of people doing it, but I didn’t know it something people adopted for a lifetime of playing, as you seem to have done.
Staines:It’s not something you see every day, but I’ve met, I dunno, 50 people over the years who play that way. But it’s always the same story: “I picked up the guitar when I was real young and didn’t know any better, and I’m left-handed, never took any lessons, and I put my fingers where the dots were in the chord book …” In fact, I was doing a show at a club in New York City three, four years ago, and in the back room of the club they had a book that was a sort of anthology of blues people. It was little single-page biographies of tons of blues people, from Blind So-and-So to Bonnie Raitt. I was looking at old photographs from the ’30s and ’40s, and lo and behold, I could tell the photos weren’t reversed, but a lot of these people were playing upside down. It made all the sense in the world to me — these guys are out there playing on the streets, they’re not paying for guitar lessons. So if you’re left-handed, you don’t go find a left-handed guitar, you just play the way that’s most comfortable for you. Jimi Hendrix played upside down.
Go!: Do you think that approach makes a difference in the sound?
Staines: I’m visually oriented, and hearing-wise, I’m doing exactly what somebody that’s doing it right-handed would be doing, as far as patterns go. But just by default, because I’m using my thumb on the high strings, there is an attack difference. When I hit the guitar with a flatpick, the first strings that get hit are the high strings. And it was very interesting, because about four years ago I met this fellow in California, who was a wonderful guitar player, who said. “I really like the way your style sounds.” And I saw him a year ago, and he’d went out and bought a left-handed guitar and was playing it right-handed. So that’s even one step to the weirder.
Go!: Are you performing with anyone on this tour?
Staines: Nobody would want to travel with me. It’s completely solo. I do have a guitarist who plays with me when I travel to Texas, and he sits in when I’m playing gigs down there. But generally speaking, I’m by myself except when I go in the studio. Then I want to have that musical support and that color that other musicians will bring to a recording.
Go!: Do you achieve the song style that you want better as a sole creator?
Staines: When I started out, everybody was a solo player, and that’s where I came from. I just never went anyplace else. It’s fingerstyle guitar, and all the parts are there. When I first heard fingerpicking, I was mesmerized by the fact that somebody could play the bass and a lead part at the same time. It wasn’t just strumming the guitar — there was something else that completed what needed to be had to make this song listenable. It’s very relaxed, and I’m the only one I have to depend on. I like it that way. When it comes to traveling, I don’t want to have to travel with people. It’s just so much easier if you can’t sleep at 3 in the morning and went to get going, and sleep more further down the road.
Go!: Not to mention the passenger seat is probably loaded with snacks and maps and that kind of thing.
Staines: Are you looking through my roof here? I’ve got maps, I’ve got snacks, I’ve got orange juice, I’ve got CDs and tapes, I’ve got everything in my front seat. When I leave home, I kind of feel like I’m climbing into the lunar module.
Go!: You wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing without the ’60s folk music movement. But commercially speaking, do you think it was an anomaly? Will we see its like again?
Staines: This is my take on that: Folk music as a commercial music, as the pop music of the time, went its way. Folk music became folk rock became acid rock became whatever. So as a pop music form, it did its thing, the same way that disco came and went. But the difference between folk music and some of the pop music forms is the fact that folk music really is a roots music. I equate it with jazz. Jazz in the ’20s, ’30, maybe was a pop music form, and now it has a niche that will never die. It has a much bigger audience than it did in the ’20s and ’30s. … You can go out to folk music concerts, and you’re not going to get 4,000 people at them — unless you’re Dylan or something like that, and that’ss not necessarily folk music — but you’ll get a couple of hundred people for an artist, and those people are die-hard folkies. That’s not gonna go away. Venues will come and go, but I would say there are probably six times as many venues as there were in the ’60s, and probably 20 times as many musicians out there doing it. So it’s become a competitive thing in some ways. But I think its niche is well-established, and it’s not going anywhere.
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123