Warm as Rye Whiskey: Bill Staines

Bill Staines

Bill Stain


I lived in Dinkytown, a rather silly-named part of Minneapolis that abutted the campus of the University of Minnesota in the southeast part of the city. Other than cheap pizza restaurants, taverns that served weak (3.2%) beer and ice cream parlours (Bridgemans, there on the corner of 4th and 15th) Dinkytown was like any other campus neighborhood in the US. Oh, except for one thing. This little hamlet was where Dylan started off singing in the underground Rathskeller tavern in early 1962.

As a young, homesick undergrad I would shuffle through the icy streets (sort of like Dylan on the cover of Freewheelin’, sans the beautiful girl) not sure what I was looking for. When the cold became unbearable I’d duck into one of the several record stores and lose myself by flipping through the racks. Dreaming, lusting and craving so many but unable to purchase but one or two every few months.   In one of the stores, where the guy behind the counter was tall and had granny glasses, making him look like some character out of a Dickens tale, they frequently played Bill Staines records.

I grew up with a lot of folk music: Chad Mitchell Trio, Kingston Trio, Christy Ministrels, Sons of the Pioneers and Burl Ives.   The art of telling a story to the accompaniment of nothing more than an acoustic guitar was one that I held dear, but I had never heard of Bill Staines. His albums didn’t give too much away by way of biodata. Rather they spoke only of his love of the American landscape, especially the western states, and usually sported a sepia or b/w cover.

The first song I remember of his that stuck in my mind was one called Rye Whiskey Joe. I didn’t know what rye whiskey was as opposed to any other sort of liquor (being raised in a seriously serious evangelical family, those things were never part of my world) but his voice did have an incredible warmth and empathetic feel to it. Like he was singing about his best friend, someone he knew well and loved.

Staines in those years became a bit of minor celebrity in folkie circles. When Garrison Keilor hit the big time with the Prairie Home Companion, Staines was a regular guest at the World Theatre in St. Paul. I noticed that by the mid 80s his album covers were in colour and many of his songs were being covered by other folkies.   I never had the chance (read, money) to see him play live around the West Bank coffee houses but for many years he was one of my favorite singers.

He sings a very North American kind of folk music. Simple. Unfancy. Straight to the point. The songs have melodies, they tell stories and sound best with a finely tuned Martin guitar. Sometimes they allow for yodeling or even whistling and always, they are connected to places. The rivers of Texas, the Wyoming skies, the northern woods along the Canadian border and so on.   Though I have travelled the world several times around since those days, at the time I was rooted in Dinkytown. Bill Staines songs fed my imagination and fired by intention to get out of Minnesota and see the world.

And so with a small side track by way of AMG, I’ll bid you farewell and commend the wonderful Bill Staines, American songwriter, to your listening pleasure.

The American landscape has been a major theme for New Hampshire-based singer/songwriter Bill Staines. His songs have captured the beauty of rivers, mountains, and the open space of the American West. Staines‘ ability to write songs that seem like traditional folk songs has made him a favorite source of new material. His original tunes, including “The Roseville Fair,” “River,” “Wild, Wild Heart,” “Yellowstone Winds,” and “A Place in the Choir (All God’s Critters),” have been covered by such artists as Nanci GriffithJerry Jeff WalkerGrandpa JonesFairport ConventionPriscilla Herdman,Gordon Bok, and Mason Williams.

Although his country-folk tunes reflect on the personalities, lifestyle, and environment of such places as Wyoming, Colorado, and Alaska, Staines hails from Lexington, MA, a small city northwest of Boston. As a youngster, Staines was heavily inspired by the folk scene in Boston and Cambridge in the early ’60s. Together with a junior high school friend, Dick Curtis, and his younger brother, John, who later played with the Pousette-Dart BandStaines formed a folk band, the Green Mountain Boys. Although theCurtis brothers preferred old-timey string music and bluegrass, Staines remained tied to romantic folk ballads. Staines later organized and ran a student folk music coffeehouse, The Barn, at Lexington High School. The experience prepared him when he became the host of a weekly open-mike hootenanny at the folk music venue Club 47 in Harvard Square. Staines gained popularity as a songwriter whenRandy Burns & the Skydog Band recorded his first original song, “That’s the Way It’s Going to Go in Time,” in 1966. He released his debut album, Bag of Rainbows, the same year.

Staines initially attracted national attention with his yodeling. In 1975, he won the prestigious National Yodeling Championship at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Kerrville, TX. His album Miles, released the following year, included the heartfelt ballad “Sweet Wyoming Home.” A self-taught fingerstyle acoustic guitarist, Staines was heavily influenced by the playing of Jackie Washington, a regular performer at Club 47, and Tom PaxtonStaines uses a right-handed Martin D-18 guitar that he turns over and plays left-handed.Staines has been increasingly inspired by his experiences as an amateur pilot. His 1995 album Looking for the Windincluded several aviation-themed songs, including “Bill Hosie,” about a builder of airplanes, and “Song for Tingmissartaq,” written for Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. In 1993, Staines composed The Alaska Suite, a 15-tune instrumental suite for strings and brass that was inspired by his many flights to Alaska.

Staines‘ song “A Place in the Choir (All God’s Critters)” has become a children’s music classic. In the ’80s, Stainesperiodically performed with the Passim All-Stars, an informal folk group that also included Mason DaringJeanie Stahl,Billy Novick, and Guy Van Duser. In 1993, he released an album of children’s songs, The Happy Wanderer on the Red House Records label, that included “The Hound Dog Song” and “I Can Feel the Sweet Winds Blowing (Bless My Soul)” as well as interpretations of “Home on the Range,” “The Gypsy Rover,” and “Kookaburra.” Staines continued recording for Red House during the remainder of the 1990s and into the 21st century, releasing such albums as Going to the West (1993), the aforementioned Looking for the Wind (1995), One More River (1998), October’s Hill (2000), Journey Home (2004), and Old Dogs(2007). Staines‘ songs have been featured in the songbooks If I Were a Word Then I’d Be a Song (Folk-Legacy, 1980), All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir (Puffin, 1989), River (Viking, 1993), and Music to Me (Hal Leonard, 1994). (All Music Guide)

Just Play One Tune More

Track Listing:

01 Red Clay Country Blues

02 Wild Rippling Waters

03 Alkali

04 The Lost Mine Of The Chisos

05 I Must Be Going Home

06 The Boats They Come And The Boats They Go

07 Spanish Is A Loving Tongue

08 Lynchburg Town

09 My Sweet Wyoming Home

10 Rye Whiskey Joe

11 The Black Fly Song

12 Liverpool Light

13 The Music Box

14 White Mountain Goodbye



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