Farewell Friend, Bill Staines (1947 – 2021)

Lots of folks will eulogize Bill Staines, talking about his songwriting prowess, and there’s certainly no debate on that subject.  His songs have been recorded by the likes of Nanci Griffith and the Clancy Brothers.  Go to any festival in the summer, and in the camping area you’ll hear his songs being played, and everyone joins in on the chorus.  Even me…

I met Bill in a little coffeehouse at the college I went to in Northern New Jersey.  I was just starting to play out playing there and for the Clearwater in a little trio of my roommates.  Bill came and absolutely KILLED the room, and stayed on our couch.  I was stealing licks from everyone I could, but not from Bill.  He played a right-handed guitar left-handed and upside down!  He was already an ascending star in the acoustic world decades before the term Americana was ever coined.  Along with folks like Paul Geremia, Chris Smither, Tom Rush, and Jamie Brockett his name was synonymous with the Boston Folk scene.  He wasn’t content to stay local, or even regional.  He traveled more widely in this country than anyone else who comes to mind.  It was that traveling that kept our friendship alive, because I was out there too, and we’d meet up on the road, like this time…

It was trying hard to be Spring in the Midwest, but falling a bit short. Spitting snow all the way from Chicago to a little town on the Mississippi that had a radio station that featured a show putting friends together on stage and on the air.  They kept it a secret about who you were paired with when you played there, but I saw the New Hampshire plates in the parking lot, and the jig was up.  We played on each other’s tunes and told a couple of “war stories” from the road.  When we got back to the Holiday Inn, (which was part of the deal, we didn’t usually stay in places that classy), he says to me,  “What do you say we meet up in Erie PA tonight for dinner and drinks?”  Now for those of you that never traveled for a living, let me tell you,…it’s a LONG way from the Mississippi to Erie, PA.  But stunts like that sounded like a good idea in those days, so off I went and I arrived late in the evening at the hotel.  “Mr. Staines called Sir and would like to meet you in the bar.  Just take the elevator to the sub-basement.”  When I got down there, a country band was setting up and Bill and a trucker from Idaho were engaged in some deep philosophical discussion at the bar.  “Alright my boy, now you’re about to witness a story you can tell for the rest of the tour!”  And with that, the doors flew open and 150 Senior Citizens came in hooting and hollering, wearing tiny little cowboy hats the size of bathroom Dixie cups held on by rubber bands under their chins.  They had come over from Canada on a boat for line dancing lessons.  And they were terrible,… what I mean by that is comically horrendous.  There I sat at the bar with Bill, and some trucker from Idaho, laughing our asses off when Bill turns to me and says, “My boy, you know it’s only in America you can experience something like this!”, and with that the trucker springs to his feet, put’s his hand on his heart, and starts singing the National Anthem.  Everybody stops, including the band.  When he finished Bill and I went back to our libations.  “Is the road what you expected?”, he asked.  No,…it was much better than that, Bill.  Thanks.

Bill Staines, legendary songwriter and performer, passed away December 5, 2021, from very aggressive prostate cancer.  The acoustic community shines less brightly tonight.   

  1. Diane Amyot says

    What a lovely tribute Chris. Thank goodness we have the legacy of his music to hold onto.

  2. Greg Moore says

    Thanks for the great memories Chris.

  3. Rickey Robinson says

    Great write up Chris. Glad that you left out any mention of “ol number 5 on the B side” that meant so much to us in ’77.
    RIP Bill!

  4. Dave Render says

    What a great write up Chris. Thanks. Bill Staines was one of a kind. I saw him at SUNY Albany back in the 80’s. He was the first “upside down” guitar player I had ever seen – I was astounded! I asked him about this during his break, and he said “I found a guitar, taught myself to play, and by the time someone told me I had it all wrong it was too late!”

  5. Steve Van Zandt says

    I’ve been playing Bill Staines songs since the 1970’s. He has always been one of my favorite songwriters. Boats they come and the logger’s song have always been a part of my repertoire. As a songwriter with the Banana Slug String Band my own writing has been inspired by Bill’s songs. Another great talent that will be missed but we’ll keep his songs alive. “He just leaned into life as it went on by, like a bird on the wind oh it carried him high, over the deep blue sea.”

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