On Thursday, Feb. 22, Carleton College welcomed nationally acclaimed folk musician and songwriter Bill Staines to perform in the Applebaum Recital Hall. With a career spanning 53 years, Staines writes the majority of the songs he performs, capturing slices of American life with his music. His songs celebrate people, nature and the passage of time.
The concert was attended by Carleton students and Northfield residents, many of whom were familiar with Staines’s music. Audience members joined in singing to such classics as “River” and “Roseville Fair,” turning the concert into a beautiful communal experience. The room was filled with a spirit of coziness and serenity, reflective of the tone of Staines’s music. Many of the songs Staines performed had a thoughtful, melancholy, nostalgic sentiment to them. One told the story of a rural antique store, while others contemplated the passage of time and the value of music.
Growing up in New England, Staines became interested in folk music at a young age. In junior high, he and his friends formed a rock-and-roll band. One day, his friend’s mother recommended that they listen to an album by folk music quartet The Weavers. “And she put that album on, and the three of us just kind of fell in love with the music right then and there, and we changed our electric guitars for banjos,” Staines said.
Staines became involved with the vibrant New England folk music scene, where musicians performed at local coffeehouses in an environment that Staines describes as being just as social as musical. During high school, Staines said, “I would just throw my books in the locker at three o’clock, and off I would go to the coffeehouses.”
“I was just enamoured with that type of music,” Staines explained. “It was real music, it wasn’t contrived, and it had something to say.”
In the 1960s and 70s, folk music was flourishing across the country, and Staines soon began performing outside of New England. In California in 1975, he met fellow musician Jerry Rau, who was booking performers for the Coffeehouse Extempore in Minneapolis. Rau arranged for Staines to performed at the Extempore and also booked him onto Garrison Keillor’s radio show The Prairie Home Companion. For Staines, this was a door-opening experience in terms of recognition. He started visiting Minneapolis each February, July and October, playing to large audiences at the Extempore and on the Prairie Home show. Decades later, Staines still continues his tradition of touring in February and October.
“People say, ‘Why do you come to Minnesota in February?’ and I say, ‘Because I always have,’” he said.
Staines has traveled all across the United States, but he does not choose a favorite place that he has visited. He prefers to focus on the people, he said.
In finding inspiration for his music, Staines seeks out stories that not many people know. He is currently writing a song inspired by Arrows Across America, a 1920s-era U.S. Postal Service program that constructed gigantic concrete arrows lit up by beacon towers across the country in order to guide airmail pilots by night.
“I want to bring something of value to people, I want to make them laugh and cry…just show them a little bit of themselves,” Staines said. At Thursday’s concert, he described his songwriting process to the audience as “little events attaching themselves to songs.”
Staines said that he tends to avoid writing humorous songs. Instead, at Thursday’s performance, he added an amusing touch through the stories he seamlessly wove in between songs.
In addition to recording 26 albums throughout his career, Staines was also the winner of the 1975 National Yodeling Championship in Kerrville, Texas.
“I just kind of entered it as a lark and won it, so I got a hundred silver dollars and a trophy that said Ace Bowling and Billiard Supply on the bottom,” he said.
He referred to his yodeling days as being in “another life,” but even so, he performed a song featuring yodeling at Thursday’s concert per audience request.
Staines’s performance brought the beauty and authenticity of folk music to the Northfield and Carleton communities, providing students and town residents with the warmth of a communal musical experience on a snowy winter evening.
“It’s nice to get back to Carleton again,” Staines told the audience. “It’s been a long time.”