There isn’t a lot of fanfare this chilly Friday night at Minocqua’s Campanile Center as an audience of around 75 people sit patiently, waiting for the start of a concert by folk singer Bill Staines.
In the lobby, there’s a table with several copies of his CDs offered for sale.
The CDs represent a large portion of a career of writing and performing folk music on a full-time basis that spans four decades and is well into a fifth.
On a corner of the table is a sample copy of a children’s songbook people may also purchase.
The book contains the lyrics to one of Staines’ better known songs, “A Place In The Choir.”
On the stage of the Campanile for the evening’s performance are a chair and two microphones, one for Staines and one for his guitar, which he plays upside down as he is left-handed and the strings of the guitar are set up for a right-handed player.
There isn’t a lot to the performance from a material or equipment standpoint.
The emphasis is on what Staines brings in the way of his music and story telling.
Once he’s introduced by the Campanile Center’s Woody Woodruff, Staines walks onto the stage, wearing a hat and carrying his 1963 Martin guitar.
Staines said later he takes the Martin on the road when he’s driving and has other guitars for the times his destinations require plane flights as he won’t take the Martin aboard an airplane.
He bought the Martin in 1965 from someone who needed some money in a hurry.
“I was playing a coffeehouse and there was this fella, the roommate of a friend of mine,” he said. “For one reason or another, he needed money right on the spot. I was going to buy a car the next day and I was up on stage and Donnie comes in and says, ‘Do you know anyone who wants to buy a guitar? I need some money real fast.’ I said ‘Donnie, I’ve got $125 in my pocket’... I always wanted a Martin. He said ‘I’ll take it!’ I never did get that car.”
It’s that type of storytelling, taking seemingly everyday happenings and turning them into songs, that has made the 67-year-old Staines popular in folk music circles for many years.
Bill Staines was born in Medford, Mass., and has been writing, singing and performing his music full-time since 1969.
However, after graduating high school he got his real start playing and singing part-time at a place in Lexington, Mass., called The Barn.
“Basically, it was a barn behind this house that belonged to this family, the Brodericks, and Mrs. Broderick was a police woman in town,” Staines said.
Every other Saturday, there would be a coffeehouse at The Barn.
“We used to get all these great people,” he said. “A full house was like 50 or 60 teenagers and they were all really into folk music.”
Folk artists such as Tom Rush would play at The Barn.
“Mrs. Broderick was really behind it because it kept a lot of kids off the streets,” Staines said. “It was great. It ran for about a year and a half and then the barn burned down. That was the end of our coffeehouse.”
The coffeehouse at The Barn had been a part-time thing as Staines went to work for Sears Roebuck and Company following his graduation from high school in 1964.
In addition to his job at Sears, Staines continued his performances in the northeast U.S. and into Canada.
“I was singing in the coffeehouses at night and working for Sears during the day,” he said. “I ran a warehouse and had to be at work at five o’clock in the morning to load these trucks.”
After working at Sears for awhile, he had back surgery and after he was called up for military service in Vietnam, ultimately was turned down because of back issues.
Staines said it took about two years for his back to heal properly.
“During that time, I never went back to Sears and started doing music full-time in ‘69,” he said. “The back operation is the real reason I decided to do this full-time. By then, I was actually making more money singing than I was working for Sears.”
He said his horizons were also expanding.
“I was working in places like Saratoga, New York and Montreal,” Staines said. “In ‘70 I went to Texas for the first time and played down there. So, my world was getting bigger and bigger.”
The stop at the Campanile Center was a last-minute booking on Staines’ current tour that has approximately 80 dates from March through year’s end, and will take him across the country.
Many of those performances, such as the one in Minocqua and several prior shows in Wisconsin towns such as Algoma and Antigo, he drives to from his home in New Hampshire.
There are occasions when he flies, but he does much of his touring by driving to where he will perform.
His current vehicle of choice: a 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Even when telling the story of how he got this Jeep Cherokee, you can’t help but thinking about, and appreciating, the story-telling ability of Bill Staines.
“It has about 275,000 miles on it,” he said. “When I got this one, it was from a local car dealer who was going out of business. The guy got up one day, he was in his 80s, and said, ‘I want this lot cleared up by January. I’m closing the place down.’ All these people had worked there for years and it came as a shock to them.”
The Grand Cherokee, he said, had about 90,000 miles on it. He bought it for $9,000.
“Which is about a year and a half of driving for me,” Staines said. “My previous Jeep had 427,000 miles on it.”
That vehicle was a 2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
“My wife went on Craig’s List and sold the old Jeep (the 2002) for $1,500,” he chuckled. “That old Jeep was great. I’d take it to California 15 times. I loved that car.”
Talent runs in the family
While Staines has carved out a successful career with singing, songwriting and performing, the rest of his family is also successful in their own way.
His wife of 37 years, Karen, is the executive director of a private school for children with learning disabilities.
“She hired me to play at her coffeehouse at her school, which is how we met,” Staines said. “It was actually the coffeehouse board that hired me but she happened to be the coffeehouse chairman that night. We just hit it off.”
They have a son, Bowen.
“He’s a videographer,” Staines said. “He does documentaries and freelance stuff. The last couple of years, he’s been doing music videos.”
He added a smile.
“For Icelandic heavy metal bands,” he said.
After 26 recordings, two songbooks and decades of touring, Staines said he plans to keep going.
He said one of the things he continues to look for are what he refers to as those “little victories.”
“I love playing for people,” Staines said. “I love writing songs. There are people who live to write and there are people who live to live and write about it. I have these things called ‘little victories.’ They’re these things that happen ... someone will call me up and say ‘You know, I heard one of your songs on an icebreaker in Antarctica’ or Peter Yarrow [of Peter, Paul and Mary] will call me and say ‘We’re recording your song’ or some book company calls and they say ‘We want to put one of your songs in a third grade music book.’ These are the things, these little victories and I look forward to those. And they happen. Every day is an adventure.”
Asked about retirement itself, Staines refers to a friend of his, Tommy Makem, an Irish folk musician who passed away in 2007.
“People would ask him, ‘When are you going to retire?’” Staines said. “Tommy would say, ‘Oh, about ten o’clock tonight.’”
For the Minocqua performance on this cold, last day of February, Staines goes through his set for the evening.
It’s a mix of songs off of his latest recordings as well as an occasional song he might have done decades ago and only recently added to the song list again.
Looking around the audience, people are mouthing the words or actually singing along with Bill Staines.
He definitely has their attention.
Brian Jopek may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.