Interview: Folk legend Bill Staines

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Bill Staines makes real warm music. His is a soul-comforting sound, the kind of sound that goes down well with your morning coffee, a late-night taste of wine and cheese, or any time you simply need to take space and calmly reflect. He plays fine folk music graced by his gift as an engaging lyricist. Brandishing innate authority, Staines helps sustain the genre that has produced such classic songs as Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.” A recording artist for St. Paul’s Red House label, Bill Staines is a true joy behind the mic.

Bill Staines appears this Saturday, February 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society, 900 Mount Curve Avenue, Minneapolis. For ticket information, see newfolk.org.


The liner notes for your latest album, Old Dog, feature a conversation between you and the wind. It ends with the wind saying, “I think you still have a long way to go.” How do you feel about how far you’ve come?
How do I feel about how far I’ve come? I guess that if one can make a living in music for almost 40 years, that is a special thing. I’ve always thought that if one can make a living at it for 25 years, they have to become one of two things: either a star or a legend. Everyone knows the stars and all the stars know the legends. Just to have a place in the music world and to bring something of value to people is a great reward.

Libba Cotten, of course, is an historic icon. How did you feel about covering her on the album with the medley “Freight Train”/”Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie”? Did you have any concerns about doing her justice?
I never felt as if I had to worry about whether I did Libba’s songs justice. I feel that when a song is written, it becomes a child in the world. It grows and develops relationships with those who listen to the song that eventually have nothing to do with the writer. I would hope that she would be happy with the way I recorded the song, but the song is out there living its own life.

How satisfied are you with your years of having recorded at Red House?
Red House has been a real home for me since 1993. They are excited about all of their artists. I have never felt as if they were doing me a favor by recording me. Their dedication and friendships with their artists are the foundation for their success.

For Old Dog, you didn’t go for a roundup of big-name session players. What prompted you to chose these backup musicians?
I have a core group of musical friends in the Boston area, where I am from. These guys are great musicians and they enjoy playing on the recordings. They are as good as any of the industry sidemen, and I love them all.

Why’d you decide to choose music as your calling?
I never had a great ambition to be a musician. I just loved folk music, and it just chose me.

Who are your greatest musical influences?
I suppose my greatest influences were all of the people I met in the Boston and Cambridge folk scene in the 60s. Jackie Washington, Tom Rush, Jim Kweskin, Dick and Mimi Fariña, Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot…so many others.

What’s next?
I guess whatever shows up around the next bend in the road. I want to write and record and just be able to bring music—and something of value—to people.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.

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