Diversions: Remembering singer-songwriter Bill Staines

Leo Coffeehouse, a Sunday night staple in Cincinnati for decades, is the kind of place where you would typically hear Bill Staines sing his songs. Run by the all-volunteer Queen City Balladeers, Leo has been meeting for the last several years in a church fellowship hall, charging modest admission and featuring regular open-mic sessions as well as mostly local artists.

Bill Staines died in New Hampshire on December 5 at the age of 74. Leo’s typical “crowd” of fifty or so folk aficionados may have been one of his bigger audiences, as a house concert was also a common gig. Bill and I chatted briefly at Leo Coffeehouse about a decade ago after he signed my copy of his autobiography, The Tour.

That autobiography chronicled 35 years (now over half a century) of the road trips that he made several times every year, with up to 200 nights on the road. He would hit his regular stops like Leo and Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Ark, where word of mouth and social media drew small, loyal audiences, and where friends and strangers would invite him into their homes. He was a regular for many years on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion radio program in St. Paul, and he would pop up in small towns throughout the Midwest before and after those appearances.

I heard one fellow folk artist call Staines “the nicest guy on the folk circuit.” He was an affable and unassuming storyteller. It was usually just him and his guitar, which he played left-handed. Unlike myself and many other lefties who play mirror-image guitars, Bill played a normal-strung right-handed guitar upside-down, a technique I never could master. His set usually turned into a singalong because we knew all the words.

I had first seen Staines perform years earlier at Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of his “home gigs.” He was best known for three songs — the ballads “Roseville Fair” and “River,” and the popular children’s tune “A Place in the Choir.” He claimed not to have been a prolific songwriter, but between his own work and his excellent covers of other writers, his website says he recorded 26 albums of music, of which I own eleven. Here is a Spotify sampler of some of my favorites:

Especially since we lost an old beagle this past summer, the Bill Staines song that gets to me every time I hear it is “Old Dogs,” performed here in a typical house concert for just a few friends. That was his most comfortable musical setting, I think.

Old dogs come and old dogs go, old dogs always seem to know
That love is life’s most precious flow, and love is worth the waiting.
And when their time on earth is through, old dogs are forever true,
And ‘round the bend they wait for you come some tomorrow morning.

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