I was sad to read the New York Times obituary this week for Bill Staines, a folk singer and songwriter from New Hampshire who died last month at age 74. Bill was the first guest I ever booked for a public radio show and easily one of the nicest. And best.
This was in 2004, when I was an intern on my station’s nightly talk show, The Front Porch. Back then I was a pretty good sound editor, so most of my work for the summer was cutting down interviews so they were the right length and formatting them to run on the air. And that was a useful job, but most of what the show’s producers did was find people to interview and get them on the show. That I was not good at. I’d only lived in New Hampshire for a couple years, so I didn’t know who to talk to or even where to look. And so I have to confess that a lot of my time was spent doing Google searches for “New Hampshire artists” or “New Hampshire authors” or “people from New Hampshire.” The low point here was the couple days I spent once looking into whether two pro wrestlers with ties to the state might make good guests; by all accounts they would not have, while I totally missed the state’s one pro wrestler who would have been a good guest, the Lobsterman (no joke, he wrestled in a giant lobster costume).
But then I remembered the Bill Staines concert I’d seen a year or so in southern New Hampshire. My wife had crossed paths with the well-traveled folksinger during her own travels, and wore out a cassette copy of his album “The Whistle of the Jay” (we picked up a CD at his show). Bill won me over that night too. He played and sang great, of course, and he may have even done some yodeling (he was, after all, the 1975 National Yodeling Champion). But what really impressed me was how open he was with the audience. Before the show he sat out in the open in the middle of the club – no waiting in the wings to make a dramatic entrance! He sold his own merchandise from his own table and chatted with everyone who came up. When it was time to play, he got up, walked onto the stage and started his set, where he told all of us we not only could sing along, he wanted us to. It was a great night.
The station also had a folk show every Sunday night, so folk musicians didn’t often end up on The Front Porch. But Bill had just written a memoir, “The Tour,” about his early days as a musician and his many years traveling and performing. So I got the green light from my bosses to reach out.
It’s unfair but true that Interns aren’t always the person a potential guest wants to hear from. If I’m a big enough deal to be on your show, shouldn’t I hear from an actual employee? Plus, I think my email address was “FPIntern”; not exactly a name that’s going to light up somebody’s inbox. But Bill wrote back himself, said he’d be happy to send us a review copy of the book and added that he’d be happy to talk with me for the “pre-interview,” an important part of show prep where you find out what the guest can talk about so the host knows what kinds of questions to ask.
Often these are done by phone but Bill said he’d be happy to meet in person at a coffee shop not far from where he and I both lived. We got together on a Saturday morning, and he couldn’t have been more generous with his time or his stories. He explained that he’d fallen in love with folk music at shows where the audiences sang along with the performers, and he wanted to keep that tradition going. He told me about how he knew that he’d finished writing a song when he heard it back and started crying, and he explained the ritual his family had at the start of each tour, linking arms in the driveway before he got in the car (and he did that a lot; he traveled literally millions of miles during his career). The interview isn’t on the station’s website anymore, from the looks of it, but it was wonderful. I felt pretty smart for suggesting him as a guest.
Bill recorded and toured and performed for another decade and a half after that interview, and looking at his website, he even had shows booked through the middle of this year. I was touched by the lovely note about his passing on his website, which notes that “despite his long weeks, years, and three million miles on the road, he always came home to his family.” I of course can’t speak for Bill about whether he wished he could have been a bigger name and played bigger halls less often, maybe spending less time on the road and more time at home with his family. But in the little time I spent with him, I could see how bigger wasn’t always better. Playing in small concert halls, coffeehouses, and sometimes in people’s houses, he could really reach people. The audience could see him and he could see them. He’d start a song and the audience would share it with him, just as he had shared songs with the folksingers he’d idolized in Boston and Cambridge growing up.
I feel pretty lucky that he shared a little of that with me too. Thanks, Bill. It was a great tour.