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Tribute planned for late musician Bill Staines

Bill Staines performing at Caffé Lena in Saratoga Springs
Photo provided by Caffe Lena
Bill Staines performing at Caffé Lena in Saratoga Springs

A tribute is planned in Saratoga Springs for a folk musician who traveled the country for six decades but always came back to the Capital Region.

Those in folk music circles knew Bill Staines as one of the country’s greatest songwriters and storytellers.

The New England native who died in December of prostate cancer at age 74 is being celebrated with a tribute show at Saratoga Springs folk club Caffé Lena on January 22nd.

Sarah Craig, the Caffe’s executive director, says the history of the venue opened in 1960 is intertwined with Staines.

“We’ve been around for six decades and Bill Staines has been a part of every one of those decades. So he’s like a through-line for the Caffé Lena story that starts back in the ’60s and comes all the through the present. And in a world that’s changing so fast and with so many changes in the audience and everything, having that anchor to our heritage just feels very precious.”

With more than two dozen albums, Staines’ songs were covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Mason Williams, The Highwaymen, and Grandpa Jones – just to name a few. He traveled to every corner of the United States, but remained a regular performer at the Caffé, playing twice a year since his on-stage debut.

Staines made many longtime friends on the road, and several regional musicians will be performing his songs in the tribute.

Averill Park-based folk singer Chris Shaw will emcee. Like the others, he knew Staines for decades.

“The great thing that Bill could do is break down that barrier, break down the wall between…on the front of the stage, between the performer and the audience. About 30 seconds into a Bill Staines performance, you had the feeling that you were in a living room with him. It was not a distant relationship. And he always felt like…when he told his stories, like you were a friend being let in on a cool secret. And people respond to it and they should, because it’s brilliant. And I don’t think there’s anyone who did it any better than Bill," said Shaw.

Ballston Spa-based folk musician Dan Berggren says Staines inspired him to write about the people and places he knew, but also about common everyday things. Berggren will perform Staines’ song “Bridges” at the tribute.

“As the story goes, he was coming into Schenectady to perform. And as he crossed over the river, he noticed all these bridges. And it inspired him to write about these connections among us. It might have been inspired by a physical thing like a bridge, but it brought him into a place where he could talk about connections among us,” said Berggren.

Also singing in the tribute is Wanda Fischer, who has hosted WAMC’s Hudson River Sampler folk music show since 1982. Fischer said Staines, who recorded for popular but independent labels like Rounder Records, was a favorite with loyal fans.

“He never really needed to hire a radio promoter because he was a word-of-mouth type of person and his concerts always filled up, and I think part of his appeal and his charm was he loved it when people sang along. He loved getting the audience involved. And people would know when he played the first few chords of Roseville Fair that were going to be encourage and actually expected to sing along with the chorus,” said Fischer.

Caffé Lena’s tribute to Bill Staines is scheduled for January 22nd. The venue says what would have been Staines’ winter paycheck will be paid to his family. Attendees are required to show proof of vaccination and masks are required. A live stream will also be made available on Caffé Lena’s Facebook page. Music for this story was provided by Caffé Lena.

For more information visit caffelena.org

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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