Bill Stone is a retired school guidance counselor in his 70s who hadn’t picked up a guitar for years until his daughter got married a decade ago and asked him to play some music for her wedding like he’d done way back in the 1960s when he had ambitions of making it big.
So he took the old Martin D-35 guitar he’d plied in his salad days to the music shop, had it cleaned up – “dirtiest they ever seen,” he told me on the phone – and set to figure out how to play again.
“Arthritis had been setting into my hands,” Stone said, “but the more I practiced for this wedding, the better the arthritis was, so I didn’t dare stop.”
Like many of Maine’s local troubadours, he played some gigs, including a hosting role at van der Brew on Maranacook Lake near his home in Winthrop, made some good friends, earned a few bucks. It was nothing particularly special.
But then he ran across Nemo Bidstrup, proprietor of Time-Lag Records and a connoisseur of short-run, outsider records. Bidstrup introduced Stone to a world of collectors specializing in rarities, especially albums of folk and psychedelia. Because it just so happens that Stone’s 1969 album, “Stone,” has become one of those rarities.
“A European catalog lists my album as highly collectible,” Stone said. “I don’t even know how they knew it existed.”
It certainly wasn’t a big hit when Stone released it. He’d been playing around southern Maine, with guys like Tom and Bob Blackwell and Keith Hamilton, doing a year-long residency at a place called the Bard on Forest Avenue in Portland (“basically a hole in the wall”), plus some gigs at spots like Shakey’s in Westbrook (“basically a pizza place”), the Old Port Tavern, and the Eastland Hotel.
“That Eastland had an active venue at the time,” Stone said. “I had a guitar stolen off the stage there once. That was devastating. A D-28. Had to go out and buy the D-35 the next day.”
And then he hooked on with a guy (who asked that I do not identify him, and it’s really not important) who was looking to get started in the record business and was working with now-legendary folk group Devonsquare and wanted to produce Stone’s album.
Two-track Panasonic tape recorder in hand, Stone and his band – bass player Arthur Webster (who died in 2018), guitarist Tom Blackwell, drummer Skip Smith, and vocalist Beth Waterhouse – set up in the Boothbay High School art room to record over Christmas break. But then the basketball team showed up and started dribbling overhead.
They moved to a pottery studio in town, but there was a Siamese cat in heat. So they finished up in an apartment in Old Orchard Beach, a live band playing all the instruments into one track, then Stone and Waterhouse singing their parts into the other track.
The result was just the sort of lo-fi sound you hear on a lot of indie labels nowadays, places that issue short-run tapes and colored vinyl, where the packaging and aesthetic are part and parcel with the sound. It’s downright hip.
“Part Time Girl” is a country kind of number, with a shuffle to it, but also with a pop edge that sounds a bit like the Replacements. “Crystal Lover” is a sunshiney single, something like what the Jefferson Airplane were putting together at the time, mixed in with the Monkees. And Stone is a softspoken, quiet vocal throughout, friendly, easy-going, and the comforting, cheerful presence he remains to this day.
Folks who’ve been into Mmoss (not to be confused with Mosss, a pretty decent semi-electronic emo artist I just discovered by mistake) or Morgan Delt or Drugdealer will instantly hear the similarities, as they mine the material that was fresh and cutting-edge in Stone’s heyday and is now draped in retro nostalgia.
Perhaps that’s why it shouldn’t be surprising that Drag City Records came calling not long ago. They were interested in re-releasing “Stone.” Would that be alright? And would he like to make a virtual appearance at the Million Tongues Festival in February? And be interviewed for an article in the UK’s Shindig Magazine this month? And get a blurb in The New Yorker?
It’s all left Stone a little bit bemused.
“I think they’ve pretty much sold out of what they reprinted,” he said. “I’m not really sure what to make of it all. It’s a little frightening. As I read all of this hyperbole, now I’ve got to live up to this.”
Because he does have a CD in the can, ya know – “you can actually hear the words,” he said – and once the pandemic is behind us, he’s going to release it. We’ll see what his new fans make of that.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Wasted Heart, “Life out of Context” — From a brand-new pop-punk outfit fronted by Sterling Salzberg, this song is a lot of fun, with about 20 percent more edge than the Jersey rock purveyed by the Gaslight Anthem. Pretty easy to spin it three times in a row on the first go.
• Chicky Stoltz, “Camp Recording #4 Fantastic” — Old friend Chicky Stoltz checks in from his Vermont haunts with a solo full-length full of wit, warmth, and attention to detail. Like a less-bombastic Elbow, it is arch and playful and full of his easy hand on the percussion and sometimes a vaguely menacing xylophone. Incredibly executed.
• Kalie Shorr, “Amy” — Maine-to-Nashville transplant Shorr delivers a Grrrl-rock tear-down of a rival, and we can only hope the poor woman is imagined because this is savage: “Do you want the other half of my sandwich?/ Cuz I know how much you love my leftovers.”
• Genevieve Stokes, “Surface Tension” — The most exciting combination of vocal performance and songwriting since Lady Lamb the Beekeeper started blowing up Portland stages. She’s a bit of a dead ringer for UK sensation Birdy and a product of the Maine Academy of Modern (they can hang their hat on this graduate for decades). Just soul-splitting.
• Producedbygeorge & Myles Bullen, “clementines & mason jars” — A four-song piece of hip-hop in the jazzmatazz tradition, heavy on the horn samples and organ sounds, with a light touch of digital manipulation. The alternating verses are smooth and a bit melancholy.
— Sam Pfeifle