Bill Isles: Artist of Life

Andrew Olson

Reader Weekly

In 1971 Bill & Rose played the Ashland Folk Festival when Bill Isles was only 19 years old and in college. By age 23 years he and Rose had broken up and his guitar went into storage. Like a fine wine dying on the vine, though, Bill was plucked just in time 20 years later.

Lying on a hospital bed June 4, 1993 Bill thought he was dying. He was defibrillated, stented, angioplastied, and kept alive for a purpose; to create stories of what he had seen in life. In 1995 he picked up his pen to reflect and write poetry. He performed at the Nor Shor over the next two years where a young audience member once yelled out, "Here comes that old guy who tells stories." He later decided to dust the guitar off and begin a different journey as an artist of life.

Bill Isles has a new CD, his third, that reflects that journey, aptly named The Calling. The guitar styling and lyrics make it the best album to own this winter. It begins with the song "Out of Nowhere" which showcases his style of good ole' time folk and modern country. His voice is Randy Newman and Kenny Rogers, with a dash Lyle Lovett.

The song "Hobos in the Roundhouse" has recently made it onto the Folk-DJ charts. As Bill explains, "My grandfather, August, was a railroad roundhouse mechanic in Virginia, MN. He risked his job during the depression by letting hobos sleep indoors while he was on the midnight shift. I just learned this last year from a cousin I hadn't seen since the late '60's."

The heart of this song is when August has a moment of doubt: "I asked my Savior, 'What should I do? If I'm caught helping hobos my job could be through.' And I heard my answer, so clear and so bright, 'Are there hobos sleeping in your roundhouse tonight?'" Meaning that sometimes we need to go by conscience rather than follow orders. We don't get much reaffirmation of that these days. (As a side note, during the same period of time my own grandfather John Olson was traveling the rails, at age 14. For all I know he benefited from August's hospitality).

The next song, "Take it as it Comes," is gentle, relaxing and comforting, creating a visual picture. Bill picks the strings using a five-string capo and is reminiscent of folkies like Paul Simon or Jack Johnson. This song brought about a discussion about how hearing lyrics is an important and difficult aspect to music and performances today. Many bands out there get upset when an audience isn't transfixed by their music, so they resort to turning their amplifiers up and forcing them to listen. Bill prides himself on audiences being able to hear his lyrics at the live shows.

Written in Mazatlan after surfing was the poem "Nature Dance." The adventurous theme of the poem was adapted to the guitar and became a Johnny Horton type of song. It is a catchy tune that gets better as the song progresses and rolls into the namesake of the CD, "The Calling." This is a classically styled piece that blends music and lyrics with a Celtic-sounding flute played by David Young.

My favorite of the CD was the song called "Nerissa's Journey," an upbeat number that was written while Bill was sitting in a river and being influenced by Mars (while it was closer to Earth and brighter in the sky). The violin playing by Tom Schaefer fits the song like a marriage of two young lovers.

Which is the topic of another great piece on the CD that Bill wrote for his youngest daughter's (Martha Isles) wedding called "Father of the Bride Waltz." Teetering between polka and a sad love song, Bill captures the feeling of handing a daughter away. It is a beautiful song and gives a glimpse into the heart of a great songwriter.

The last few songs on the CD use slide guitar, soft and sensual lyrics, and even include a poetry performance. The very last number on the album, "Ain't It Funny" is a duet written by Bill's wife and co-vocalist Kate Isles. One of the best songs on the CD, Bill tweaked it with a weightless backpick on the guitar.

Many great songwriters never get a second chance as they get older. Recently Bob Dylan was in an interview saying that the gift of songwriting he had so long ago had passed him by. Luckily in Bill's case, he is only improving with age.

Bill Isles hosts Sir Ben's Tavern New Year's Day Folksong Round Robin/Jam at 7 p.m. (Jan. 1). Next weekend (Jan. 7) he plays at The Old Country Church Theatre in Atkinson, MN for his CD release of The Calling at 7:30 p.m.

Bill Isles: