The number 3 million has a special meaning to folk singer-songwriter Bill Staines.
It doesn’t stand for the amount of people he’s played for or the accolades he’s received. It’s the number of miles he’s driven during his five-decade career in music.
“Years ago, when I got my first car, for some reason I started keeping a log with the beginning and ending mileage for each of my cars,” Staines says on a phone call ahead of his stop at Riverviews Artspace on Friday. “I don’t know why I did that, but I’m glad that I did.”
Staines’ travels on the road and the people he has met along the way make up a large part of the numerous songs he has written.
“You really get to know the country intimately and the people,” Staines says, “the way they think about their section of the world and the way they think about their home.”
Dubbed one of America’s great troubadours, Staines came up in the Cambridge folk scene during the early 1960s, watching Joan Baez when she came through town, playing poker with Tim Hardin and performing during gigs scored for him by Jerry Corbitt of future Youngbloods fame.
“I was four or five years younger than all these other people,” Staines says, “but it was such a wonderful scene to grow up in because I was surrounded by all these people.”
Staines’ name recognition spread further west when he started performing on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” in the ’70s.
Fifty-four years later, he has recorded 27 albums and written just under 300 songs, some of which have been recorded by artists including Peter, Paul and Mary; Nanci Griffith; and Glen Yarbrough.
He was even named one of the “80 Gifts New England Gave America” in the 80th anniversary issue of Yankee magazine in 2015; others who made the list included Ken Burns, W.E.B. Du Bois and Stephen King.
Staines has played in just about every part of the country, though Friday’s concert will be his first show in Lynchburg, which is something of an oddity considering his wife is from the Hill City.
“They visit her mother here regularly, but he had never played here,” says Riverviews board member David Neumeyer, who booked the Lynchburg concert. “How could we not host him?”
Despite growing up just north of Boston, Staines describes himself as a country songwriter. But not in the sense of country and western, he adds.
“There are people, like Paul Simon for instance, that write about the city a lot,” says Staines. “... I tend to write more about the open road and something that's not urban.”
Weeks and months spent on the road have spawned several records — The Million Miles series as he calls them — including his latest, “The Third Million Miles,” which dropped last year.
Singing of falling in love at the county fair, of cowboys drenched in the splendid sun and dreamers winding their way through wind-swept prairies and majestic forests, Staines’ lyrics speak to a time long forgotten in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
“His music is focused on the basic themes of life, and he delivers it with simple but poetic words and guitar,” says Neumeyer.
This simplicity and openness is what Geoffrey Himes, of The Washington Post, recognized in 1991 when he described Staines as “a very hard-working craftsman who has cobbled together evocative details, pithy aphorisms and sing-along melodies into a trunkful of marvelous songs.”
Like all things in life, Staines says his songwriting has matured over time.
Some of those people, places and events that once inspired him don’t hold the same resonance anymore.
“When I’m writing songs, I try to bring something of value to people,” he says. “I don’t want to get up in the morning and write about my car keys or my coffee cup or something like that.”
Because of this change in perspective, Staines says he’s writing less, but the songs he creates mean more and stay in his heart longer.
“The way I put it is it used to be, to reach me emotionally, was like trying to go through chicken wire and now it’s like trying to go through a coffee filter,” he explains. “It takes a whole lot to get into the place where I want to write about something.”
On “The Third Million Miles,” there’s a song about a little beach town in California he loves to visit, a number about man’s best furry friends and a love letter to his home of New England.
Folk music tells the story of who we are as people, and that is why it resonates with audiences across the country, the storied songwriter says.
“I don’t think you have to be fancy and fast to make a statement and be heard.”