EVEN WHEN THEY were starting out as an unknown folk duo in Austin back in the early Seventies, playing coffeehouses and bars, Bill and Bonnie Hearne never once drove themselves to a gig. It was not a pretension to stardom, but a simple matter of ways and means. The Hearnes were then, as they are now, blind.
Itinerant musicianship below the level occupied by Sting and Wynonna is a tough enough road financially without requiring, as it does for the Hearnes, the paid services of at least one extra person to drive their van, wrangle the sound equipment, and find a Denny’s at midnight. If that person also can play bass, all the better.
Many are the days and nights of the past 25 years that the Hearnes have coped with such economic and logistical challenges as they have sung their way to a harmonious prominence in the oral histories of all the songpoet bars and sweeter honky-tonks of Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. A few years ago, Nanci Griffith notably singled them out for praise in dedicating her Grammy Award-winning folk revival album Other Voices, Other Rooms to, among others, “Bill and Bonnie Hearne, who play the best damn folk music I ever heard.”
Younger and more famous Texas country-folk performers such as Lyle Lovett and Tish Hinojosa have sworn oaths of influence and indebtedness to them. “They used to play a place called Corky’s in the Montrose area of Houston,” Lovett explained recently on The Nashville Network. “I would get a seat right up next to the stage and sit in front of Bill and try to figure out all his guitar licks.”
Yet in the thundering herd of cosmic and other cowboys who descended on Austin in the past two decades, waving guitars and big-label recording contracts, the Hearnes were much overlooked. In the singer-songwriter market, they were not primarily singer-songwriters but pedal-to-the-metal pickers and players – Bill on guitar, Bonnie on piano – and powerful interpreters of songs no one else had done quite as well. Humble in appearance, their body language different from people who have grown up able to see, their cause was not helped by the onset of the music video age and its worship of youth and beauty. They remained underground heroes, known to musicians and aficionados as the real deal: a totally unaffected pure-blend essence of something unmistakably and wonderfully Southwestern.
Former University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal, one of the aficionados, said that listening to the Hearnes produced in him “the same pure feeling as hitting a golf ball square in the sweet spot.”
It would appear that more people around the country at last are going to get the chance to apply Royal’s metaphor first hand – or, if they don’t play golf, come up with their own.
After recording a handful of low-budget albums through the years that were largely available only at their shows, the Hearnes have made a big-time CD for Warner Western, Diamonds in the Rough, produced by Jim Ritchey, the man who produces Iris Dement, Hal Ketchum and Nanci Griffith. Griffith appears on the album, as do other marquee talent such as Lovett, Hinojosa, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Mickey Raphael. For the first time, the Hearnes are on the charts and in the music stores, they’re on the radio in Boston, they’ve done a showcase in Nashville, and played National Public Radio’s Mountain Stage, with Ian Tyson, one of their early heroes.
Reviewing Diamonds in the Rough in the Washington Post, critic Mike Joyce said about them: “The history of country music is dotted with recordings by great pairings – the Louvin Brothers, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and the Judds, to name a few. Now, Bill and Bonnie Hearne can be added to the list purely on the strength of their major label debut.”
“WE’RE BILL AND BONNIE HEARNE, Warner Western recording artists,” Bill announces from the stage of Gruene Hall in Gruene, Texas, on a recent Sunday afternoon. There’s an ebullience in his voice very much at odds with the usual world-weary pose of the country troubadour.
“There’s no smoke and mirrors in what we do,” he says. “What you see is what you get. And we’re not a jukebox.” In other words, please don’t request the country version of “The Macarena.”
Backed by their latest “seeing-eye bass player,” John Egenes, Bill and Bonnie head off into a couple of sets built around songs from the new album: “New Mexico Rain,” by their nephew Mike Hearne; Eliza Gilkyson’s “Rose of Sharon”; and “Every Drop of Water,” by Allen Shamblin and Steve Seskin. The last contains the lyric the Hearnes have used for their title: We’re all diamonds on the rough/But we’ll shine soon enough/The tears of joy and sorrow lead you home/Every drop of water shapes a stone.
“That song is their story,” producer Rooney says. “”Every time I hear it I’m touched by it. They found it on an old Ricky Skaggs record. They devour albums.”
Each number they do from the stage of this cotton-mill-turned-dance-hall built in 1878 is a sample of the higher form of narrative ballad being written today by songwriters whose work is rarely heard outside of noncommercial radio and live “alternative country” performances such as this one.
Bill stands up front, acoustic guitar raised high on his midriff to facilitate his fret-dancing, flat-picking attack. Bald, with big ears and glasses thick as coasters, he wears a bright-red western shirt and jeans. Bonnie is seated behind her husband and to the side, hunched over an electric keyboard that she flails in a faultless honky-tonk style. Her black hair cropped short, she wears dark sunglasses, heart-shaped turquoise earrings, a blue-checked rodeo shirt, and, like Bill, a string tie.
Bonnie thinks of their style as “bluegrass with gospel rhythm.” And you get all the words. “We would like for people not to need a lyric sheet when they hear our songs,” she says.
“Here’s a great song, one of my favorites these days,” Bill says, introducing Steve Gillette’s and Charles John Quarto’s “Grapes on the Vine,” about a modern-day hobo, that leads off the album.
When they launch into Roger Miller’s swing tune “Invitation to the Blues,” five or six couples get up and start to two-step around the dance floor in the late afternoon light.
Back in Santa Fe, where the Hearnes now live and play every Wednesday and Thursday night at the historic La Fonda Hotel, they are known as one of the few folk duos you can dance to. “Both of them have great rhythm,” says Rooney. “And Bill is an incredible guitarist. He plays rhythm and lead at the same time. Which you have to do when people are dancing – you can’t let the beat go. And Bonnie has a great left hand playing the piano. They have a lot of movement in their music, which I really like.”
Craig Barker, who is married to and manages Tish Hinojosa and was once the Hearnes’ bass player, says that to play with them, “you had to be imbued with something other than the ability to count.”
“There’s no question that their handicaps have influenced the way they interact with the world and focused them intensely on what they do,” says John Egenes, whom the Hearnes credit with nudging them repeatedly to find the backing to make the album.
Here in this Texas Hill Country tour stop, fans have driven in from San Antonio, Austin, and beyond to dance and also to sing along on the older songs. Between sets the Hearnes come out front and sit with the folks, greeting old friends and receiving testimonials from admirers. It is a familial, friendly vibe they give off, untainted by the aura of show business.
Hinojosa has stopped by after a matinee concert of her own in San Antonio and joins them onstage for two songs. “We’re all so happy for them,” she says later.
After the show, with rain from a sudden thunderstorm pounding the corrugated metal roof of the dance hall, Bill sits down and has his first beer of the evening. “We’ve stuck to our guns,” he says of their decades-long battle to sing the best songs by the best writers despite the usual pressures from bar owners to do more current pop hit material. “We never sold out. We might have done some things to get by, but we never sold our saddle, as Ian Tyson says.”
BOTH BILL AND BONNIE were born with degenerative cataracts that took their sight away at an early age. Bill has a shred remaining – his left eye is 20/100 corrected vision, and if he presses his glasses almost point blank at a restaurant menu, he can slowly make out the highlights.
Now 48, Bill grew up middle class in Dallas; Bonnie, 51, was born in Corsicana, south of Dallas, and spent her early years in poverty so grim she was removed from her parents to a foster home. Eventually she was sent to the Texas School for the Blind in Austin.
Bonnie studied piano in school and, despite her Baptist upbringing, had played in her first bar by the time she was 16. “I was influenced by the music I heard in church, but later by Linda Ronstadt and Carole King,” she says.
“Bonnie was more plugged into the folk thing than I was,” says Bill, who as a kid listened avidly to the Grand Ole Opry and local country music shows in Dallas. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were heroes. And Ray Price. “When Ray Price went pop, it broke my heart,” he says.
Because of his visual impairment, he not only couldn’t play sports but also wasn’t asked to be in any bands in high school, though he had been playing the guitar from the age of nine. Instead he spent long hours at home playing by himself, trying to emulate the complete sound of Buck Owens’ Buckaroos on record. Which, he says, is how he developed his picking-and-driving-in-one style.
A mutual friend who had gone to special education classes with Bill gave him Bonnie’s phone number in 1968, just after Bonnie had graduated from the University of Texas and Bill was a freshman there. Bill called her up, as Bonnie remembers, “And I said, ‘Come on over.’ We started playin’ Gordon Lightfoot songs and Ian & Sylvia. I guess we could tell something pretty special was happening with the harmonies.”
Bonnie had been planning to get one of the jobs then open to blind people, transcribing medical records. Instead she married Bill, and they joined the long-haired Tony Lama boot brigade and Austin nightlife fandango that took over after Willie Nelson came home to Texas from Nashville in 1972.
For years, Nelson invited them to be part of the entertainment at his annual celebrity golf tournament, and if Willie’s regular piano player wasn’t around, Bonnie often was asked to fill in when Willie himself took the stage.
“I learned more about chord progressions from Willie than probably anybody else in the world,” Bonnie says.
“Boy, I’m tellin’ you, he knows a bunch,” says Bill.
Gradually the two of them fused Bakersfield country and urban folk; as the years passed, it became increasingly clear that the sound was entirely their own. Bill has a mellow baritone that he can shake loose into a gritty vibrato as needed while Bonnie soars above him with soft, husky high notes. Bill has the heavier accent. When he pronounces the word “hired,” it can come out “hard.”
“The Seventies in Austin were pretty crazy times,” Bonnie says. “We didn’t do as many drugs or drink quite as hard as some of them. It was a scene, too much of a scene probably for us.”
In 1979, tiring of the hustle and grind, they left Austin and moved to Red River, New Mexico, where they had been offered a steady job six months of the year at a ski lodge. For a couple challenged daily by “visual impairment,” as Bill puts it, Red River was an easier life. It was small enough that they could get around without having to be driven everywhere.
But as Austin music friend and former restaurant owner Segle Fry puts it, “They disappeared into the New Mexico vortex for a few years.”
Rooney first heard them play at Texas’ Kerrville Folk Festival in 1985. “I just thought they were great,” the producer says. He tried to get them a deal right away at Rounder Records, Griffith’s label at the time. He was unsuccessful but told the Hearnes he still wanted to work with them some day. Then ten years passed. “I don’t get out to New Mexico much,” says Rooney, who is based in Nashville.
Last year, Bill called him and said he had found an angel, a friend from Iowa who had made enough money from a dozen Wendy’s franchises to back a first-class studio album. Rooney flew immediately to Santa Fe to talk about it. He agreed to waive his usual fee to produce it, with the hope of getting a major label interested. “I went to see them play, and I just got sold immediately all over again. There’s something refreshing about them. Part of it’s the range of emotions they tap and part of it’s their sincerity. We’ve all gotten so jaded, and when you encounter it, it makes an impression on you.”
Under Rooney’s supervision, Bill and Bonnie recorded Diamonds in the Rough in Austin and Nashville with a supporting cast of all-star session players, in addition to Lovett, Walker, and company. Warner Western bought the finished product not long after Rooney began to circulate it in Nashville.
“We did it live, with everyone in the studio,” Bill says. “It wasn’t like Lyle came in and slapped it down. We were all there. There was minimal overdubbing. You know, this is folk music. We don’t want it to be too slick.”
“No one has any expectations that Bill and Bonnie are going to rocket to stardom and sell a million records,” says Rooney. “The stars in this world, like John Prine and Nanci Griffith, sell 200,000-300,000 [units], but there are a lot of artists in this field who are really good who go along in the neighborhood of 20,000, 30,000, 40,000. You can have a career at that level. You have to work at it and go out there and play a lot. But that’s not a problem for Bill and Bonnie.”
“We’re not travelin’ in limos,” says Bill, “but who needs that? We don’t need a Silver Eagle bus. We don’t have to stay at the Hyatt Regency. We just want to get out of the bars. We want somethin’ a little better.”
It would be hard to find an acoustic musician in Texas who wouldn’t agree the Hearnes deserve at least as much.
“I can remember the first time I saw them at Kerrville,” says Sixties’ folk legend Carolyn Hester. “I thought it took some bravery for them just to get up on the stage, and then they made you feel at home. This is a record whose time has come. Enough already.”
Southwest Spirit 1997