Bill & Bonnie Hearne – Outlaws in Exile
Who says a long-term stint at a hotel bar in a tourist town is a dead-end gig for musicians? For Bill and Bonnie Hearne, a longtime Wednesday and Thursday night engagement at La Fonda — Santa Fe’s oldest hotel, and one of its fanciest — turned out to be a blessing.
One night in May 1999, on a visit to New Mexico, record producer John Wooler stayed at La Fonda and happened to stop by the bar when the veteran country-folk duo was playing.
“He heard us do ‘New Mexico Rain’,” said Bonnie, referring to the couple’s signature tune, written by Bill’s nephew Michael Hearne. “And he heard us do ’18 Inches Of Rain’ and he bought our best-of CD.” (Most Requested Plus, on Dallas label Poor David’s Records).
And the next thing Bill and Bonnie knew, Wooler had secured them three tracks on The I-40 Chronicles, the first of several planned compilations for Back Porch, the new Americana imprint of Virgin Records.
In addition to the two “rain” songs named above, the couple do a vibrant version of a song written by Guy Clark and popularized by Jerry Jeff Walker. “John asked us if we knew ‘L.A. Freeway’,” said Bonnie with a giggle. “We’ve been doing that song for about 25 years.”
Those three songs sidle up against songs by Willie Nelson, Joe Ely, Charlie Musselwhite, Buena Vista Social Clubber Eliades Ochoa, Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz and fellow Santa Fe area singer Cherokee Rose.
From that compilation, which came out in March, sprang a new Bill and Bonnie Hearne album on Back Porch. As with The I-40 Chronicles, Wooler co-produced the Hearnes’ Watching Life Through A Windshield with partner Randy Jacobs.
The Hearnes are not strangers to the recording studio, nor even to large record companies. In 1997, the Warner Brothers subsidiary Warner Western released the couple’s Diamonds In The Rough, recorded in Austin and Nashville with guests including Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Jerry Jeff Walker and Tish Hinojosa. That album rose to #5 on Gavin magazine’s Americana chart, but Warner Western fell by the wayside during the Great Recording Industry Implosion of the late ’90s.
In addition, before Warner Western evaporated, Bonnie came down with colitis, a digestive ailment she believes she developed from the stress of touring. For several months Bonnie stopped performing altogether, leaving Bill as a solo act.
Wooler and Back Porch came along at a very opportune moment for Bill, 50, and Bonnie, 52, right as they were getting back on their feet. Recorded in Los Angeles, Watching Life Through A Windshield features several familiar songs — Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, Clark’s “L.A. Freeway”, Butch Hancock’s “She Never Spoke Spanish To Me”, and James Taylor’s greatest country song, “Bartender’s Blues”. But the real gems are the lesser-known tunes, such as Chuck Pyle’s “Drifter’s Wind” and “Dare of An Angel”, Bonnie’s only solo song on the album.
As on their previous album, Bill and Bonnie are joined on Windshield by an impressive bevy of guest stars. Emmylou Harris sings harmonies on “L.A. Freeway”. Chris Hillman joins Bill and Bonnie on “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (which he recorded with the Byrds three decades ago) and several others, as does Hillman’s frequent musical partner Herb Pedersen. The Cousin Lovers back the Hearnes on “Lookin’ At The World Through A Windshield”. Even Buck Owens chimes in, trading verses with Bill on “The King Of Fools”.
“I always have idolized Buck Owens,” Bill says. “Back in high school when everyone else was really into the Beatles, I was the same way about Buck Owens & the Buckaroos. I just loved them.”
Bill told Wooler that he’d like to have Owens sing on the album. The producer sent a tape of the Hearnes’ version of “The King Of Fools”, and Owens agreed to add his vocals. Bill’s only disappointment was that Owens recorded his part in Bakersfield, so Bill did not get to meet his idol.
Bonnie’s primary disappointment is that she sings lead on just one and a half of the 13 songs — “The Dare of Angels” and “Fools For Each Other”, a duet with Bill.
“John [Wooler] is really enamored with Bill’s flat picking and his voice,” Bonnie said. “This album really focuses on that….I’m not saying I wanted it to be 50/50, but 75/25 would have been nice.”
Bill and Bonnie, both native Texans, have been singing with each other for nearly a third of a century. Bill hails from Dallas, while Bonnie was born east of there in a town called Corsicana.
Both are severely sight-impaired. Bonnie has been completely blind since she was 9 years old, while Bill is legally blind. He can see well enough out of one eye to play golf, but you won’t find him driving a car — though he poses in the driver’s seat of a convertible on the cover of Watching Life Through A Windshield.
Bonnie learned to play piano as a child at the Texas School for the Blind in Austin. Her early influences were gospel and folk music. Bill, meanwhile, was into what he calls “hardcore honky-tonk” — Owens, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price and the like — though he also is partial to folk singers such as Ian Tyson, Chuck Pyle and Gordon Lightfoot.
The couple met through a mutual friend in Austin in 1968, soon after Bonnie got a degree in sociology at the University of Texas. Bill had enrolled at the university. They got together and sang a few old Ian & Sylvia tunes. “I was trying to play guitar then,” Bonnie recalled. “It wasn’t cool to play piano at that point.”
The couple became regulars at the Chequered Flag and other small clubs. It was soon after this, in the early ’70s, that Austin emerged the epicenter of “outlaw country.” Willie Nelson moved from Nashville to Austin and released Red Headed Stranger; Jerry Jeff Walker sang Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother” (which Bill and Bonnie also covered in the mid-’70s); Michael Murphey fashioned himself as a “cosmic cowboy.”
Amidst the outlaw uprising, Bill and Bonnie first played Santa Fe before a large, appreciative and inebriated crowd at the Bourbon & Blues. This was the same bar (long closed) in which Jamie Brown, the Santa Fe kid who someday would be known as Junior Brown, played with local band the Last Mile Ramblers.
Although they never got as famous as many of their Austin peers, Bill and Bonnie were part of that landscape. During those years they influenced then-unknown youngsters such as Nanci Griffith — who has recalled in interviews how she used to sneak into bars to hear Bill and Bonnie when she was too young to be there legally — and Lyle Lovett, who once opened a show for the Hearnes.
But even though they were well-respected by fellow musicians and future musicians, the Hearnes — who don’t drink or smoke and never considered themselves outlaws, much less “cosmic” — didn’t quite fit in with the wild anarchic Austin scene.
The gentler atmosphere of the Kerrville Folk Festival was more their speed. They played at the first festival in 1972 and have returned just about every year since.
By the late ’70s, outlaw country seemed to be sinking out of sight. Bill and Bonnie were ready to move. They chose the ski country of northern New Mexico.
The Hearnes first settled in Red River, where they became favorites of the ski crowds, many of them Texans. Even if they were unfamiliar with Bill & Bonnie, they personally related to the Texas-ness in the music.
After the oil bust of the late ’80s started drying up the number of tourists staying at ski resorts, the couple moved to Santa Fe in 1991. They have lived there ever since.
Between 1977 and 1993, the couple recorded six albums (some released only as cassettes) on small labels such as Poor David’s and B.F. Deal. Bonnie recorded a solo album in 1995, the cassette-only Saturday Night Girl, consisting of autobiographical songs.
In the wake of Diamonds In The Rough, Bill and Bonnie started making inroads to audiences far beyond New Mexico and Texas. They opened for Lovett in New England and at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. They played Merlefest in North Carolina and the National Folk Alliance convention in Nashville. Bonnie’s colitis hit her hard at a festival gig in Central City, Colorado, leading to her decision to take a sabbatical.
Bonnie says she is completely over her illness now, and both she and Bill are eager to start touring to promote the album.
Meanwhile, they still play every Wednesday and Thursday night at La Fonda. You never know who might stop in and hear the music.