Local troubadour and studio owner Jono Manson calls him "one of the most intuitive players I've ever recorded;" his nephew and sometimes-partner Michael Hearne insists there's nobody in the world quite like like him; onetime bassist Margaret Burke says "there is no star power hierarchy in his dealings with humanity." He's shared a stage with Willie, recorded with Lyle Lovett and maintained a residency at the Hotel La Fonda for over a quarter-century.
Legend is an overused term in music, but it fits Bill Hearne.
I think of Hearne as a romantic old-timey Texas singer. His connection to a bygone era wherein country music makers plumbed the great publishing houses and played songs they didn't write remains strong. And he's conceived a signature guitar style, the alternating bass notes mingling with the brighter trill of the higher frets.
His approach is singular.
Without sounding trite, you might call Hearne an eccentric. He impeccably remembers everything that has ever happened to him, like the unofficial historian of his own life. You'll find Hearne performing in a big belt buckle and an even bigger cowboy hat on the Santa Fe Bandstand or at the La Fonda. At these shows, you'll never see him without his jeans or custom bolo tie, a pair of guitar picks dangling from its tips. He's got a custom Collings guitar, too, built just for him; the letters "BH" inlaid into the 12th fret. His folksy, homespun drawl feels right somehow. It's why I've been wanting to tell his story for ages, and it's why I visited him several times over the last month or so in his home to hear his tale.
"I grew up in Dallas, Texas," Hearne says. His home helper Donna has just let me into his apartment on the edge of town, where he sits in the chair that once belonged to his wife and musical cohort, Bonnie. She died in 2017, the day after Christmas, and Hearne says he has since "gravitated" toward her old spot.
He uses that word a lot in explaining how things came to be the way they are, almost as if he's been pulled by unknown forces his entire life: Toward music, toward New Mexico. But that discounts the work he's put in.
Hearne can play it off all he wants, yet the truth is plain—he's dedicated himself to music in a way people just don't bother to try anymore. He turned 70 last month, right around the time the Santa Fe Film Festival premiered the documentary short New Mexico Rain about him and Bonnie.
Having known Hearne for a decade, but not well, I figured it was time to get a better idea of his life. Partly for posterity, partly because there's a certain romance there. We started at the beginning.
Hearne was born in 1949 in suburban Dallas. His father worked for a paper company and his mother stayed home. He was the youngest of three brothers, one of whom has since died. The other, now 83, still lives in Dallas. Both, Hearne says, were out of the house by the time he was born, and his early years were more akin to those of an only child. One major difference was the congenital cataracts in his eyes, a lens opacity issue that presents at birth and causes visual impairment in children.
Hearne is essentially blind.
"It was pretty obvious from the get-go I had visual issues, but fortunately I don't really remember them," Hearne says. "From the time I was 3 or 4 months old until I was about 2 years old, I had a series of operations on my eyes—but it was pretty primitive what they could do at the time. They were able to save my right eye. The left they lost for reasons I'm not quite sure about. Anyway, I've got what I've got."
Hearne describes a lower-middle class beginning, but says, "We heaved our way into the middle-middle class." His mother struggled with depression, so he spent most of his time with his aunt and uncle. They'd gift him his first guitar and 45 player; they'd help him order records from the general store in their Dallas neighborhood.
"I distinctly remember hearing Fats Domino and Elvis," Hearne says. "I remember some country stuff, too. These were my first experiences with music."
Hearne recalls summer trips to visit an aunt in the Pineywoods area of East Texas where he fell into old 78s and other vinyl treasures. He learned about Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and developed a deeper appreciation for rockabilly and Western swing; the rawer country styles born of heartache, misery and, sometimes, things that went right.
"That excited me, but of course I couldn't go to clubs or honky-tonks—I was underage—but the songs about adultery, going out, raising hell," he says, "it was an energy of music I liked more so than the shlock that was coming out of Nashville created by people like Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley. They were looking for a bigger market and had to make armchair, living-room music with the slick and watered-down strings and pedal steel guitar."
Hearne sought out edgier sounds—the twang of the telecaster and the mournful wail of the fiddle; "the sheer frankness and drive of that music," he muses.
By junior high in the early 1960s, Hearne preferred music to attending classes. He was part of a special needs pilot program for students with visual impairments—the first of its kind in Texas public schools, he claims, but one that ultimately kept students out of the way rather than educate them in any meaningful manner. Rock 'n' roll was everywhere, which made playing with other musicians difficult for a fan of country-Western music.
Hearne took guitar lessons on and off in those years, but he also began developing his own style. In the mid-1960s, as musicians like Doc Watson found their way onto his growing list of favorites, he began devising a method by which he could strum chords while simultaneously picking out lead guitar parts. He became a sort of one-man band.
"It was out of necessity," he says. "This was suburbia, and I was playing for my own amusement."
In his teens, mainstream country media such as the Grand Ole Opry had lost its spark for Hearne, and the straight-ahead, no-frills music was harder to come by. He'd entered high-school, where, he says, he was "socially non-existent." Vietnam raged. Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs became commonplace with their cerebral protest songs, and Hearne's tastes were evolving yet again to include elements of folk. His father suffered through late-onset polio and his mother sank deeper into
depression; music became more of an outlet, and he led what he describes as a "lonely, isolated life."
It took him an extra year to complete high school "because the teachers—and I'm not knocking them—didn't know how to deal with me," he says. But Hearne was accepted to the University of Texas at Austin in 1968, where he'd meet his future wife.
"A classmate said, 'There's a girl you oughta know, Bill,'" Hearne recalls. "'She loves country music. And folk music. Y'all would get on, and her name is Bonnie,' so I called her from a dorm payphone and she said, 'C'mon over.' We met, and it was: Boom."
Bill and Bonnie, who was also blind, bonded over a shared love of musicians like Ian & Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and George Jones. Ultimately, Hearne only completed one year at UTA, but he emerged in love and with a musical partner. Bonnie played piano and sang beautifully, and they'd be together for the next 50 years.
When I ask how he feels now about her, Hearne doesn't romanticize Bonnie. He probably respects her memory too deeply to sugarcoat it, even if he misses her terribly. On the walls of his apartment are dozens of photos of Bonnie, paintings of them together and other such time capsules.
"Bonnie grew up in Central Texas with country folk and was exposed to a lot of Baptist piano playing," Hearne says. "She played, but she wasn't really pursuing music at the time we met—she was a bit of a slow starter, she had to have a lot of prodding, and I was the catalyst."
He'd visit Bonnie regularly, climbing the stairs to her second-floor apartment, handling her old guide dog Artemis who he says "didn't like men," and strumming out tunes on his guitar while she sang and played piano. They'd spend time at The Chequered Flag, an Austin bar long since closed, where Bill would perform and Bonnie would join in now and again.
"Everybody thought, 'Oh, these kids are gonna be an item," Hearne says with a sly chuckle.
They'd play regularly at The Chequered Flag and other venues like the Split Rail, and they became mainstays at the Kerrville Folk Festival, a stomping ground for country titans like Willie, Townes and Blaze.
They married Jan. 2, 1971. The same year, Rick Fowler, a member of Texas folk act Three Faces West (notable for also including musician Ray Wylie Hubbard) invited Bill and Bonnie to Red River, New Mexico. There, Fowler's band spent summers running The Outpost, a coffee shop that hosted traveling acts during the small town's booming warmer weather seasons.
"We rode the bus from Austin to New Mexico, God knows how many hours," Hearne recalls. "This was early August, the peak of the summer season, and we opened shows for Three Faces West, and people gravitated to us, they went crazy—we were a huge success."
Bill and Bonnie returned the following summer and winter to similar acclaim, and sojourns to Red River became their summertime norm for years. In 1977, they cut their first studio record, Smilin', with producer Mike Williams.
"He was rowdy and used four-letter words," Hearne says. The record sold poorly.
When we get to talking about the album's reception and the waning days of Hearne's Austin heyday, it seems he still feels conflicted about his adopted hometown. It may be the music capital of America today, but it was a graveyard of lofty, unfulfilled promises for many musicians in the '70s.
Hearne may be one of them: a lesser-know player who came so close to greatness so many times, but never quite hit the next echelon; a musician's musician mostly remembered by the so-called greats of the time.
"We knocked around, but it was grim in Austin, and the end of summer came and we decided to stay in Red River," Hearne says.
There, Bill and Bonnie lived in an old mobile home and played at venues like The Outpost, the Alpine Lodge and The Motherlode. Hearne maintains that they never got into drugs in those days, but does concede that they "may have partied and drank a bit much at the time."
We call it quits for the day after this story, and Hearne requests a ride to the nearby mall. Part of me doesn't know if I was supposed to take him someplace without telling someone; part of me says he's a grown man who can do what he wants. I worried for a day or two after, but when I return the following week to talk some more, there he is in his apartment, more alert and upbeat than I was.
"We traveled a bit," he said, picking his story back up in the 1970s, "and a guy heard us in Raton and booked us for two weeks at a place called the Palace Saloon. And then somehow, some way, I don't recall, we started playing in Taos," Hearne continues. "There were a lot of ski areas in Colorado that were catching on to Austin music, the progressive country thing. We started playing in Breckenridge, we started working the ski bar circuit, and we were still going back to Texas to play the Kerrville Folk Festival. But it was endless road, and it was hard, even for us kids."
Did they ever think about quitting?
"We were just too young and stupid, I guess," he says.
For a time, Red River became what Hearne describes as a "little Austin." Developments popped up and gigs were plentiful in the surrounding areas of Colorado, Taos and Santa Fe. This era lasted roughly six years before longtime Red River locals started selling off property and businesses. The town was changing and the Hearnes were ready to leave. Knowing they had a toehold in Northern New Mexico, however, meant it was time to leave Texas behind for good.
In the fall of 1991, with the help of a Santa Fe fan and friend named Becky Crutchfield, Bill and Bonnie moved to Santa Fe. He lives in the same apartment complex to this day.
By early 1992, Bill and Bonnie had locked down a six-month contract for Wednesday and Thursday nights at La Fonda. "And it worked instantly," Hearne says. "The dancers embraced us, the tourists, really, people from all over. After that six months, they said: 'Let's keep going!'"
Through the '90s, the Hearnes played La Fonda and continued traveling to Red River and Kerrville and Colorado. They released a Best Of album in 1993 with songs by Nanci Griffith, Chuck Pyle and Eliza Gilkyson, but their biggest break came in 1997 when, with the financial help of Crutchfield's father Barney, they recorded Diamonds in the Rough with producer Jim Rooney. Featuring heavy-hitters like Lyle Lovett and Jerry Jeff Walker as well as Hearne's nephew, it was released on Warner Western, a country offshoot of the Warner Records brand, and remains their most enduring work.
"It got to number five on the Americana charts," Hearne says, "and that was back when the term 'Americana' had really only just begun."
I tell him we'll have to break again, and he only seems slightly annoyed. Once you get Bill going, he's disinclined to stop. Not because he drones on, but because the detail in which he recalls everything is stunning.
When we resume the following week, Herne tells me that Bonnie had "run out of gas" by 1999. Exhausted from constant travel and the Santa Fe residency, she took a step back from the project and only appeared live sporadically. Bill continued to play solo, however, and in 2000, Virgin Records approached him about a possible album for their fledgling Back Porch brand.
The Hearnes would record Watching Life Through a Windshield, enlisting greats like Joe Ely and Charlie Musselwhite to appear on the album, but Hearne refers to the experience—and the product—as a disappointment.
"Bonnie only sings one song on that one," he laments. "She was very disappointed, and I don't blame her. We were a duo, but I think they really wanted me."
Here it gets harder. Due to health issues around 2003, Hearne says, Bonnie began forgetting words to songs they'd long played. She quit playing music regularly for good. Hearne recalls special occasion shows, like birthdays and anniversaries, but says they lost momentum as a musical duo.
He's self-released a handful of albums since then, including 2004's From Santa Fe to Las Cruces, 2010's Bill Hearne Trio and 2018's Where Lights Are Low, among others. There's not an original song among them. Instead, we're treated to Hearne's takes on the works of his heroes and contemporaries like Buck Owens, Tommy Collins, to name a scant few.
"Bill's never written a song in his life, but he's a stylist," his nephew Michael explains. Michael is the songwriter behind "New Mexico Rain," Bill and Bonnie's most popular song. "He takes people's songs—friends of of his who are songwriters," Michael continues, "and makes them his own. If you have a song done by Bill, you're really lucky."
Which brings us, more or less, to today.
Hearne has played the Santa Fe Bandstand numerous times and still travels throughout the region to perform or visit friends. In 2017, he and Bonnie were awarded one of the first New Mexico Platinum Music Awards, an honor for those who have forever impacted the state with their musical prowess.
Meanwhile, the Hotel La Fonda gig remains. Hearne celebrated 27 years of the residency in February, and you can find him there most Monday and Tuesday nights. La Fonda Chairwoman of the Board Jenny Kimball tells SFR he'll continue to do so as long as he likes. He has regulars who show up to support him and dance, the two-steppers who never let go and those drawn to his raspy Texas vocal style.
Some sit quietly and watch from the tables, others stroll to the front. Hearne knows them all.
"He's a great guitar picker, player, he's got a fabulous voice and he's really an icon in the country-Western community—I really admire him and we're fortunate to have him here," Kimball says. "I mean, if you had asked me 20 years ago if I'd have an extended family member named Bill Hearne, and Bonnie before, I'd have asked if you were kidding."
On the last day we meet, Hearne expresses mild disappointment that I won't be showing up anymore. He wants to make sure I have the dates and places right. I tell him I've got it recorded, that I've been taking extensive notes while we've talked. He leads me into his living room, plops down in Bonnie's old chair and fields a last few clarifying questions. He doesn't need a ride. When I'm certain I have everything I need, I pose my final question: After all the years, everything he's learned, what'll he carry with him?
"I've learned to be grateful for the good things that gravitate my way, but I accept that bad things are gonna come my way, too," Hearne tells me, not even pausing to think on it. "But I'm grateful to be alive one more day and do what I do. I entertain people."
7:30 pm Monday March 11 and Tuesday March 12. Free.
La Fonda on the Plaza,
100 E San Francisco St.,
A portion of the proceeds from the screening of New Mexico Rain go to education initiatives of the New Mexico Music Commission.