Bill Hearne plays for real

Americana legend renders songs from the 'road' tradition


Bill Hearne has been a part of the local country music scene for decades. Gliding through our collective honky-tonk memories are two-step dancers circling the floor and falling in and out of love like cycles of the moon. The Taos two-step scene may have aged over the years, but one thing runs through it like a common thread: Hearne’s music.

There’s a “Taos Two-Stepping Dance” featuring the Bill Hearne Trio planned for Sunday (March 19), 6-10 p.m., at the Taos Mesa Brewing Mothership, 20 ABC Mesa Road, off U.S. 64 west.

With only a $5 cover, even if you don’t know how to two-step, you owe it to yourself to come and listen. And if you want to learn, there are free lessons being offered.

Hearne’s trio is Bob Goldstein on lead guitar, mandolin and banjo and either Zeke Severenson or Dave Toland on bass.

Hearne often makes reference to “The Road” as a metaphorical “ribbon of honky-tonks, roadhouses, empty whiskey glasses, prison cells and unrequited love lined with signposts and mile markers tattooed with names like Haggard, as in Merle; Williams, as in Hank; Owens, as in Buck; and Lovett, as in Lyle.”

Since he’s legally blind, Hearne has never actually driven “The Road” himself. You’d never know it from the way he renders songs from “The Road” tradition.

Hearne has a list of CDs available from early releases with his wife, Bonnie, such as “Most Requested: Best of Bill and Bonnie,” “Diamonds in the Rough” and “Live at the La Fonda.”

After Bonnie Hearne quit touring in 2003 due to health issues, Bill Hearne formed the Bill Hearne Trio and recorded “From Santa Fe to Las Cruces,” “A Good Ride,” “Bill Hearne Trio” and his most recent release, “All That’s Real.” (Bonnie Hearne did make a brief appearance at the 2016 Big Barn Dance Music Festival in Taos.) He jokes that he has a little less hair and his head is shinier these days, just like the velveteen rabbit referenced in “All That’s Real.”

The album is co-produced by Bill Hearne and Don Richmond, the regional master of many stringed instruments who owns Howling Dog Studios in Alamosa, Colorado.

Many area pickers and singers perform on the CD, including Bill Hearne’s nephew, Michael Hearne, as well as some notable Texans, including piano man Earl Poole Ball. Ball is best known as Johnny Cash’s piano player, though he also played on the Byrds’ landmark country-rock album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” Also, Jerry Jeff Walker sings his own “Dust on My Boots” with Hearne on the album.

Hearne is known as a “musician’s musician.” If you prowl around his website, you’ll see quotes from famous performers, and they all refer to Hearne as a master.

Lyle Lovett is quoted as saying, “They used to play a place called Corky’s in the Montrose area of Houston. 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.”

Nanci Griffith said, “Bill and Bonnie Hearne … play the best darn folk music I ever heard.”

Eliza Gilkyson writes, “Whenever I come to Santa Fe, I make a point of checking to see where Bill Hearne is playing. His music is evocative of all that I love about New Mexico and the West. They broke the mold when they made Bill – you should not miss the chance to witness him in action.”

Hearne doesn’t write his own songs. His interpretive skills set his singing apart. His husky Texas baritone finds its way into a song’s insides and reveals them so we’ll know what is meant in the rendering. The style of flat-pick playing he uses is known as crosspicking. He picked up the guitar when he was a child.

“Since I didn’t have people to play with, I developed a style that incorporated a percussion rhythm while playing lead riffs. Basically, I tried to be a one-man band,” he says on his website biography.

Like fellow crosspickers Tony Rice and Doc Watson, Hearne is improvisational. “I hardly ever play the same thing twice,” he said. Not only does he rarely play the same thing twice, he rarely plays the same song twice. His repertoire is huge.

Hearne’s musical career began in Austin, Texas, in the 1960s. He met his future wife, Bonnie Cross, and her singing and Bill Hearne’s playing fit together perfectly. They toured Texas, New Mexico and Colorado before moving to Red River, New Mexico, in 1979. They became the house act at Chubbie’s Tavern. Fellow Texans Tish Hinojosa and Michael Martin Murphey also moved to Northern New Mexico. The Hearnes found themselves the center of a thriving Americana music community.

As the scene faded, the Hearnes moved to Santa Fe, where they signed on as the house band for La Fonda, a venerable downtown hotel. For 11 years, they played their infectious blend of bluegrass, country and swing music.

In 1997, they signed with Warner Bros. and recorded “Diamonds in the Rough.” It was produced by country veteran Jim Rooney and climbed to fifth on the Americana chart that year and led to tours with Lyle Lovett Music Festival, Merlefest and the Kerrville Folk Festival.

Hearne’s website has a blog where fans are regularly updated on Bill Hearne’s playing schedule and Bonnie Hearne’s health.

Beloved by friends and fans here in Taos, even if you don’t dance, you might want to come out and hear one of the best pickers and a legendary renderer of Americana music.

For more information, check out the venue’s website at or call (575) 758-1900.