Bill & Bonnie Hearne
One listen to Diamonds in The Rough, the premiere release by Bill and Bonnie Hearne on the Warner Western label, suggests part of the answer. But there is more to the story than meets the ear: The Texas-born couple have helped influence and encourage a host of celebrated Lone Star and Southwestern singer-songwriters.
In bringing the long-sought Diamonds In The Rough to fruition, the Hearnes enlisted the talents of veteran country-folk producer Jim Rooney. An author, songwriter and musician of great accomplishment, Rooney has also produced landmark albums by Nanci Griffith, Hal Ketchum, Robert Earl Keen, Iris DeMent and others.
The Hearnes had initially been introduced to Rooney at the 1985 Kerrville Folk Festival. Eventually joining forces, they worked together to produce a benchmark project which would become distillation of the Hearnes' 25 years of playing music together.
Though he grew up in Dallas in the '50s and she in Austin, it seems as though fate conspired to bring Bill and Bonnie together: he's a singer and she's a songwriter; she plays piano and he plays guitar; he plays golf and she doesn't. Most of all, they harmonize like birds on a wire. Both, moreover, have transcended daunting physical challenges -- Bonnie has been blind since age nine and Bill keeps blindness at bay only by means of thick glasses.
"I took piano lessons at the Austin School For The Blind," Bonnie recalled. "I got some classical training and then began to play the popular music of the day on my own-'50's and '60's rock'n'roll, folk music and Broadway musicals."
As for Bill, growing up in suburban Dallas, "I wanted to be Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, all in one person. I learned all the lead guitar licks that (Buckaroos' guitarist) Don Rich played." Today, Bill is celebrated as a fleet and fluid flatpicking guitarist.
Their professional life had its genesis in the folk music club scene in Austin in the late '60s. Established stars like Carolyn Hester and Jerry Jeff Walker ("...he was a legend," recalled Bonnie) found an enthusiastic reception in Texas' bohemian-flavored capitol. A few years later, younger musicians such as Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Robert Earl Keen and Tish Hinojosa listened, and began to glimpse the outlines of their life's work. "Nanci used to talk about slipping into places underage to hear us," Bill recalled fondly. "And," Bonnie added, "Lyle opened a show for us at (Houston's) Anderson Fair."
The Hearnes first crossed paths at the Chequered Flag in Austin around 1970. The sound they eventually created was multi-faceted, stylistically unfettered and eminently listenable. It combined the gospel roll of Bonnie's piano and the quicksilver flight of Bill's acoustic guitar, buoyed by dueting vocals that twined together with an organic unity.
The Hearnes' music combines the best elements of their Southern and Southwestern roots, from country and gospel to the singer-songwriter folk tradition, to pop and blues. "We try to take that old-time country feel and put that in songs with a strong lyrical content," Bill said, in a necessarily imperfect attempt to categorize the couple's sound. "People can call us whatever makes them comfortable," added Bonnie philosophically.
In 1979, Bill and Bonnie left Texas for Red River, a friendly little Western-flavored ski town in the mountains of northern New Mexico. "We had a great musical community in Red River for about five or six years," Bill said fondly. "We didn't make a lot of money, but we had a lot of fun." By the mid-'80s, Bill and Bonnie had recorded three albums (one in Texas, two in New Mexico).
"We didn't want to be a bar band for the rest of our lives," added Bill. "The great record deal ain't gonna land in your lap. You've got to get out there and cause a stir. I feel like there's thousands and thousands of Bill and Bonnie fans out there who don't know they're Bill and Bonnie fans."
Suddenly, after a long hibernation in New Mexico, a brand-new genre was a foot. In June and July of 1996, the Hearnes recorded in Austin and Nashville with a group of prodigiously talented session musicians, including Dobro virtuosos Al Perkins, bassist Roy Huskey, Jr., steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, fiddle player Stuart Duncan, and others. They combined those personalities with exceptional material by writers of the caliber of Ian Tyson, Eliza Gilkyson, Steve Gillette, Lyle Lovett, Roger Miller, Nanci Griffith, Chris Hillman, and others, including Bonnie Hearne herself.
Finally, call it payback, call it a nod from one peer to another, call it a chance to be part of something special -- a collection of Bill and Bonnie's old companeros showed up to lend their talents to Diamonds In The Rough. Jerry Jeff Walker sang a duet with Bill on "Muley Brown," a tale of an old-time rodeo cowboy; Nanci Griffith lent her voice to her own "Back To Georgia" and another tune, "Georgetown"; Lyle Lovett took a tune on his own vintage piece "Walk Through The Bottomland"; and Tish Hinojosa performed with the duo on Bonnie's "Bluebonnet Girl" and the lovely "Alison Lives By The Big Band."
The sessions represent the closing of a musical circle.
"We want Diamonds In The Rough to be a statement of some of the directions we go in, and the quality of the lyrics that we choose," said Bonnie disarmingly. Some artists wait a lifetime to make a statement like that -- Bill and Bonnie Hearne still have a lifetime of music left to make.