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Unknown duo tries to change that

By Joel Bernstein, July 1997

Diamonds In The Rough" is the album that finally gives nationwide exposure to one of the Southwest's best-kept secrets, Bill and Bonnie Hearne.

The Hearnes have enchanted audiences for about 25 years, first living in Austin and then, since 1979, New Mexico.

And when it finally came time for the Hearnes to make a national album, old friends like Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith were glad to lend a hand.

The Hearnes released other albums, but those have only been available directly from them. (And their first album, recorded for a long-defunct label, is not available at all). But their low-key musical stylings are not what the commerical world is demanding these days.

Nor do they fit the current vogue for songwriters. "We do about five percent original tunes," says Bill. "Bonnie has the writing skills in the family. I have interpretive skills. I like to find really good songs by obscure songwriters and make them my own."

Most of the songwriters represented on "Diamonds In The Rough" are not obscure, but except for Roger Miller's "Invitation To The Blues," the songs themselves are.

The Bill and Bonnie sound is very reminiscent of Ian & Sylvia, especially in their late '60's more country oriented days. So it's fitting they perform a song written by Ian Tyson ("Wild Geese") and another, "Alison Lives By The Big Bend," written by Ian's former accompanist, Nathan Tinkham, and originally performed by Sylvia's current group Quartette.

"We've known Ian Tyson for about 10 years, but known his music much longer. When we first got together in the sixties, we listened to a lot of Ian & Sylvia. We've done Kerrville with him and opened for him a couple of times."

The Kerrville Folk Festival, an annual "big event" in Texas, is also where the Hearnes had first met Jim Rooney, whose numerous production credits include Griffith and Iris Dement. "We got private funding to record the album from a friend of ours in Iowa. We went to Jim because we respected his work with other artists. He's a regular guy. He'll say 'I don't think that's your style and here's why.' He trusts the artist's instincts."

After the album was finished, Rooney took it to five labels that he had contacts with. Warner Western was one. He had just done an album for it with Don Edwards.

Warner Western may seem like an odd place for the Hearnes to land, since its catalogue is oriented towards cowboy-type songs.

But the label loved the album. "Seven or eight of the songs have a Southwestern feel to them," says Bill, "They thought it would be interesting to put out something not toally western."

Michael Martin Murphey, the label's top selling artist, is another old friend of the Hearnes, which didn't hurt. (In fact, he gave them the song "Christmas In A Honky Tonk," which they recorded on the Christmas collection).

The album has found success among its target audience, as it's been Top Ten on the Americana chart for a month. The Hearnes believe the secret of their appeal is simple enough. "What we do is what we do. We don't particularly call it country or folk. We try to blend quality lyrics that touch people and have messages, and put them in an acoustic country format. We try to blend the old country music feeling with contemporary lyrics. It's not just 'cry in your beer' lyrics."

Those old country lyrics are what Bill grew up listening to. "As a teenager in Dallas, I listened to hard-core West Coast Bakersfield sound. That's what turned me on. Bonnie's musical taste was more varied."

Both Hearnes are visually impaired. Unable to participate in contact sports, Bill spent a lot of time in his room playing music. He developed a "one-man band" style as he would emulate the licks of various instruments.

As a result, Bill says "I play lead and rhythm at the same time, learned by trying to emulate The Buckaroos."

Music is obviously this couple's biggest passion in life. They're happy doing what they're doing. "We know we're virtually unknown outside the Southwest. It's going to take some time."