Folk, country music singer, piano player Bonnie Hearne dies at age 71

Bonnie Hearne, left, poses with country music artist Lyle Lovett and her husband, Bill Hearne, at the Santa Fe Opera. Bonnie Hearne died Tuesday at age 71. Courtesy image by Thomas Allard.

Correction appended

Bonnie Hearne, a singer and piano player who was half of a celebrated musical couple that entertained New Mexico audiences with their folk and country music for decades, is dead.

Her death Tuesday came only months after she and husband Bill Hearne were honored as part of the first group of New Mexico musicians to receive Platinum Music Awards for lifetime achievement from the New Mexico Music Commission Foundation.

Bonnie Hearne, 71, died from complications with sepsis, an internal bacterial infection, Bill Hearne said in a telephone interview.

"She was supposed to sing with the Christ Church Santa Fe Chorale on Christmas Eve,” he said. But she fell twice at the couple’s home, so they called an ambulance. She was admitted to the intensive care unit at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center.

“We would have been married 47 years next Tuesday,” Bill Hearne said.

The Hearnes have appeared on albums with such musical greats as Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Jerry Jeff Walker, Buck Owens and Emmylou Harris. Lovett once opened a show for the Hearnes.

Fans and fellow musicians reacted swiftly on social media to Bonnie Hearne’s death.

Former Santa Fe musician Christine Albert, now living in Austin, Texas, wrote on Facebook, recalling a long-defunct music spot on Cerrillos Road.

“When I was 18 years old, Bill and Bonnie would come play The Bourbon and Blues in Santa Fe — before they moved there from Austin. I was too young, but my fake ID got me in to see them anyway,” Albert wrote. "I eventually started tending bar because I was there so many nights to hear the music. I’ll never forget her playing that old upright facing the wall with her back to the audience, giving her signature wave of the hand and huge grin to acknowledge the adoration of the crowd.”

And singer Eliza Gilkyson, another former Santa Fean, posted on Facebook, calling Bonnie "a lovely lovely woman, a great musician and partner of our friend Bill Hearne. … So many shared memories, so many nights of music in our beautiful New Mexico.”

John Egenes, a former Santa Fe musician now living in New Zealand, told The New Mexican that he’s known the Hearnes for more than 40 years. He recorded and toured with the couple.

"Bonnie was the sweetest, kindest person you’d ever want to meet, and one of the smartest, too,” Egenes said. “All those miles down two-lane highways, playing in honky tonks and bars, and to big crowds at concerts and festivals.

"I spent so many times with Bonnie, talking about life and love and music and other philosophical things. She was blind, but she showed me how to actually look at my life, and how to see things that I couldn’t see before. … Music was her language, and she allowed me to speak it with her, and for that I will be eternally grateful.”

Another former bandmate, Susan Hyde Holmes of Santa Fe, said Bonnie Hearne had a sharp wit.

"I remember times on the road where her sense of humor carried the day,” Hyde Holmes said. "For all her physical frailties and all the hardships she overcame, she lived her life with huge spirit.”

Hyde Holmes said one of her most magical memories is a time she played with the couple at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas.

"Bill and Bonnie were singing `Gulf Coast Highway’ when a songbird perched in the rafters started singing,” she said.

Born in Corsicana, Texas, east of Dallas, Bonnie Hearne had been blind since 9 years old. She learned to play piano as a child at the Texas School for the Blind in Austin, her earliest influences being gospel and folk music.

She met Bill Hearne, who is legally blind, through a mutual friend in Austin in 1968, soon after she earned a degree in sociology from the University of Texas. Bill Hearne was going to the university then. The two got together and sang a few old songs by folk music icons Ian & Sylvia.

"I was trying to play guitar then,” Bonnie Hearne recalled in a 1997 interview. "It wasn’t cool to play piano at that point.” The couple became regular performers at The Chequered Flag and other small clubs in Austin.

Within a few years, Austin became the epicenter for the "outlaw country” or “cosmic cowboy” musical insurgency.

Although they never became as famous as many of their Austin peers, the Hearnes were part of that landscape. They became regular performers at the Kerrville Folk Festival. And during those years, they influenced then-unknown young performers like Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith, who has said she used to sneak into bars to hear the Hearnes when she was too young to be there legally.

The Hearnes first moved to New Mexico in 1979, landing in Red River, where they resided for more than a decade. They moved to Santa Fe in 1991. They quickly became regulars in Santa Fe music spots, especially La Fonda, where they had a large fan base of local western dance enthusiasts.

While they had been making albums on small labels for years, the Hearnes released their first major label record, Diamonds in the Rough, in 1997 on the Warner-Western label. Making guest appearances on that record were Lovett, Griffith and Jerry Jeff Walker.

But about a year later, Bonnie’s health became an issue. She had come down with colitis, a digestive ailment she believes she developed from the stress of touring. For several months, she quit performing. After returning to the stage, she and Bill Hearne were playing La Fonda when record producer John Wooler saw them and was so impressed he put them on an America compilation, The I-40 Chronicles, with artists including Willie Nelson, Joe Ely and Charlie Musselwhite.

That was on Backporch Records, which was a subsidiary of Virgin Records. The compilation was followed in 2000 by a new album by the Hearnes on Backporch, Watching Life Through A Windshield. Several guest musicians, including Buck Owens, Emmylou Harris and Chris Hillman, appeared on that album.

The final album credited to Bill & Bonnie Hearne was Celebration! Live at La Fonda, released in 2002. She quit touring the next year, though she kept singing in her church choir.

Besides her husband, Bonnie Hearne is survived by two brothers, Ernie Whitener and Bill Joe Whitener, both of Texas.

Funeral services were pending.

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexica­

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Bonnie Hearne's last appearance on an album was Celebration! Live at La Fonda in 2002. Actually she backed Bill Hearne on a song on his 2007 album Heartaches and Honky-Tonks.