Bill Hinkley, 1942-2010

Saying goodbye to the Prairie Home Companion musician

The choice moments that suddenly arise when you can see a grand life coming to a close in front of you seem to have no respect for death—and even less reverence for the heavy grief waiting in the wings to come next onstage. Life somehow goes on—even alongside a deathbed—as the living and the dying have learned. For the extraordinary musician and teacher Bill Hinkley, who died Tuesday morning, May 25, from a series of complications, his last days were filled with the uplifting and haunting music and the daily preoccupations that marked his time as a lifelong performer with his partner, co-conspirator, and busking sidekick, Judy Larson, and their friends.

There were brilliant flashes of irony, fond reminisces, hilarious stories, and so many songs and tunes that define a good life. The so many songs and tunes that might expire, or never be played or passed on, were it not for people like the West Bank duo, their peers, and students. Numerous pickers, strummers, jazzers, blues and bluegrass players, and others came in and out to serenade Hinkley in his hospice pad at the VA hospital. Many played the old troubling folk songs about loved ones departing through breakups, sheer misery, or murder. Not the kind of stuff you'd expect as a loved one lay dying, but for Bill, this was not a concern. It was a cratered landscape of themes and hallowed tunes that he knew well and loved.

On the previous Tuesday, Al Jesperson, known first as one of the bluegrass founders of the Middle Spunk Creek Boys—and second as the brother of Twin/Tone Records co-founder Peter Jesperson—transformed Bill's hospital room into a front porch, with Bill Geezy (the Promise Breakers) and two other friends on banjo and a mandolin player who also doubled on fiddle. Judy shared the handwritten lyrics someone had just sent her to the anti-German and Japanese WWII song called "Who Cut the Gorgonzola?" and was now in search of its melody. Heavily medicated, the patient slept and dreamed. Then Al called out the tune "Washington County," which brought Bill wide awake: "That's not 'Washington County,'" he grinned, as the fellas counted down to the real thing. He asked to be hoisted out of his bed to better take in the playing.

Even as he struggled to pick a few mandolin notes or to comment on a fiddle solo or someone's guitar and banjo (all of which he played and taught proficiently, along with the jug), Bill still had the air of the Master about him. Sitting in the hospital's community room later last Thursday in a wheelchair for a jam-packed jam session with the likes of Peter Ostroushko, Marya Hart, Dakota Dave Hull, and more fiddlers than the on-looking nurses and other VA patients gathered there, he kept apace of "Midnight on the Water" on his mandolin. The ancient Irish fiddle tune—at times sounding orchestral in the space and equally romantic and hopelessly sad—undid quite a few on the sidelines in this last waltz for a king. While the session surely tried his physical bearing, his spirit drank deeply at the well.

Historically Bill belonged to the West Bank music scene—"the folk mafia" as Willie Murphy wryly referred to it, trying to break some blues into the mix last week as players kept coming in to honor the godfather. But the scope of his work with Judy and other musicians, from Papa John Kolstad, Dakota Dave Hull, and Sean Blackburn, to Cal Hand, Stevie Beck, Koerner, Ray & Glover, and others, transcends time and place.

Songwriter Paul Metsa rightfully calls him the patriarch of the folk music world in the Twin Cities. It's a fitting title and there are no heirs to it. Officially Bill (and Judy) have been honored by the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame and were recipients of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association, which reports on its website, "The question has often been posed as to whether Bill may know more tunes than anyone alive today. We've not stumped him yet and we've tried."

Bill and Judy were featured frequently on the formative and filmic periods of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. Those early shows, less heavily scripted than now, allowed for more of the world folk music Bill knew and regularly played. And you can see the Hinkley and Larson duo throughout much of the Robert Altman movie of the same name, playing themselves hanging about in the green room or alongside the curtains.

But it's Hinkley and Larson's Out in Our Meadow (a double album from the late '80s on Red House Records) that magically underscores Hinkley's brilliance as an interpreter, singer, instrumentalist, and writer. Speaking as a former name on the City Pages editorial masthead, it's one of the 10 best records ever made in Mill City, or the state. Caustic topical tunes about money that never go out of favor, the smart choice of "Devil's Dream," and the heartbreaking version of "The Water Is Wide" that will make you weep and moan at times like this are just some of its many gems.

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