© Adam Granger
The Minnesota music community—and the cosmic community beyond it—lost a real pip in May. William Bradbury Hinkley left us at 9:20 a.m., Tuesday, May 25, 2010.
Bill Hinkley was a good friend of mine, but there are a thousand other people who would say the same thing. He was a musician and teacher whose influence went far beyond the stage and the lesson studio. Anyone who was lucky enough to see Bill perform or to play with him found it a solid transcendental groove, and if they didn't, then they weren't listening. And any student who wrote Bill off as a potential teacher because he looked like an itinerant cobbler wasn't paying attention. And anyone who came within his sphere and didn't eat up the experience like prime rib must not have been hungry enough.
Bill Hinkley started playing music in the Air Force, in which he served from 1961-65. After that, he played with mandolin legend Frank Wakefield in New York before moving to Minnesota at the behest of old high school buddy Cal Hand to join the legendary group The Sorry Muthas. When that band broke up in 1972, he and fellow Mutha Judy Larson became what would prove to be one of the all-time classic couples acts. They played on the first broadcast of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion (and on scores of subsequent broadcasts), and they toured nationally for decades.
Bill loved music, and glommed onto it wherever he heard it. He was completely accepting of anyone and everyone who held an instrument, and of most who didn't. He had an enormous heart and the most honest eyes in the world. If the music wasn't good, he made it better. And if the music was good, he made it better.
Bill's musical genius (and yes, I'm aware of the weight of that word) exhibited itself occasionally through dazzling technical prowess but far more frequently through all the stuff one does when one is busy not being dazzling: his timing, his choice of notes and chords, his ability to harmonize and his truly encyclopedic knowledge of the many musical worlds through which he soared were far more important attributes with far greater staying power.
Bill was born with amazing recall: When he was four, his older brother, Seth, would bet unsuspecting strangers that little Bill could identify the make, model and year of the next ten cars that drove down the street. He never lost the bet. This astounding memory enriched many a gig, as the most arcane requests were likely to be at least approximatable by Bill (with the rest of the band following). An example: Thirty years or so ago, I hired Bill to play with me at a wedding reception. When we arrived at the gig, we found that the bride was Mexican, and that half of the wedding party had flown up from Mexico for the event. Now, we certainly could have played our normal repertoire and everything would have been fine, but Bill knew and sang a dozen or so Mexican folk songs, and that made things great. When he did La Cucaracha (which he did in the style of the great Chicago jazz trio Martin, Bogen and Armstrong), he improvised in Spanish, and included the names of the wedding party in his improvised verses. I recounted this experience to a colleague a couple of months ago, who told me that Bill had done exactly the same thing on a wedding gig they had played, except that in that case the bride was Danish.
My favorite Bill Hinkley gig occurred over thirty years ago, when Tim O'Brien was booked to play a weekend at the old Coffeehouse Extempore in Minneapolis with his band, the Ophelia Swing Band, out of Colorado. For reasons I forget, the band didn't make it but Tim did, so Bill and I played with Tim (along with MBOTMA founder Tom O'Neill on bass). I have cassette recordings of this gig which amply demonstrate Bill's prowess. I remember that at one point he improvised lyrics to Goofus in order to introduce the band members.
Bill and Judy were woefully underrecorded. The Sorry Muthas put out one album, The Sorry Muthas Greatest Hits Volume Three and Garrison produced a double Hinkley/Larson album, Out in Our Meadow. Other recordings exist, but are unreleased: there is a lot of audio content from old Prairie Home Companion broadcasts which is being looked at for possible release; I have over an hour of video of Bill and Judy from their six appearances on The Cedar Social, the television show Pop Wagner and I hosted in the 90s; and, I have three hours of video shot by John Whitehead of me interviewing Bill in 2007.
Maybe someday something will come out of all of this material. In the meantime, remember Bill as you knew him, and next time you're singing a song, improvise a verse and stick his name in it.