My buddy Bill Hinkley died on May 25th at age 67. He was a hero and a mentor and a wonderful friend. Bill played the mandolin, fiddle, and guitar with an easy swing, and he sang in burly baritone that matched his round shape. Bill’s deep love for music had no ego attached, and over the decades he pulled countless students into his brilliant and unassuming world.
He and his long time partner Judy Larsen were the witnesses at my wedding in October of 1977. It was in Kit’s and my apartment on Franklin in Minneapolis. The priest, Bill Teska, arrived when Kit and I were still in the shower. Next to arrive were Bill in a tweed jacket and tie, and Judy in a dress and a hat. It was major. But the five of us were the only participants. Three of Kit’s siblings had already gotten married that year, and we chose not to burden her parents with another big production. We just wanted to get married and then move back to Colorado.
I’d met Bill and Judy and a whole group of Minneapolis folkies at Winfield Kansas in September of 1974. Peter Ostroushko was the young bluegrass hot dog on the mandolin and the fiddle, Mary MacEachron and Sam Dillon were playing Irish tunes, and Judy sang old blues and swing stuff, but it seemed like Bill knew it all. To the end of his days, Bill was the guy you couldn’t stump. He knew every tune and song in just about any bag.
By that time, he and Judy had already made folk history with the Sorry Mutha’s Jug Band. Later they became known as the godfather and godmother, or as Garrison Keiller put it, “The Buddha and Judah” of the Twin Cities folk scene. Bill was proud of their first and only recording, which he pointed out was the only other debut besides Frank Zappa’s “Freak Out” to be a double album.
Bill went to grade school with John Hartford in Saint Louis and took early musical inspiration from him, but his first career was in the Air Force, which sent him to Yale to learn languages. After attaining a degree in Asian studies, and then finishing his tour of duty, he tried graduate school, for which he was pronounced unqualified. Soon his childhood friend Cal Hand called saying he was starting a jug band in Minneapolis, so Bill headed north, fell in love with Judy, and found his new home. In 1972 Bill started teaching at the newly formed West Bank School of Music, and never really stopped. He was given a lifetime achievement award by the school two years ago, and the day was declared “Bill Hinkley Day” by the mayor of Minneapolis. At the ceremony Bill remarked that he’d never won anything before, with the exception of the snoring contest at a certain festival where he and Judy won in the “Mixed Doubles” category.
I lived in Minneapolis for the last nine months of 1977 before moving back newly married to Colorado to start up Hot Rize. During that time I played gigs with various people, including a stint as bassist for Bill’s and Rod Belleville’s bluegrass band the Stringdrifters. Bill got me a much needed job teaching at the West Bank School. I was down at his and Judy’s apartment several times a week to pick. Their door was always open, coffee was always on, and Bill was always up for pickin. I’d learn the intricacies of “Little Rock Getaway” or “Lark In The Morning” or “Grey Eagle” around Bill and Judy’s kitchen table.