Music Taos Barn Dance
Bringin' It All Back Home
Michael Hearne's barn dance music festival is a roundup of friends, family, and Southwestern Americana at its finest.
Photos and story by Tim Keller
All Michael Hearne ever wanted to do was play guitar. He quit high school in Dallas, hit the road in his uncle’s band, and landed in northern New Mexico at the of the 1970s. In Red River and Taos, he became northern New Mexico’s favorite musical son, and the wearer of many (cowboy) hats—bandleader, singer, songwriter, and guitarist par excellence.
Hearne’s band South by Southwest was an institution at the historic Sagebrush Inn in Taos for 25 years, spawning a dance scene that led him to make sure that he wrote songs you could two-step to. Over the years, he also became known in Nashville and Austin for composing classic-sounding songs that often celebrate New Mexico, with titles like “New Mexico Rain” and “Two Miles Out of Tucumcari.”
Each September, Michael rounds up the best local musicians and invites his famous and semi-famous friends to join them in Taos for a three-day celebration of music that puts the Southwestern in Country & Western. This year, Michael Hearne’s 13th Annual Big Barn Dance Music Festival sets up camp September 10-12 at Kit Carson Park in downtown Taos. Don’t be surprised to see Michael sitting in with almost every act, singing harmonies, playing guitar, and wearing a big grin.
Music runs in Michael Hearne’s family. “I grew up in Dallas listening to my dad’s records—lots of Ian Tyson and Jerry Jeff Walker—and I used to listen to my uncle Bill play guitar.” Just six years older than Michael, his uncle Bill Hearne left Dallas in 1968 for the University of Texas at Austin, where he married the woman with whom he would launch a long-running career under the billing Bill and Bonnie Hearne. Their voices harmonized over her piano and his muscular acoustic guitar. Their band played for dancers, but Bill’s extraordinary ear for great songwriting and honky-tonk authenticity earned them a reputation.
With Michael on guitar, the band built a following on a circuit that stretched across Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico. In 1979, they moved to Red River for a steady gig at the Alpine Lodge that lasted 12 years. It put them in the center of the small northern NM resort town’s remarkably vibrant music scene, an important outpost of a regional genre best described as Southwestern Americana.
“It’s country music with elements of folk and western swing,” says Bill Hearne today. “It’s heavily influenced by the Texas singer-songwriters that fell in love with New Mexico who’ve been coming to Red River since the 1960s. The scene is still pretty small in area—Red River, Taos, and Santa Fe—although now you hear songs about New Mexico all across Texas and the U.S.”
Michael Martin Murphey moved to Taos around the time the Hearnes moved to Red River. Hot off the Urban Cowboy craze and Austin’s “redneck rock” scene, Murphey had a number one hit with “Wildfire” in 1975. He asked Michael Hearne to join the group that became the Great American Honky Tonk Band.
“Murphey was always my hero as a singer-songwriter,” Michael says. “We played Carnegie Hall and all over the country. When we were home we played at the Motherlode in Red River. When Murphey wasn’t there, I’d be the lead singer. I learned how to connect with an audience from playing behind Bill Hearne for two years and Michael Martin Murphey for six years.”
He became a bandleader in 1987, moving to Taos and forming South by Southwest—just before an Austin festival took the same name—with bandmates Carmen Acciaioli, Eddie Lee Bullington, and Zeke Severson. “Mike, in spite of his shyness, became immensely popular,” Bill Hearne recalls. “You couldn’t get in the door at the Sagebrush.”
Bill and Bonnie moved in 1992 to Santa Fe where they built their own happy dance scene two nights a week at La Fonda Hotel on the Plaza. Bonnie retired in 2003 but the Bill Hearne Trio still fills the La Fonda dance floor every Monday and Tuesday night. “I love what I do, and it’s still working,” Bill says.
Meantime, South by Southwest was playing a monthly Wednesday night barn dance at Nat and Connie Troy’s Casa de Caballos horse facility near Arroyo Seco, north of Taos. It lasted deep into the 1990s but finally outgrew the site. Their son-in-law, Mike Yaccino, was running their Old Blinking Light restaurant nearby where Michael Hearne played solo every Monday night.
Yaccino figured, why not revive the barn dances on the property outside the Old Blinking Light? In 2003, he helped launch Michael Hearne’s Big Barndance Music Festival, “where some of my favorite songwriters would come, and people would dance,” Hearne says. That was the first. This year is lucky 13.
“I book all of the acts myself,” Hearne says. “I pick my favorite singer-songwriters from across the country and I beg ’em to come. Most of them are my good friends.” Hearne made some of those friendships when he moved to Nashville in 2010 to immerse himself in the music publishing scene. Since 2012 he’s been based outside Austin and spends much of his time performing throughout Texas and the Southwest with friend Shake Russell; those gigs, in turn, have brought countless new fans to Michael’s annual September Barndance.
The all-weather festival is held under a big-top tent with state-of-the-art concert sound. There are even hot-air blowers: One reason the festival draws hundreds of Texans is that Taos can get chilly enough on September evenings for music fans to appreciate a good heater. Folding chairs bring the listening audience close to the stage while a small dance area stays busy non-stop.
Performers from Texas, Nashville, and Memphis (past notables have included Butch Hancock, Jim Lauderdale, and Jimmy Davis) are typically joined by a northern NM Who’s Who, including Busy McCarroll, Jimmy Stadler, and The Rifters. About ten acts a day perform from early afternoon to 11 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. This year’s roster includes Shake Russell, Trout Fishing in America, the Bill Hearne Trio, Susan Gibson, and Bob Livingston. A late addition is Gary P. Nunn, writer of “London Homesick Blues” and Livingston’s past partner in two legendary groups, Michael Martin Murphey’s Cosmic Cowboy Band and Jerry Jeff Walker’s Lost Gonzo Band.
Michael Hearne sits in with most of them. “It takes a lot of energy,” he concedes, “but I love playing with the other artists. I love their music. I can play lead guitar and sing harmony with just about anybody. I don’t know where I got that, a gift from God. Running a festival, I worry about weather and attendance and all that, but once it starts, that all changes for me. It’s a whole other persona. I love sitting in with whoever will have me.”
Saturday evening the chairs are cleared from what becomes a huge dance floor. For four hours, Hearne and South by Southwest close the festival with a big rollicking barn dance, what Bill Hearne calls “the grand finale whoop de do with everybody and his dog joining on stage and Mike as the impresario.”
After ten years at Old Blinking Light followed by two years at Taos Ski Valley, the festival moves downtown this year to Kit Carson Park, longtime site of Taos Solar Music Festival. An easy walk from hotels and restaurants, the park is two blocks from the historic Taos Plaza. Michael’s friends rallied this summer after learning that he’s been battling health issues; with their help the downtown show looks to be the best ever and Michael is expected to be energetic and omnipresent as usual.
Last year one of northern New Mexico’s sublime summer gifts—a dramatic storm—crossed the mountains just in time for the finale. The big top held up, and the audience joined voices with Bill and Bonnie to lift Michael’s anthem “New Mexico Rain” to a crescendo over the crash of pelting hail and curtains of rain pouring off the roof. Naturally, Michael joined in singing on the chorus: “If I ain’t happy here, then I ain’t happy nowhere / New Mexico rain when my mind starts to roam.”
Ratón-based writer and photographer Tim Keller posts his work at TimKellerArts.com.
NEED TO KNOW
Michael Hearne’s 13th Annual Big Barndance Music Festival, September 10-12, noon to 11 p.m. daily, Kit Carson Park. Festival passes $99 to August 1, then $110, taxes included. Single-day admission $45. Separate Saturday night Barndance admission is $25. Songwriting workshop with Terri Hendrix and Lloyd Maines. Schedule, information, and tickets at (575) 779-3262; michaelhearne.com.
The Bill Hearne Trio plays at La Fonda on the Plaza, Santa Fe, Monday and Tuesday nights, 7:30-11 p.m. (505) 972-5511; Bill Hearne.com. On August 12, the Bill Hearne Trio and Michael Hearne and South by Southwest perform for free at the Santa Fe Bandstand. santafebandstand.org