The Old-Time Herald Volume 9, Number 3

Feature
Bob Bovee and Gail Heil –For Old Time’s Sake
By Lyle and Elizabeth Lofgren

It’s a mild summer evening, awash in golden light at the Arboretum, a landscape display park west of Minneapolis. A breeze is blowing mosquitoes away. Bob Bovee and Gail Heil set up their sound system at the base of a grassy natural amphitheater. Families, who had mainly brought their children to view horse-size wooden insect sculptures, are drawn to their underpublicized appearance like iron filings to a magnet. Arriving from all directions, pushing prams, unfolding blankets and camp chairs, they settle themselves on the grassy hill before the stage.

Bob and Gail introduce themselves, say a few words about the music, then launch into a one-hour set of fiddle tunes, cowboy songs, and old numbers such as Charlie Poole’s “Goodbye, Miss Liza” and the Carolina Buddies’ “Otto Wood.” Bob plays guitar and racked harmonica while Gail plays fiddle or clawhammer banjo, and either they take turns singing, or Gail sings harmony on duets. As a rare treat, she’ll cast a spell singing an unaccompanied ballad.

Years of experience and their love of the music is enough to beguile an audience who has never heard this time-warped music before. The children begin to dance like animated ribbons, congregating in front of the stage, their bare legs and arms keeping time while younger brothers and sisters roll down the hillside again and again.

A couple of the girls in front are not dancing, only swaying a bit, enthralled to watch the smooth rhythms of Gail’s bow arm and hear music that isn’t selling anything but enjoyment. Perhaps one of them will be the next Gail. She was a city girl, after all, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her family wasn’t particularly musical, with the exception of a grandfather who played “Redwing” on a concertina. Young Gail played Stephen Foster tunes on a harmonica before she started classical piano lessons, sang in school choruses, and fooled around with a baritone ukulele. Long after the piano lessons, she took guitar lessons from Kevin Kegin, who is also a fiddler. Intrigued by music that had to be learned by ear rather than from a page, she checked out an RCA LP album from the library, Early Rural Stringbands, and was smitten with the likes of the Shelor Family’s “Big Bend Gal” and “Salty Dog Blues” by the Allen Brothers. “I immediately recognized the intensity and honesty in the music,” she says. “It was from another planet, but I loved it.”

Traditional music grabbed Gail in a sudden epiphany, but it casually sauntered up to Bob after several generations of groundwork. Born in Bellevue, Nebraska, a small town on the Missouri River, he spent as much time as he could with his grandfather, Bud Mason, a horse trader and retired horse teamster. Bob says, “My grandparents loved old-time music, taking me to fiddle contests and taverns where there was fiddle and guitar music. Dicie Mason, my grandmother, was born in Clay County, Missouri, just down the road from the Jesse James place. Her grandfather, a Civil War veteran, loved to play the fiddle and drink whiskey. Her mother also played fiddle. Grandma herself played some mandolin and harmonica and sang the old-time songs unaccompanied. She especially liked cowboy and train wreck songs but also sang ballads, sacred songs, and sentimental numbers. My uncle, Herman Lienemann, also sang unaccompanied and favored hobo and cowboy songs, humorous ditties and recited poems; many learned from the little magazine, Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang. My grandpa played some tenor banjo and my dad the harmonica.”

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