This year, Gail Heil wasn’t able to attend the 14th Annual Bluff Country Gathering that she and Bob Bovee had done so much to plan. She was too ill from newly diagnosed cancer. Bovee, her devoted husband and musical partner, as well as her children, stayed at her bedside. So the Gathering this spring was bittersweet.
Gail Heil died of cancer at her home in Spring Grove, Minnesota, on May 30, 2013. She was 67.
Gail was well known in the old-time community as a master fiddler, banjoist, singer, dance caller, and event organizer. This last talent was spectacularly expressed in the Gathering, a four-day event held in Lanesboro, Minnesota, featuring expert old-time musicians from around the country conducting workshops and concerts in an intimate setting. Gail and Bob founded and ran it.
Lanesboro, situated in the southeastern corner of Minnesota, was never leveled by a glacier. It’s layered with ancient limestone and beach sand left by former inland seas, a flat plane cut by rivers which have carved steep, narrow valleys. Lanesboro sits at a dramatic bend in the Root River, which has been forced to turn by a sheer limestone cliff. In mid-May, the time for the Gathering, it’s particularly lovely — everything newly green and growing. Lanesboro, once a town servicing the local farms, has recently become a vacation mecca for bicyclists and canoers. It has a theater, and many fine Victorian homes were turned into bed and breakfasts. This bucolic setting is perfect for Gail and Bob’s Gathering, which draws students from all over the country and sometimes Europe. Locals and tourists can attend the Friday concert and Saturday square dance. It’s the perfect setting for such an intimate get-together of avid old-time music fans and the mentors who are hired each year to teach workshops. The mentors love the atmosphere. They have a feeling of relaxation and comradeship, even though they’re kept busy. Many students return every year, but there are always new people and new mentors, joining the community that Gail and Bob created.
Gail was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, in a family that wasn’t particularly musical. She took piano lessons, sang in school choruses, and fooled around with a baritone ukulele. Later, she took guitar lessons from Kevin Kegin, who also played fiddle. Intrigued by music that you learned by ear rather than from sheet music, she checked an LP out of the local library, the RCA Early Rural Stringbands album. She was smitten by the likes of “Big Bend Gal” by the Shelor Family and “Salty Dog Blues” by the Allen Brothers. “I immediately recognized the intensity and honesty in the music,” she said. “It was from another planet, but I loved it.”
Gail was a fast learner, and soon was playing guitar in the Original Mound City String Band with Kegin (fiddle) and Larry Sugarman (banjo), culminating in a second-place showing in the string band competition at the 1977 Tennessee Old-Time Fiddler’s Championship. The band fell apart shortly after that, but she picked up fiddle and banjo, meeting and learning from older Missouri musicians, such as Vesta Johnson, Frank Reed, and Tip McKinney (who had played with Pope’s Arkansas Mountaineers). For a couple of years, she performed with Judith Fox, specializing in close-harmony duets à la Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard.
Gail also volunteered at the Frontier Folklife Festival, a short-lived venture sponsored by the National Park Service, that was held under the St. Louis Arch. There, she met Bob Bovee, who performed there in 1977 and was a staff member in 1978. He was originally from Nebraska, but at the time was living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, busking on street corners and performing in coffee houses. He and Gail hit it off together, and he convinced her to move to Minneapolis in 1979. She quickly entered the local music scene, and began teaching fiddle, banjo, and guitar at a local music store. She joined the June Apple music collective, which was devoted to the support (mainly emotional) of local musicians, and was instrumental in organizing a regular Monday-night square dance at a local bar. The dances were well attended (Gail walked you through each dance before the music started), and were a welcome source of extra income to musicians traveling through town. She and Bob also organized an annual picnic which we remember with fondness. At the same time, they released recordings and toured in a small camper mounted on a pickup truck.
In 1988, yearning for a more peaceful environment than could be provided by city living, they moved to southeastern Minnesota. They continued touring, though, spending about forty percent of their time on the road, playing at coffeehouses, square dances, schools, nursing homes, and libraries. Bob sang with guitar and harmonica, while Gail played fiddle and banjo, and sang. A typical Bovee-Heil concert would feature cowboy songs; unusual Missouri fiddle tunes; breakdown tunes; Charlie Poole-style 1900s Tin Pan Alley songs; unaccompanied Appalachian ballads (Gail was very good at this); a large repertoire of songs learned from old 78 RPM records; and requests from nursing home audiences, who never tired of “You Are My Sunshine.” When home, they kept busy with planning the Bluff Country Gathering and organizing local square dances.
Gail was so vital, so generously ready to share her gifts with everyone, that we were devastated when we heard she had inoperable cancer. At first, the 2013 Bluff Country Gathering was cancelled, but a group of volunteers organized on short notice to put it on anyway, as a tribute to Gail and Bob. Performing and teaching staff included the Mostly Mountain Boys, Alice Gerrard, Dan Gellert, White Mule, and Chirps Smith with Dot Kent. It was a poignant mixture of fun, laughter, music and tears — a bittersweet Gathering. Even without Gail and Bob, who have put so much concerted energy into creating this gem, the event went on without a hitch. That’s because, over the years, certain volunteers have honed their skills, setting up sound systems, selling CDs, and doing kitchen duty and other tasks we can’t imagine. This year, they had to add coordination, no small task, but at least they knew the details.
A gathering to celebrate Gail’s life, mainly organized by fellow musician Pop Wagner, was held in St. Paul on July 21, 2013. Many of those of us who loved her were there. At one point, an impromptu orchestra of about 30 people got on stage and, led by Chirps Smith, played “Ragtime Annie,” the first fiddle tune Gail learned.
Gail is no longer with us, but she leaves behind an indelible legacy, in the form of her students; those of us who learned songs and tunes from her; her example of how to perform old-time music authentically without being pedantic; and, every growing season, the seed beans she shared with other gardeners. In addition, volunteers are busy planning next year’s Gathering, and CDs of Bob and Gail’s performances are still available at www.boveeheil.com. Bovee and Heil have inspired so many of us by the ways, as Jon Pankake wrote about them, “they integrate their music with a vision of life lived whole.”
-Lyle and Elizabeth Lofgren