The man whom Garrison Keillor called the “Buddha of the West Bank” died at 67, surrounded by song.
The way Garrison Keillor introduced them -- "BillHinkleyandJudyLarson" -- they were inseparable: Minnesota's First Couple of Folk Music, regulars on the early years of "A Prairie Home Companion," mainstays on the West Bank music scene and teachers to two generations of musical wannabes.
It's now just Judy Larson. Hinkley died Tuesday of a blood disorder in a hospice at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center. He was 67.
In his final days, a who's who of Minnesota musicians stopped by to do what musicians do -- sing songs, tell stories and share hugs.
"We had quite a circus there," Larson said. "Music was woven into him. We tied a mandolin around his neck and he'd try to play. He'd join in to sing even though he hadn't talked all day. Music revived him."
When Minneapolis singer-songwriter Paul Metsa visited about 10 days ago, five or six people were waiting for Hinkley in his room.
"We were all pretty aware of the severity of the situation," Metsa recalled. "Bill came rolling in singing 'Heartbreak Hotel,' lightening the load for all of us. At one point he stood up, cane in one hand, and his other hand holding mine strongly. He closed his eyes and sang 'Abide With Me.' Dakota Dave Hull was playing guitar, with Bill shouting out some of the trickier chords as they went along. He then gave a two-minute dissertation on the two guys that wrote the song, with a note about the monosyllabic second verse. A teacher 'til the end."
Hinkley, who taught himself how to play mandolin, fiddle, guitar and banjo, taught for decades at the West Bank School of Music in Minneapolis and the Homestead Pickin' Parlor in Richfield. He also competed in the State Fair fiddling contest.
"He inspired, encouraged and facilitated the whole contest -- he was its guiding force," said Nate Dungan, who books entertainment at the fair. "And he won the Gamblers Competition every year, where you draw a song title out of a hat and have to play it. There's only one person I could say who knew more about American popular song than Bill, and that was Tiny Tim."
Born in St. Louis, Hinkley enlisted in the Air Force, which sent him to Yale University to study Chinese. He eventually received a degree in Asian studies from Washington University but he decided to hit the road making music. After meeting a Minneapolis jug band called the Sorry Muthas at a Chicago folk festival around 1969-70, he joined the group and headed to the Twin Cities. He and Larson, who was in the band, hit it off, driving around to gigs as a duo on a Vespa, with her on the back holding their guitars.
Hinkley and Larson were the first musical guests ever on "A Prairie Home Companion."
"Bill, without an instrument in his hands, could be gruff and jumpy and growl at you," Keillor said Tuesday. "Bill, playing his mandolin or fiddle or guitar, was always in good humor and sometimes even blissful. He was self-taught, stubborn, very generous -- especially to students. He lived in music, put it in his coffee, spread it on his toast. He and Judy were the Buddha and Juddha of the West Bank. They played music like cats play with ping-pong balls, with joy and vigor and continual surprise."
In addition to his wife, Hinkley is survived by his daughter and granddaughter in Florida and two sisters. A memorial service is planned.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719